At the time of its founding, this was the most forward-thinking, brilliant idea of a nation ever to grace this planet. Some 239 years ago, it was the apex of human thought and social congress. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (as well as the succeeding Bill of Rights) were masterworks of compromise, leadership, and literature.
Was it flawed? You bet. How could it not be, considering it was the product of human minds and hands. In it, women did not exist. Slaves existed as mere fractions of white men. But the Founding Fathers — another flaw in our conception; without mothers, there are no children — were so progressive they built into our charter document the ability to change it. It was no Bible in their eyes, intractable and immutable, but a living, growing thing. One day, I’ll bet, it will even recognize women.
To quote Molly Ivins, “It is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America.”
I like that. It makes me feel good about America. It may even be true.
A couple of centuries-plus later, well…, this ain’t the most forward-thinking, brilliant idea of a nation anymore. It is a bloated, self-important, willfully ignorant, bellicose giant. All the giants on Earth at this moment can be described as such. Russia? Sure. China? Yep.
Perhaps it is inevitable that the giants of the globe must become fat, annoying ogres. It may be due to something in the human genome. But we’ve got something those other two gargantuas don’t have — our founding documents.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, they can be misread and misused. Think Citizens United. Think the prevailing idea that nothing about the manufacture, sale, and possession of guns should be regulated.
Yet, think about the fact that, today, homosexuals can settle down and create families and homes with the full blessing of the state. Homosexuals — the most reviled class of humans throughout history. We accept them now, under the law. They are us!
To a large extent, we still live by the Jeffersonian axiom:
The legitimate powers of the government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God [sic]. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Of course, we’ve extended those powers to include actually helping folks whose legs are broken or whose pockets have been picked. Witness the Supreme Court’s two affirmations of the Affordable Care Act.
We’re a nation that has dispatched the mightiest military in human history all around the planet, mainly to ensure that a gallon of gasoline remains cheaper than $4 and that electronic goods can be manufactured by foreign workers earning near-slave wages and bought by our citizenry for a song.
That military hasn’t fired a shot in defense of true liberty for the last three-quarters of a century, even though it’s been fighting almost constantly, both covertly and accompanied by parades.
We’re afraid — rightly so — of crazed religious zealots who wish to establish their god’s rule over the Middle East and we steer robotic weapons through the air to kill them. Fair enough, they live by the sword, but our drones blow to pieces anybody else who happens to be in the neighborhood at the moment. We don’t worry too much about that; they are, after all, brown.
We’re fouling our air, the water, and the soil for the purpose of finding and burning fossil fuel so our cars can go and our air conditioners can run. And when people complain about the damage this process is causing, we brand them liars and communists. Well, not all of us; only those who run our economy and make our laws.
We worship those who accumulate wealth. That is, those who amass so much that neither they, nor their succeeding ten generations can use it up no matter how profligately they spend. How else to explain the fact that the likes of Donald Trump and Jamie Dimon are neither in prison nor a mental institution? We’ve allowed our lawmakers to rig the game so that the tiniest sliver of our population gathers more and more wealth while the vast majority of us either stagnate or get poorer. Then we gobble up books and movies about all the richest guys who are so thrillingly imaginative and hard-working.
We wave flags and brag that everybody wants to be an American. Then when foreigners try to cut corners to get in here, we brand them rapists and murderers and disease carriers. Worst of all, from our POV, they are brown people.
So, today, I wouldn’t pat myself on the back just because I’m an American. I will be thankful, though, we gave ourselves a great set of start-up guidelines. Even if that start is getting a hell of a lot smaller in the rearview mirror.