“Of Thee I Sing…a Vision For Americas Future”
Preface & Chapter 1
The Past is ever Prologue…
The idea of entitling this book “A Vision for Americas’ Future” presumes that I already have a vision of Americas’ future and I do. Unfortunately it is sufficiently grim to impel me to take pen to paper and in painting that picture to hopefully scare the living daylights out of at least some of you. The some of you whose attention I most hope to attract are those we casually refer to as ‘young people’, a group who increasingly see our country through a glass darkly if at all, and find it for the most part not just incomprehensible but increasingly irrelevant to their daily lives let alone their futures. .
Unfortunately it is much more comprehensible from the vantage point I occupy, having been born during World War II. To be perfectly honest ,if there is such a thing, I not only don’t like what I see, I see trends which, if left to continue, will not make us a better, stronger or more coherent society but rather will continue to weaken the bonds between the government and the governed to the point where the land of the free and the home of the brave looks a lot less like the land where my fathers died and a lot more like George Orwell’s dark vision all to vividly sketched out in his epic work “1984”. .
Of course the problem with an Orwellian kind of apocalyptic vision of the future is that, as a story, it must be told in stark and simple terms to capture anyone’s attention and in the process give the ‘that could never happen here’ crowd lots of perfectly logical explanations to put us back at our ease and thank George for a good yarn. We can then go back to sleep in much the same frame of mind JFK tried to capture in his early book “While England Slept.” Unfortunately in the fast moving world of today, ignorance may still be bliss but it is also a formula for losing the very ideals we hold dearest without ever noticing they are gone until it is too late to get them back.
I heard an interesting fact once that may aptly illustrate my point; it seems that a frog, when placed in a pot of water that is boiling will quickly jump out to save itself but if left in a pot that slowly comes to a boil the frog will simply allow itself to get cooked. What I hope to accomplish in the pages that follow is to simply ‘turn up the heat’ and if my views make some readers ‘boiling mad’ along the way; so much the better. .
The fist thing I hope to do is to explore the consequences of the fact that we live in a world where we want our facts delivered as ‘fast food’ and in simple terms; after all we are busy people. Unfortunately that mindset enables those who wish to move us in directions where we might not otherwise wish to go had we been more completely informed, to do just that. The downside of that national mindset is to confer the ability to move our thinking on a given issue or concern in subtle and perverse ways, the equivalent of our joining the frog and allowing ourselves, at least in metaphor, to be boiled to death. Sadly, the best way to see all this is to have lived long enough, and in the process cared enough to watch our evolution as a nation and see the mutations in our societal structure as a connected series of subtle changes ultimately leading to a profoundly different landscape. Those with a shorter vision span see the past as, at best, a series of unconnected photographs while in the fullness of time; we are able to see the journey from there to here more as a movie. .
In order for me to come to grips with such a huge landscape of ideas and trends, causes and effects, it helps to have an inquiring mind and a healthy skepticism if not outright distrust of authority figures. What frighten me most are those who act in what I believe to be the greatest crime that can be committed in a free society save treason in time of war. I refer to the lack of intellectual integrity by decision makers who stand in positions of power and influence. Intellectual integrity is a concept that fortunately has a word to describe it that virtually everyone understands; It is commonly called “bull shit” but in fairness to the innumerable ‘bull shitters’ in our midst, the form of BS to which I refer transcends ‘fish’ stories. It is the kind of justification offered for decisions made which distorts the truth and as a consequence all too often winds up adversely affecting or at least altering the lives of millions.
A chilling example is the justification offered the American people for the war in Vietnam. A war we deserved to lose. What we did not deserve to lose were about 60,000 of literally ‘my fellow Americans’ sent to their deaths in that civil war. A war I might add ‘with the wrong enemy in the wrong place at the wrong time’, as our participation in a war there was described by a former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Eisenhower administration. For those who think we saved the world or at least the Far East from the domino effects so touted as a basis I suggest reading the so called Pentagon Papers liberated from the guise of “National Security” by Daniel Ellsberg.
This of course is only the tip of a huge iceberg of duplicity that, when not so subtly employed, gave us things like the un-American Activities Committee which for those of us old enough to have lived through its’ bloodletting, was, in and of itself, about as un-American as you can get. The lack of intellectual integrity by those in positions of power also gave us things like the doctrine of separate but equal schools which pretended to be both and was certainly neither. These few illustrations are a small part of a long and sad litany of people in power who used that power to make us accept, at least for a time, things like McCarthyism and the communist witch hunt which fed and inspired it that make most of us feel a bit embarrassed that we were around to watch and sometimes applaud that feeding frenzy on our presumably ‘inalienable rights’.
Looking back to those dark days after WW II when we were rightly or wrongly scared shitless of Stalin’s Russia; anything to keep us free of the “Red Menace” seemed ok. We now know if ‘those in the know’ didn’t then, that what we condoned if not endorsed was anything but ‘ok’ as the thousands of lives that were shattered by the McCarthy types sadly attest. The simple truth is that there is a much greater threat to us and the liberties we hold dear from within our society than from any external force or threat no matter how apparently menacing. Our freedoms are at much greater risk from the lack of intellectual integrity within our own power elite than ever threatened us from without, save perhaps during the darkest days of World War II, which brings me to what this book is all about and what I hope to accomplish in its’ pages. Quite simply I hope to illustrate that we have much to do individually and as a society to fulfill the promise of being that “sweet land of liberty” so wonderfully captured in the words of the song ‘America the Beautiful’.
In the process I hope to make the case that we are a society that has too many facts and not enough truths, too much data and not enough information and too little coherence in our information delivery systems to enable us as a society to meaningfully participate in the great debate about who we are, what is our role in the world and where are we going as a nation, and to see all this in the context of what freedom allows and requires of us as citizens in a self proclaimed “free society”. As a consequence of a flawed information delivery system, we, let alone our children, have been deprived of the tools necessary to make enough sense of it all to be equipped to meaningfully participate in fulfilling the dream that is our birthright as citizens of the United States of America.
In essence, I hope to explore how we come to grips with the ways that the concepts of individual liberty and freedom actually play out in our society. A society that not only has difficulty understanding let alone defining where one person’s freedom begins and another’s ends, but seems to be increasingly violent and fragmented.
Clearly it was not enough to have proclaimed in our Constitution that all men (and eventually women) are created equal or are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our society needs to be structured so as to create the ‘climate’ within our society that will better enable each of us to choose the path to fulfill that promise. Stated another way, I hope to equip the reader with the tools to enable them to ‘test the water’ that is the ebb and flow of our common struggle as a nation to become the home of the brave and still remain the land of the free.
“Our Fathers’ Who Art in Philadelphia”
In trying to discern what it means to be an American, it seems fair to start with the fundamental question of just how these “truths become self evident, that all men are created equal”? To better understand how we began as a Nation we should remember that mankind began its’ journey to civilization as a result of agriculture. Even at the time of our founding fathers, our country was still a predominantly agrarian society, a fact that is much more important to understanding who and what we are as a people, than just explaining why our kids get the summer off from school so they were then able to help with the planting and harvesting.
In viewing the evolution of civilization, it is worth noting that agriculture was more than the answer to how we fulfill the need to feed ourselves. Agriculture, first and foremost, is a highly complex legal system “the law of nature”. In the final analyses it is a legal system that is truly blind, impartial and ‘just’ because within its’ rules, all people are truly created equal. The essence of our concept of justice is that all who are judged by its’ rules should also be equal before it. The law of nature however, is system humankind has been ruled by from the time we first walked upon the earth and neither emperor nor slave can grow corn in the winter or call forth rain in time of draught.
It is a system of rules that has survived empires and emperors and all the while, taught those who learned its’ lessons, the building blocks that enabled civilization to take hold and humankind to flourish. Those lessons, endlessly refined and practiced, enabled us to feed more than just ourselves and in so doing gave humankind the time to contemplate, to diversify, to study and to create. By living under that system of laws and the predictability and freedom from want that they afforded, we were able take more control over our lives, create institutions to manage them and diversify our pursuits to more accurately reflect our individual skills.
Our minds having been freed by the benefits of agriculture from the constant need to devote all of our time to forage and protect ourselves cane the first freedom, the freedom from hunger. Successful agriculture allowed us to grow more than enough for just ourselves and in so doing gave us the time to contemplate the meaning of life and to grapple with how it should be lived. The sheer magnitude of those questions helped humankind to believe that there must be an author of those laws, and by whatever name or names, or conceptualizations, the author of life, death and renewal came to be known, the vacuum between the vastness of the questions and the paucity of answers began to be filled.
Humankind, living millennium upon millennium ruled by the laws of nature, learned the lessons those laws were there to teach because the penalty for failing to learn and follow them was extinction. The law of nature, because of its very predictability if not consistency, at once taught and enforced the greatest of human virtues demanded of any society; the ability to discipline oneself and out of that process, the gestation of self government was born. Self discipline is the most fundamental ingredient for being able to live in freedom precisely because the degree to which we are able to govern ourselves limits the degree to which we must be governed by others. The extent to which we can be a ‘free society’ directly relates to whether we exercise that freedom with sufficient restraint to be allowed to govern ourselves until such time as we fail to do so and presumably pay the price our legal system exacts for doing the “wrong” thing.
The meaning of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which our founding fathers weaved into our Constitution and the bill of rights was the product of those lessons learned, expounded upon and refined from the time the first farmer produced more than he needed to feed himself and his household because those lessons are the gift of successful agriculture. The ability to grow food, not only gives us life, it liberates us to use the time not spent on acquiring the essentials of life, liberates us to go forth and find our own individual definition of happiness.
The contributions to our collective conscience throughout history, made by countless writers, historians, shamans, clerics, rabbis, philosophers and rulers, all had one common denominator; they were distilled from the world of ideas by men and women who also lived under, and were ruled by, that same system of natural laws. In the fullness of time, seeking to translate those lessons learned into a way of living, they wrote the Code of Hammurabi, the Bible, the Bagavad Gida and countless other works speculating on the nature of right and wrong, justice and injustice, the very meaning of life itself and with it, the obligations we owe to one another.
From that vast reservoir of thought ultimately brought forth upon this continent the flowering of ideas and ideals that made us the first nation of laws and not of men. The gap however, between the ideal and the reality, forced us to begin our long and bloody search to distill and define for all Americans just what the phrase “all men are created equal” really means. As each planting and subsequent harvest teaches better ways to cultivate a richer or better crop offering the hope of a better harvest to come and the seeds to plant again, so it is that successive governments and leaders over our history have tilled the fields of our laws, rules and collective consciousness culminating in what we like to call democracy. We are a nation which has undergone enough change over our short history to remind anyone who takes the time to look and listen that we, through the ebb and flow of good ‘harvests and bad’, are a nation that has eked out of the collective soil of our culture, new and differing paths to fulfilling the elusive dream our forefathers had set us on the path to find and make real.
The law of nature not only supersedes all other laws and law givers, it is truly blind to the will of man who even with all of our technology still cannot stop a tornado or cause a hurricane, global warming not withstanding. The biblical truth that to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven; a time to plant, a time to reap, a time to rend and a time to sow is as true today as when those words were penned thousands of years ago. It is therefore not surprising that those who mastered the laws of nature could only do so if they had first mastered themselves. The most fundamental lesson of agrarian life that that successful agriculture comes abut only through strict adherence to the laws of nature so at least when the dice are rolled the chances are the best we can find to achieve a successful harvest.
This is because the mastery of the laws of nature, first and foremost, is the mastery of self restraint; no matter how hungry one may be, you must wait to plant until it is the season for planting and wait to harvest until the crop is ready for harvesting. However hungry you may be, the law of nature has taught you that if you eat your seed corn you buy today at the cost of tomorrow.
Those extraordinary men who gathered in Philadelphia to declare our independence and who set us on the path to our present system of government, were men steeped in understanding the “rule of law” because without an understanding of the law there can be no understanding of how to distinguish, let alone define the concepts of justice and injustice. It was, after all, common feelings of injustice by our being forced to endure ‘taxation without representation’ that was the midwife of our war for independence. Those men, who understood so well how laws work, also understood the self discipline that living in freedom demands.
Each in his own way had been schooled by their lessons in life to equip them to comprehend and create a system of government which they themselves saw as the earthly embodiment of Natural Law and the equality it enforces explains why the statue of justice always wears a blindfold. The tacit understanding of the relationship between the self discipline enforced by agriculture may help to explain why they determined that only land owning men were initially given the right to vote in our Constitution.
Any student of history knows only too well that the Constitution they gave us was deeply flawed however, both in practice and interpretation, especially when seen with the clarity of hindsight. While all men were theoretically created equal, women, the landless, the slave (who therefore could not be referred to as a man even if he was) were left out of that grand design to wait their turn to bask in the light of equality and equal justice before the law and much blood has been spilled in the process, a process we have still to achieve. This despite the fact that it had been constructed to apply the rule of law blindly to a society that, in its blindness, preached equality while embracing inequality on a massive scale.
Nonetheless, a new and unique nation had been formed out of the collective hearts and minds of those successful, educated men, who were at once idealistic and pragmatic; men who, in one form or another, owed their success to their understanding of natural law and who drew on those principles and lessons to bring forth upon this continent at least the vision of a nation of laws and not of men. That we are not there yet should be obvious to any who has tasted the bitter fruit of inequality and injustice that exist here on every level of the political and governmental process. Those who argue otherwise do so at not only their personal peril but imperil the very fabric that was designed to bind us together as a people.
From those flawed beginnings, so full of hope and promise, idealism and skepticism, tempered by a fear of arbitrary government from the minds of men who had good reason to have both, came the birth of a nation. We need to be mindful however, that we began our journey at a place far away not just in time but in the realities of everyday life when compared to the world we live in today.
We are a nation created by men who were joined together by the common bond of a shared hatred of injustice and arbitrary government and yet they endorsed slavery, and whose intellectual heirs went on to create ‘separate but equal’ schools, Jim Crow laws, a civil war with an uncivil peace, the utter destruction of the way of life of virtually all Native Americans, all the while encouraging the accumulation of great wealth by the few in the face of crushing poverty of the many. These are but the tips of an iceberg which included innumerable other examples in our history of appalling injustice and inequality that, in forms too numerous to mention, continue to this very day to separate us from living the ideals they penned in theory and ignored in practice.
So it is from those beginnings came men who, in their name, deemed that our ‘manifest destiny’ gave our government the right to steal Indian lands while unilaterally ignoring when not outright reneging on our own treaty obligations and promises. Promises negotiated for and relied upon in good faith by ‘savages’ who knew infinitely more about honor and justice than we who oppressed them.
Those ‘civilized men’ who, in the name of our democracy, stole the heritage of Native Americans and justified it as “the white mans burden” are also a part of the fabric of our history that is our legacy in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’. We ignore an understanding of the contributions of Native American culture to our way of life today at our peril. As a stark reminder of the darker side of our heritage, it is worth remembering that in 1800 it was estimated that sixty million buffalo roamed the great plains; a century later there were but 300, and most of the dead and dying had been left on the ground to rot.
One only needs to pick up and read Dee Browns’ book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” a saga of the decline and fall of Native American culture and which begins with the an idea… ‘imagine your country is the whole continental United States and you are watching it get steadily smaller…” to understand the magnitude of what we did to those whose claim to this land by any legal standard far exceeds our own. In that book are found the quoted words of what our ethnocentric world view called savages; words that have more to teach us about the interdependence between self discipline and freedom than found in any school textbooks I have ever seen.
Native American culture was also fashioned in the bitter reality that they too were governed by the laws of nature which ruled their lives everyday. To listen to the thoughts expressed by the leaders of the Native American nations throughout our history is to more fully understand the underpinnings of where true freedom emanates. Indian culture, which we are only now acknowledging to be ‘Native American’ culture, was, at least on a tribal basis, what can best be described as the closest thing to a coherent and just social order to ever exist on these shores to this very day. A discussion of Native American laws and customs, societal organization and how the ideals we like to claim as our own were embodied so purely in their way of life is not possible here. Suffice it to say that no one can fully appreciate the meaning of freedom until one looks at Native American culture, free of the tarnishing influence of what we like to call western civilization.
That being said, we should also remember that we are a people who found the courage to change some of the flaws born of our self righteous mission to bring Gods message to those who often understood it so much better than their erstwhile teachers. Our ascendancy toward the goal of a free and just society has brought about much change for the better, even as we created new examples of just how flawed we can be. We can, for example, take heart in the fact that although the pendulum between justice and injustice swings ever less violently, we are still a nation that is in search of fulfilling the promises that gave us birth. Every day throughout this country exist countless examples of our trying to balance the love of the dream with an ever increasing difficulty in defining what that dream really means and what it requires of us in our day to day lives.
It has often been the subject of heated debate, and not just within the Supreme Court or the halls of Congress, as to just what the Founding Fathers were trying to accomplish when they created our Constitution and what rights are really guaranteed by its’ provisions. The schism between those who believe our Constitution is a living document that needs to reflect and redress issues which could not have even been contemplated at the time it was written and the so called strict constructionists who like to posit that if it isn’t spelled out verbatim in the Constitution it is not a right guaranteed by it, are also waters to be navigated here and some insight into that process will hopefully be offered. It is an interesting aspect of our national life however and also well worth remembering, that the political views or at least the accepted realities of the staunchest conservative of today would have been thought of as rather liberal if not outright radical had they preached them a century or so ago.
We should also keep in mind that the history of our Constitution is really a history of the Supreme Court of the United States as it continually wrestled with what the Constitution means and doesn’t mean what it allows and what it prohibits, what it protects and what it ignores. If you take nothing from this book except one thought, let it be that, given its’ power over our lives, the Supreme Court of the United States is the most powerful, and perhaps least understood and therefore potentially the most dangerous institution in our society. A bright spot, at least anecdotally, is the story told about Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black who had been appointed to the court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was said of Black, a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth, that he started his days wearing white robes and scaring the wits out of black folks and ended it wearing black robes and scaring the wits out of white folks. True or not, a microcosm of our own evolution as a nation and a source of hope that through change inevitably a better society will somehow emerge.
Within our system of checks and balances between the three branches of our Federal government created by the Constitution, the Supreme Court is left with being the final arbiter of what the Constitution itself means and there is no appeal from their decisions other than amending the Constitution itself, a process designed by the framers to be very difficult and becoming progressively more so as we move into a time when public opinion is more an item to be purchased than a heart and mind to be won, a sad legacy of the very changes in our society that are both the backdrop and the subject matter and the impetus of this book.
The ‘sound bite’ educational system, formal and informal, that now fosters much of our public discourse is a vacuum that has enabled the purveyors of ‘newspeak’ to often replace the search for truth with sophistry, while leaving us with a society that, by an ever growing percentage is progressively less equipped intellectually to know (or care) just what it is that I am talking about.
The changes in our way of life over our history, often taught to our children as singular, often unrelated events, does little to ‘alter and illuminate our times’. Rather our educational system enables the subtle changes occurring every day that alter the very ties that bind us together, to be hidden from constructive examination or are so distorted by innumerable ideologues and demagogues in and through the media that constructive inquiry let alone constructive discourse is rapidly becoming a lost art. To be sure, we live in an information age, and access to information is unprecedented but it is not the ability to learn that is at issue here it is the ability to discern the wheat from the chaff amidst the ever increasing mass of information from which to do so.
The pages that follow will also attempt to search out the root causes that connect and explain the breakdown of civilized behavior increasingly seen in our society, ironically at a time when we have gone through a period of a progressively heightened sense of social justice. The America that exists today was surely ‘a dream’ when Martin Luther King’ gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, standing before the Lincoln Memorial sharing his vision of the promise we inherited from our forefathers with an America finally ready to listen. Lost on many and especially those to whom his speech was directed was that his dream was the very dream held by those same men in Philadelphia 200 years before who proclaimed with equal fervor and sincerity that all men are created equal.
It is ironic however; that in the time since those words emanated from Dr. Kings’ heart and mind, the rights accorded to black Americans have vastly improved, while the civil rights of Americans generally has drastically declined. Offering some insight into why this has occurred and what to do about it is also the subject of this book.
Coming soon: Chapter 2 ‘It begins with the Prols’: How to Fix the Educational System in the United States