In his eloquent First Inaugural Address, Thomas Jefferson bathed in the glow of his young nation’s extraordinary promise. “Possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation,” the United States had nowhere to go but up. It would rely on an increase in public knowledge, “the diffusion of information,” to turn back “all abuses at the bar of the public reason.” Freedoms afforded by “the wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes” would long serve as “the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction.” Should we lose faith, or forget right, “in moments of error or of alarm,” he assured, “let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”
Jefferson always counted on the “diffusion of information.” Here’s what he didn’t see coming: What happens when it fails to lead to unprejudiced judgments? And what is the good of democracy if the voters are misinformed?
We do not wish to diminish Jefferson’s thoughts, any more than we should discard the eloquence of President John F. Kennedy in his bold American University address in the months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he prescribed peaceful coexistence with our Cold War enemies as “the necessary rational end of rational men”; when he acknowledged “genuine” world peace to be “the product of many nations, the sum of many acts . . . changing to meet the challenge of each new generation.”
Hope is who we want to be as a nation. The oratorical flourishes that underscore America’s traditional mission statement exist in the minds of honest patriots, because they encapsulate the essence of our national self-definition. Their inapplicability deeply embarrasses us whenever we come to recognize that we are not who and what we say we are.
The way we encounter our overly glorifying, hypocrisy-laden history has raised undue expectations. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are in jeopardy at this historical juncture. We are, unquestionably, a melancholic nation in 2017. It’s not just the fate of undocumented immigrants, police shootings of innocent people of color or Confederate monuments and our collective failure to advance in the solution to put behind us the long legacy of racial bigotry and violence. We look back to our beginnings and scratch our heads, wondering how the educated men who gave voice to our most enlightened principles could have rationalized the ownership of other human beings. Original sin. Historical projection leads us to judge historical actors as though they knew in advance what the best of us deem to be civilized and just, presuming that they could have lived up to our values -- become us -- generations before we happened on the scene. But in doing so, we give ourselves too much credit for even our present, incomplete exhibition of civility and justice. Ergo, melancholy.
Because historical consciousness is so limited, and so quickly displaced, the capacity to rationalize is enormous. In 1860, as a most consequential national election loomed, a popular magazine that claimed to be an independent, nonjudgmental voice took up the question, “Should Women Vote?” It concluded that they should not -- because of their superior natural morality: “The intellectual structure of woman, with its wonderful and fascinating vivacity and delicacy, because of its very superiority in these respects, is less adapted to legislation and executive action in public affairs.” Standard thinking among the vast majority of public men.
Can you be too good to vote? Only when an excuse is needed to deny justice to millions on totally illogical grounds.
Theodore Roosevelt, who published books on U.S. history, was an ardent eugenicist, idealizing scientific methods of improving his race through the obligatory reduction in procreative activity by undesirable people -- and millions of fair-minded citizens concurred. Literacy tests and exclusion acts during this era enforced strict limits on Asian and African immigration. When Woodrow Wilson enthusiastically screened D.W. Griffith's film “Birth of a Nation” in the White House, he entertained the notion that the Ku Klux Klan served a positive role in saving white women from the libidinous rage of black men.
Speaking of blackness and rage, blackface entertainers were all the rage in Hollywood in the 1930s. Insensitivity. Women were banned from sitting on juries in some Southern states until the 1970s. Denial. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein brought about the first Gulf War, Americans were locked in debate over the question of female soldiers’ suitability for posting to a combat theater. Their weaker, presumably more susceptible bodies made it a bad idea, not to mention the unwholesome thoughts that their presence would put in the minds of male soldiers. Gay troops serving? You’re kidding, right? Legalizing gay marriage? Unnatural and downright antisocial. A threat to who we are as a people. Until it happens and we move on.
That is the reality of civil discourse in America. Besides wars of conquest, history is largely a repository of embarrassing ideas, tone-deaf majorities, selective memories. The mind is a forgetful, repressive thing, bent on recording a self-congratulatory history of its momentary self, whenever and however possible. The present is supposed to be the happy ending of the past. Or else, a conscious time, plausibly recommitted to an ambiguous past perfection. #MAGA
But even this does not tell us how we got into our present mess; how we got Donald Trump. You can be sure that our posterity will do that, in spades.
Let’s perform a useful exercise, and anticipate what a better world than ours will say about our political moment, say, 50 years into the future. We can only imagine:
- With the connivance of the Supreme Court, the first modern republic devolved in the 21st century to the point where the national legislature was unable to pass laws without first accommodating the corporate lobbyists who legally purchased their elections. People were able to rationalize this by claiming that the nation’s founders would have equated money with speech. Political inertia allowed this perverse state of mind to flourish, and at one point (taking their cue from sports stadiums) senators and congressmen entertained a new policy of naming their seats after their corporate sponsors, for an additional $1 million in endowed annual contributions. That is how the “Clean Coal representative from West Virginia” and the “ExxonMobil senator from Florida” were first conceived. The Supreme Court voted 6-3 in favor of corporate sponsorship of political offices, as guaranteed under the First Amendment. (In case you’re really not sure, this hasn’t happened yet. But . . . )
- Speaking of Florida, when that state’s coast succumbed to rising water levels, which scientists had correctly predicted, a majority of those polled succeeded in rationalizing that God had willed a new shape to the continent and would continue to do as “He” saw fit. (The gendering of the Supreme Being was never explained.) NASA was cautioned not to interfere with cosmic objectives, and the phrase “climate science” was summarily removed from government websites, so as to avert widespread panic. Bad news was deemed fake news, except where it was demonstrably caused by the lazy black president whom no one remembered from high school, because he might not have been born in America. Or so millions of real American citizens were prone to believe at this time.
- Voting citizens unthinkingly bowed to the cruel bent of an organized political party that identified its interest with a subservience to the tax-averse super-rich, who constituted less than one percent of the population and actually provided very few jobs. This party’s adherents tended to accept as fact the notion that poor people just didn’t work hard enough, and that’s why they were poor.
- Men were paid substantially more than women for the same work. Men committed a whopping percentage of violent crimes, yet the availability of high-performance, military-style weapons in populous areas was permitted by law, because, well, capitalism. In the national legislature, men were demonstrably seen to be less effective in reasoning with their colleagues than the women of the competing parties were. Yet these brave, responsive women were systematically lectured to by some of the same men as to the national need to compromise their personal control over their own bodies. Once again, all privilege was given to a common belief in the active interest in human affairs by a Supreme Being who lobbied on behalf of procreation at all costs.
- A pushy, gluttonous, humorless, inarticulate man lacking even the curiosity to learn about his country’s history got himself elected president. He had an unusual urge to see his name writ large, to build hotels and golf resorts for rich white people, where the chocolate cake was truly amazing. He subscribed to the odd idea that men should dominate women (and call out the “fat pigs” among them). Arbitrary and unrestrained, rude and vindictive, he was unpleasant to be around. Despite overwhelming evidence that he was a scarred, self-promoting bully and a perpetual liar, infamous for reneging on personal financial obligations, constitutionally resistant to helping people in need and increasingly fixated on finding proof of his personal popularity, he retained office. In public appearances, he boasted his brainpower though he exhibited a grade schooler’s vocabulary. He unequivocally defended white supremacists, and seemed to enjoy, more than anything else, humiliating the enemies he courted -- namely, anybody who questioned his impulsive genius or saw through his thoughtless promises, rank inexperience and lack of commitment to the public welfare. It was only at the end of his mock-presidency that his once-loyal supporters woke to the fact that this sadly corrupted, solipsistic being literally confused reality with a televised game show in which he had been chosen to star. Curiously, his most committed supporters were those who most passionately and blindly accepted a loving God into their lives.
Of course No. 5 never happened because, really, how could it?
“They were so smug, yet so misdirected,” says the future about us, generalizing as we do about preceding generations that allowed ill nature and moral turpitude to persist when they knew better.