Yesterday, we celebrated our nation’s 241st birthday. By ancient history standards, we’re still far from being what one would call an old culture. But, compared to the vast majority of the world’s nation states, we are definitely getting old.
We’ve been operating with the same constitutional system of government (electoral college and all) for 228 years, that’s more than almost all of our world peers. Of course it’s not as if the mentality of our United States has remained frozen since our nation began. We’ve never stopped turning new corners, responding to new challenges — sometimes nobly, sometimes shamefully — shifting our views, reacting, rejecting, reconsidering.
When you’re a free people with the freedom to think and speak virtually however you choose, you can often find yourself in a nation with views that are “all over the map.” But as they say, our U.S. Constitution is a “living document,” open to amendments and fresh interpretations as the realities and sensibilities of our world and society continue to change.
However despite those changing perspectives, the remarkable language composed by Thomas Jefferson in our nation’s Declaration of Independence still guides our nation. And I believe this phrase continues to be pivotal: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
It seems like such an wonderfully positive goal to assign to a nation. You could almost compare it to the Golden Rule as one of those behavioral standards that is irrefutable. And it feels quite reassuring to live in a nation that clearly states it exists to uphold the conviction that each of its citizens possesses the undeniable right to live their life free to strive toward achieving happiness. — That’s reason enough to celebrate the Fourth.
But there’s the catch in this scenario that needs to be mentioned. Especially in these times when enormous efforts — at work since the ’80’s — are successfully reinterpreting the meaning of Jefferson’s words as most Americans have come to know them. “Liberty” has always been in the eye of the beholder. So has the “pursuit of happiness.” For example, when Thomas Jefferson wrote his timeless words, the truths he expressed were not so completely self-evident that he included his slaves in that thought. (Although, I’m sure they would have appreciated that.)
And, I’m sure that there were many women in Jefferson’s time with minds as sharp and inquisitive, as artistic and ambitious as any of today’s influential females. Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison are proof of that. Yet it took another 144 years before women nationwide could take part in electing our national leaders and legislators. No doubt there were millions of women in the century leading up to suffrage (and 50 years later, to women’s liberation and Title IX) whose pursuit of personal happiness was stymied, not just by societal conventions but by actual laws.
I’ve already referred to the perverted rationalization of slavery that our country juggled for nearly a century after our founding. It took a terrible civil war to end that, and another century to come close to erasing most but not all of that era’s ingrained inequities.
And interracial marriage didn’t become a national right until a Supreme Court decision in 1967. While gay marriage wasn’t a national right until 2015. – Talk about obstructing the pursuit of happiness!
So why did the unalienable rights of so many Americans take so long to be enforced? Cultural resistance, prejudices and ignorance, all helped keep change at bay. But another factor was the numbers of people who believed changing the status quo was an attack on their personal liberty and the happiness they pursued.
Slaveholders’ happiness required the freedom to own other human beings. During the decades leading up to women’s suffrage, having an undisputed superior position in society made many men quite happy. Nineteenth century industrialists were happy to keep women from voting on labor reform laws. And racists and bigots throughout our history and across our country have found their happiness in maintaining a favored position over fellow Americans they enjoyed treating as inferior.
There have always been individuals and organizations, who have tirelessly worked to block the happy pursuits of other Americans when such progress got in the way of their “freedom” to do whatever they want. What’s scary is, this is going on right now in America, perhaps more effectively then ever before.
Dark money is having an increasingly influential affect in every branch and every level of our government. The machinations of billionaire libertarians (near-anarchists) like Charles and David Koch and their uber-wealthy friends have devoted many years and hundreds of millions of dollars to reinterpret our nation’s understanding of Jefferson’s words to match their desires.
They are funding ultra-conservative think tanks, influential right wing pundits, “scholars,” university chairs and departments and ideological political candidates even in the most local elections. Their goal has been to turn Americans away from trusting government to do good in any way. Their efforts are succeeding. (And we Democrats haven’t done enough to counter their moves.)
But I guess I really can’t fault those politically engaged billionaires for their efforts. All they’re doing is pursuing their own happiness. And for them happiness is simply to make as much money as they can before they die — with no-one ever telling them what they can and can’t do. I’m sure they’re sincere in the rightness of their selfishness. (But then so are high functioning sociopaths.)
On this July 5th, what their strategy is doing to our country does not bode well for improving the pursuits of happiness for millions of us average Americans. That probably makes the dark money guys kinda happy too. — So now, what can we do to change that?
NTDO member since 1973
There is an education bill in the Illinois Senate, SB1, that uses an evidence-based model to make funding fair for those that have been left behind, while making sure no school district loses money. This responsible solution enjoys support from nearly 150 superintendents and school districts across the state. To learn more about this worthwhile legislation click here.
The New Trier Dems will be there each day
We need volunteers for our NTD table. Can you help?
This is a pleasant way for a dedicated liberal to spend two hours on a nice summer day. There’s a straw poll to attract passersby (Trump’s name is mentioned) and a table laden with useful information for residents. You’ll have interesting conversations with table visitors and there may by a few declared candidates stopping by too. Each summer our NTD table underscores the active presence of Democrats on the North Shore. This is important. Come be a part of it.