Monday, January 01, 2018 9:24 PM
The Lights Ahead (2018Jan01)
The original pilgrims ventured to this land in search of a place where they could worship differently—they left behind a continent that spent centuries attacking the infidels, and more centuries attacking each other over the Inquisition and the Reformation. All wars and all crimes had a basis in belief—and differences in belief could be crimes in themselves.
Once the pilgrims got here, they soon found themselves well on the road to duplicating the very religion-based strife and violence which had driven them to their new world. Religious intolerance threatened to shatter the colonies just when they most needed to band together to survive.
“The Wordy Shipmates” by Sarah Vowell gives an excellent account of how the idea of religious tolerance was adopted by the earliest colonists. ‘Separation of church and state’ remained important to the character of what would become the United States of America. Long before our nation was born, this land had been a sanctuary of tolerance—until modern times, the only nation that separated law from faith.
Thus freedom of religion became the first great light of America. We can distract ourselves with exceptions—such as the witch-burnings of Puritans and the unspoken anti-Semitism that persecuted Jewish-Americans for much of our history—but freedom to worship as we please is a part of America, exceptions notwithstanding.
The second great light of America was replacing Monarchy with Democracy. Again, we may take exception—and with good reason—to the historical record. At first, ‘all men are created equal’ used the word ‘all’ very loosely—and the word ‘men’ very narrowly—Rich, white, male colonists didn’t want to pay their taxes—and they wanted to keep their slaves.
Still, the spirit was in the words—and that spirit brought us to a great and tragic contest, the Civil War, and to the Suffragists movement, and to the Civil Rights Act, to social activism of many kinds. And all have the same aim—to broaden inclusion and to remove exceptions to the ideal. Democracy and equal rights go hand in hand—or one of them is a sham.
The third great light of America was literacy. We were the first to implement a public school system—and thus the first country to have more literate than illiterate citizens. Since this coincided with the industrial revolution, America found itself exploding with entrepreneurship—all the new ideas and new inventions kept coming—and virtually every citizen was reading about it in newspapers and magazines—and thinking to themselves, “How can I make my fortune in this chaos?”
Early on, lots of Americans chose to learn to read for one simple reason—so they could read Mark Twain’s books. Clemens was more than a great writer—he was the impetus for a young nation to go literate-default. He was as responsible for ‘Yankee know-how’ as Bell or Edison. So perhaps I should change the third great light of America from ‘literacy’ to ‘love of knowledge’. It was both ‘common’ and somewhat scandalous, in the Old World, to be interested in learning for its own sake—America demonstrated its value.
The great American Empire was founded primarily on the strength our nation found within its first three Great Lights: Freedom of Religion, Democracy, and Love of Knowledge. America made a gift of these ideas to the world—and much of the world has adopted one or all of these ideas.
Now, if Trump does his worst, and achieves the decline of the American Empire he so obviously seeks—just remember: the Greeks, the Roman Empire, the British Empire—all have faded, but the ideas they gave the world remain—and America’s ideals, being based on a love of humanity, will also outlive the land from which it sprang. Indeed, America is not the land it was—it has become something else—but those ideas still, having been brought to light, will wend their way into the thoughts of future folk, whomever they may be.
Let’s face it. Euclid gave the Greeks the gift of Geometry—a highly useful insight—yet even today not everyone bothers to learn Geometry. The Romans gave us plumbing, but not everyone in Flint, MI thinks the science of plumbing is very important—and many other towns have similar leadership. America gave the world Freedom of Religion, Democracy, and Love of Knowledge—but the number of citizens, today, with a true understanding of those principles and their importance—is, at most, two-thirds of the total.
We know this because one-third of the voters voted for Trump—who made a great show of either disrespecting those principles or showing his ignorance of them. By the time he was done campaigning, only someone with an imperfect understanding of America could possibly have approved of him.
Having said all that, it is important to recognize the other possibility—that Trump’s oafish trampling of what real Americans treasure will result in a backlash that cynics, hypocrites, Putin, and business-leaders will long regret. There are more lights, further ahead—if only we can stop this retreat into the darkness of the past… We are not done making a more perfect union. Reach for the stars, I always say.