Constitutional America is a unique experiment. Its origin and authority is alive in “We, the people of the United States,” a guiding principle that echoes the Declaration of Independence’s intention to create a nation-state separate from English control and to secure the blessings of liberty for all.
This country began as an unhappy ward of Great Britain. Indeed, declares the Declaration, “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these states.” While the Declaration also states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, . . .” the signers’ immediate concern was their right to be equal to the king, no longer of lesser stature or lesser authority, and the belief of the people of the original 13 colonies that being taxed by a British Parliament to which they had no right to elect representatives was tyranny. The long struggle for inclusion was yet to begin, yet the seed of its fruition was planted.
In 1776, the rights of women, African Americans and Native Americans, for example, were not included by the signers. And now, almost two and a half centuries later, the American experiment in the individual’s right to and responsibility for a life of his or her own design is still a huge challenge for those at the effect of the politics of exclusion.
To comprehend America is to recognize it as the nation that invented the path to human liberty and equality, even as it tempered our natural competitiveness through the individual and collective practice of liberal democracy and responsible autonomy.
Along with such opportunity comes, of course, America’s demand that its citizens manage the civilized behavior they are required to engage as they create a life of their own design. We are educated and socially pressured to adhere to the opportunity for individual liberty and the burden of interpersonal responsibility. Among them is our commitment, diverse as we are, to be, in principle and substance, responsible for ourselves and accountable to others for being trustworthy.
While such a demand for self-government seems reasonable and fair enough, each of us knows in practice just how difficult it is to manage the immediate sub-rational responsiveness that emerges in any competitive arena. The opportunity and the burden, coupled with the pressure to watch over the ego-function (for example, to become emotionally able to live with disappointment), provide us with the roles we are asked to play on the pathway to an autonomously led life. As parents, as workers, as neighbors, as consumers, as sports, music, primetime and pet lovers, we become constitutive links in the generational chain of custody of our civilization.
Yet, the political infrastructure has always been complex and perhaps never more so than now. Yes, we agree in principle that each and every American must shoulder the burdens of responsibility, accountability and trustworthiness. But how are these principles upheld when it comes to conservative, liberal or progressive values?
National spokespeople for these positions would have us believe their positions’ values reflect large and external absolutes about what is right and moral. But, in fact, human beings’ values are based on resolving the conflict between their socially acquired points of view and their unmediated desires and fears. Forging a nation and a state out of disparate communities is hard because we are determined by nature and nurture to defend the positions we’re bred to.
We fulfill the promise of this nation when we recognize just how much common decency we share despite our deeply entrenched and often oppositional positions. For example, as I said, each of us knows that we must be responsible and trustworthy. None of us would betray these principles in front of our neighbors, our children, our parents or those in our communities who depend on our accountability.
We fulfill the promise of this nation when we make our claims for what is valuable by staking them in this common ground of accountability, when we meet the customary standards for cognition, communication and behavior, when we meet the requirement to defend or account for ourselves with reason, rationality, objectivity and evidence and when we meet our commitment to be decent as a way of life.
And when we don’t, when we forget that all of life is an endless series of problems that require solutions, when we compromise the integrity of the process that America has historically demanded of its citizens, we undermine the very foundation (and freedom) upon which this country was built. Heedlessly or meanly, we still exclude others from this opportunity because of their race, or faith or ethnicity or sexual preferences, because we don’t want them to be equal to us and because the comfort of a dysfunctional ego depends in large part on those we can judge inferior, shame and humiliate.
When we adopt a philosophy of life intent on helping us with our executive capacity at enlightened self-rule, on the one hand, we open our eyes to the historical struggle for inclusion. We overcome our blindness, complacency and indifference with respect to the fate of the excluded. On the other, we appreciate the efforts of those who have defended our nation’s political freedom, those who have done the hard work of building our institutions and those who have had the courage to speak up for those marginalized and treated unfairly.
In truth, America is a work in process. We all know it is not a paradise for everyone. In Walt Whitman’s love poem to the nation, he knew, just as we know, that the fate of each one of us is inextricably linked to the fate of all of us.
“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as I should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboys on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day — at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.” *
In the land of the free and the home of the brave, each of us alone bears the responsibility for living a life of our own design. It is the opportunity to be self-possessed and to pursue a life we see fit to live and at the same time are fit to live. In other words, we are given the right of participation and it is up to each of us to take charge of it.
*Walt Whitman’s poem, I Sing of America, also known as I Hear America Singing, was published in the 1880s.
I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 30 years. These classes offer a unique and powerful governing philosophy for practical living. They stand firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity to create a life of our own design. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.