The Right Angles of History
Sunday, July 3rd, 2016
By Reed Galen
Author’s Note: I originally wrote this column during the heat and height of the presidential campaign. Six months into our next presidency, not much has changed.
Quoted by a Smart Person: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” James Baldwin
We celebrate Independence Day tomorrow; a date that not only marks the beginning of a political state but most importantly represents the birth of a grand experiment in which colonists fought for and gained their freedom by standing on principles they collectively held dear; articulated by a collection of individuals whom history has largely agreed were geniuses in their own time. Together — Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and the tens of thousands of nameless men and women who fought the Red Coats allow us to live in the greatest republic the globe has ever known.
Like so many events that mark our collective story, the Founders didn’t just decide to show up in Philadelphia one day and write the Declaration of Independence. The march to Independence was a long one, spanning decades. But that moment when a people collectively declared their freedom from a mother country changed the course of human progress. And when real history is made, it occurs at right angles from what existed before.
The United States, 240 years on, has survived the best and worst of times relying on the framework of laws and the mechanics of governance laid down in the Constitution, another history-altering achievement. But are those first principles enough to move us past our current state? We live in times where unlimited and continuous information flow allows us to see the shortcomings in our institutions and our leaders and on the path in which we’ve chosen. And that path appears chosen less by grand vision or providence than by a refusal of those we elect to truly address the issues that face us and our collective acceptance of their inaction — the latter being far more insidious than the former.
The great republics that have come before us, too, allow us to see the inexorable direction we’re headed and yet even knowing this, we are unable or unwilling to change course in any meaningful way. We’re overextended and directionless overseas. At home, the basic legislative functions of government rarely happen except in crisis and the administrative actions are often seen by half the populace as illegitimate.
Our faith in institutions is either gone altogether or rapidly fading. Governments — local, state and national are seen by those on both the right and the left as having created its own special class who’s main objective is to protect their own influence and that of the people who helped them achieve their station.
The distance between the “haves” and “have nots” is growing and the road to bettering one’s economic status is a pock-marked track with toll booths that protect those above and hold down those below. One does not need to be a historical scholar to understand that, while there will always be differences in wealth, the creation of a permanent underclass who serve as serfs to a handful of political and economic overlords is ultimately unsustainable. And as Americans, as the land of opportunity, we should constantly be exploring ways to rebuild that road to the middle class, or at the very least, to giving parents the chance to give their kids more opportunity than they themselves enjoyed.
In the process we’ve lost what might have been called the American Community. One in which our personal success was tied not just to our own ideals and hard work, but those around us as well. We’ve traded “a rising tide lifts all boats” for “I’ve got my yacht, you go get yours.”
Conversely, too often, rather than expecting more from ourselves, we want someone else — either an employer or the government, to simply give us what we want and when it’s not enough, and it’s never enough, we complain loudly as we sit before our 48” televisions. We can blame others, that is easy. But each of us must take responsibility for what we’re doing and what we’re allowing to happen.
2016 should be the bell tolling to let us all know that at the national level, the American two-party system is broken, perhaps beyond repair. It is a closed circuit that has presented hundreds of millions of voters with a Hobson’s Choice between a narcissistic, nihilistic charlatan who represents the unmaking of the system he routinely mocks and a long-time, professional politician whose judgement and motives are constantly in question and whose very presence on the national stage represents a real-time shift toward plutocracy.
To say that we as a people will make any significant change in an election year is foolhardy. But we must put a stake in the ground soon and decide collectively that we are going to change the inexorable path we’re on. While our decisions may only change the course of history by degrees, those small course corrections may well be the difference between an American Renaissance or a repeat of so many other republics throughout our memory; gradual decline followed by complete collapse.
Day by day we will march forward and those small steps will eventually lead to a seismic event — borne not of our actions but likely of our inaction. When it happens, we will wake up as a country facing a new direction entirely, it is up to us to decide which way we want to proceed.
Copyright 2016, Jedburghs, LLC