This year’s Independence Day feels different. A population of societal disintegrationists, who are increasing in either volume or size or both, are attacking America’s foundational concepts.
In their retro-judgment of historical actors and damning of every American foundational concept and document that was ever touched by even a single figure who did not comply one hundred percent with modern social justice norms, they miss the key point: the ideas that gave rise to our nation’s founding were radical and revolutionary at the time, and they remain radical and revolutionary today.
On July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was issued, no government had declared that God created all men equal with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The very people they damn were the first to do so – very woke for 1776.
The Founders provided a Constitutional framework that has permitted our nation’s growth into the most free, prosperous, and powerful nation in history. It has not been without scars, but this is not surprising. People are imperfect beings, and the fight for freedom has never been easy – not in any place across time and not in any place in the world.
That is true here.
Freedom has always required struggle, and it will require struggle to maintain it (see Hong Kong today). The good news is that through starts and stops, steps forward and backward, the arc of our nation has pointed towards more liberty, not less. This is an affirmation that our basic Constitutional architecture is sound, and it is critical to recognize this. We are here today, having the discussions we are having about fulfilling the promise of liberty, because of our Constitutional framework and not in spite of it.
Very importantly, the disintegrationists also miss that the Founder’s Declaration remains radical and revolutionary today, and one wonders if they would issue the same foundational framework to government – respecting the God-given right of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – if their seeming goal of some type of new order was achieved. They topple statues of Washington, Jefferson, Grant, a Priest and Saint, a former slave, Cervantes, and this week in Portland an Elk (as in the animal).
It is difficult to identify a consistent theme or purpose to the vandalism other than destruction for the sake of it, and all of it is done with the perfect lens and judgment of 2020 Wokeness. It is as if the disintegrationists believe they are the only good people who have ever existed, in this time and place, and if you had dropped them in 1825 America, England, or even Prussia or Russia, they would still be thinking exactly as they do now, marching the streets and stumping for today’s constantly evolving ideas about social justice.
They have separated the persons they critique from their historical contexts – as if history and place doesn’t matter – and they themselves would think the same as they do in 2020 regardless of whether and where they lived in 1312, 1515, 1776, or 2020. It doesn’t work that way. We are all a product of our historical era. The journey of our nation is about progress, not perfection.
This year has brought a discernible shift in in our societal conversation from a focus on the individual to a focus on groups. In other words, identity politics. This groups gets this, that group gets that. This shift has been occurring for quite some time, but seems to have accelerated of recent. There are consequences to this type of shift and reframing of focal point from individual to group.
The Founders focused on the individual because it is ultimately the best way to protect everyone, regardless of group membership. They tethered rights to the individual, and importantly, recognized these rights are granted by God (because if rights are granted by God, your fellow man can never do anything to take them away).
The problem with a shift to a focus on groups is that it inevitably leads to the tug-of-war of interests between groups, and in the process the canceling of the very individual rights it nominally seeks to protect. It is important to note that it is not that data on how policies affect particular demographics are not helpful. That data can be. It’s that problems start to occur when everything is framed as group struggle.
We need to replace the focus on the individual, and in so doing we can best address grievances of individuals within groups. There is no better way.
The irony of the claim by disintegrationists that America is inherently evil is that it is our very capacity for self-assessment and introspection that has permitted our progress towards more liberty, not less, over time. As they shout from the mountaintops about how inherently evil our institutions are, we undertake in earnest a conversation about our shortcomings and how we can best fulfill the promises of the Declaration of Independence going forward.
In the words of Peggy Noonan, “We’ve overcome a great deal. We see this best when we don’t deny our history but tell the whole messy, complicated, embarrassing, ennobling tale.” The Great Conversation has always occurred here. Other nations are not taking their personal inventories like we constantly are. Let’s keep it that way.
Have a great Independence Day, and be thankful for our freedom.