Danielle Allen on Declaring Independence and Working for Equality

I’ve gotten in the habit of quoting from Frederick Douglass’s magnificent July 4th Speech, but this year I want to turn to a more contemporary source of inspiration. The political theorist Danielle Allen has written powerfully about the Declaration of Independence, and I’d like just to offer some quotations from her recent conversation with Ezra Klein for my blog on this holiday weekend.

On John Adams and Benjamin Franklin as authors of the Declaration:

That’s an important thing to say out loud because Adams is someone who never owned slaves and Franklin was somebody who was an enslaver earlier in his life but repudiated enslavement and became a vocal advocate of abolition. Both Adams and Franklin were in a different place on enslavement than Jefferson was.

That matters. The Declaration of Independence fed straight into abolitionist movements and efforts. It was the basis of a text that was submitted in Massachusetts in January 1777 moving forward abolition, and abolition had been achieved already in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania by the early 1770s and 1780s.

When we focus on Jefferson, we get one part of America’s story — the story of the slaveholding South. We don’t get the part of the story which was about how abolitionism was developing already, even in the 18th century. That’s part of our story in history, too. We should see it and tell it.

On the importance of thinking of equality and freedom together:

In the 18th century, when people thought about self-government, they often described it as a product of free and equal self-governing citizens. Free and equal always went together. In order to be free, you actually had to be able to play a role in your local institutions. You had to have equal standing as a decision-maker. So freedom and equality were mutually reinforcing.

That concept of self-government predates the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, and the remarkable transformations of the global economy achieved by industrialization and modern capitalism. As the economy transformed, as you saw the immiseration of populations in industrial centers, the question of equality came to have a different balance. There was a new question on the table: How does economic structure interact with freedom and with equality?

So with the 19th century and early 20th century, you began to have a sort of refashioning of the concept of equality primarily around economic concerns and conceptions and castes. That way, there seems to be a tension between a market economy defined as somehow rooted in a concept of freedom and equality based on equal distribution of economic resources. The Cold War brought that to a really high pitch, with the Soviet Union characterized as the political structure in favor of equality and the United States characterized as the political structure in favor of freedom.

But what that debate between those two physical systems did was obscure the fact that at their core, freedom and equality have to be linked to each other. You can’t actually have freedom for all unless most people have equal standing relationship to each other. That’s a political point in the first question. And then you fold in economic issues by asking the question: If we need to achieve equal political standing, then what kind of economic structure do we need to deliver that?

I think it is possible to have market structures that are compatible with egalitarian distributive outcomes. I think you need an egalitarian economy. You don’t need, strictly speaking, an equal distribution of material goods in order to support the kind of political equality that gives people equal standing and of shared ownership of political institutions.

On the relevance of the Declaration for the current moment:

Arbitrary use of police power was at the core of the American Revolution. Arbitrary use of police power and excessive penalty in our criminal justice system have been at the center of many people’s attention for quite a period of time now.

In the declaration, they say, all of our petitions have just been met by repeated injury. Such has been the experience for the last decade too, I think, for people who’ve been working on police reform and reimagining of our justice and public safety system. So I think there’s a lot of continuity. There’s a really strong sense of what rights should be protected and what it means not to have basic rights protected.

You can read more of the interview with Danielle Allen here. The audio of The Ezra Klein Show is available here.


On What Matters

Too often I have written blog posts about tragedies, violence, injustice. From attacks in other parts of the world to devastation right here in the USA, I have expressed sorrow, anger—and often a feeling of solidarity with those who have suffered, are suffering. Readers have pointed out that my compassion, like other forms of attention, is selective. There are plenty of injustices that have gone unremarked in this space, either because of my own ignorance or my judgments about what I should be writing about in this Roth on Wesleyan blog.

I have followed the news reports and commentaries closely over the last week. What horror unfolds before us! The brutal killings by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana and the vicious murders of police officers in Dallas that followed have underscored how violence can destroy individual lives while shaking communities to the core. I don’t have any wisdom of my own to offer at this painful, confusing time, but I thought I’d pass along a few of the thoughts I’ve come across recently that seemed helpful.

Michael Eric Dyson, professor and social critic, writes searingly in “Death in Black and White“:

The nation as a whole feels powerless now. A peaceful protest turned into the scene of a sniper attack. Day in and day out, we feel powerless to make our black lives matter. We feel powerless to make you believe that our black lives should matter. We feel powerless to keep you from killing black people in front of their loved ones. We feel powerless to keep you from shooting hate inside our muscles with well-choreographed white rage.

Former police captain and Brooklyn borough president Eric L. Adams writes:

I hear those saying the time just for talk is over—and I agree. Talk, and the greater freedoms of speech and expression that it encompasses, are national imperatives that should deliver a more righteous tomorrow. But the next step after talk is not violence, it is concrete action.

Action means common-sense gun reform. Time and again, this has been stonewalled by a do-nothing Congress, which has helped turn a ban on high-capacity assault weapons into a controversial issue. This has to change.  Action means urgent attention to the mental health epidemic that plagues our nation. This epidemic is blind to a person’s background and profession, yet unattended it can distort the honest, passionate rhetoric of protest into the delusional hate of dangerous radicalization.

Wesleyan professor, anthropologist, and performer Gina Athena Ulysse, as usual, gives us much to think about in her Pedagogies of the Traumatized:

We can’t keep running away from the past. Besides, social media has assured we can only run so far; the brutality that used to happen in private is now ever so public. My optimism wanes and my patience continues to be tried with each new extra judicial killing, each exoneration. Each one is more confirmation of the deep rootedness of our inequality. We bear the weight of history so unequally. It is written on our bodies and etched in the color of our skin. Human chattel. Property. Slaves. That is the undue burden, the inequity we live with, that simply cannot be undone unconsciously. Its transformation, if that (I am not naïve), requires so much more than will. To bring about a modicum of change we must not only intentionally attempt, but also be determined, to shift. It will not happen par hazard. Because history has seen to it that the exchange, use, and sign value ascribed to Black lives remains unequal to that of Whites. We are differentially positioned and invested.

Yale philosopher Chris LeBron recently noted that the differences among us have less to do with the facts of any specific encounter than with our will to change how we live. Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen asks whether we can hold ourselves together as a people—”we cannot be a people and be at war with ourselves.” And Gina Athena Ulysse ends her post by asking: “Where is your outrage as we all bear witness to this moment?”

We can turn our witnessing and our outrage toward justice, justice informed by education as well as generosity and care. This will mean making our own campus a place of greater equity and inclusion as we engage as citizens to end this awful cycle of racism and violence.