Dream America on July 4th (and then to work!)

We hold these truths to be self-evident…. Ah the words still stir positive emotions in me even as our country seems to careen towards a moral and political abyss. Where to look for inspiration, for hope, on this Independence Day?

In past years, I often turned to Frederick Douglass, whose “What to The Slave is the 4th of July” remains one of the great pieces of American oratory. And I’ve turned to Jefferson and to Dewey, or to the ever ebullient Walt Whitman. During the pandemic, I found my points of orientation in the public intellectuals Darren Walker (Ford Foundation) and Danielle Allen (Harvard). They saw in our Independence Day a reminder to do better, to strive for more in our public life than provided by the status quo.

This year I turn again to my old teacher, the philosopher Richard Rorty, who saw with uncanny perspicacity what dangers would face the Republic. In the late 1990s he wrote that before too long the following would happen:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

Many quoted this passage in 2016, and I trust many will return to it again. Rorty was good at sketching out where our political crises were likely to come from.

Dick was even better at showing that in the face of those crises we should form alliances to create political changes that would ease the burdens of the most vulnerable while creating more space for additional, perhaps more thoroughgoing reform. This is the hard work of coalition politics. The work not of canceling those with whom one disagrees but of finding ways to work across differences for goals of common interest. Images of those common interests, our common interest, are made by artists — by poets, novelists, painters, and others who can imagine our community with a brighter future. We might call these dreamers:

You cannot urge national political renewal on the basis of descriptions of fact. You have to describe the country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become, as well as in the terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning. Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.

Sometimes it’s especially hard to summon those feelings of loyalty; sometimes it’s hard to dream. But that’s when it’s time to work with others to become practical idealists, working together to create the conditions for what we hope our country can become. Let’s recommit to that today, July 4th.

July 4th: “Inclusion is Patriotism of the Highest Order”

For years, on July 4th I turned to Frederick Douglass’ great speech (“What to The Slave is the 4th of July“) as a reminder of the promise and the painful hypocrisy of the Declaration of Independence. If you look look back on this blog’s July 4th posts, you’ll find excerpts and reflections.

This year, I was moved by an op-ed in the Washington Post by Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation. He underscores the resonance of the principles enshrined in the Declaration with the Foundation’s work on equity and inclusion.

Inclusion is patriotism of the highest order. It informs our answers to that fundamental, founding question of representation and whether we, the people, will truly extend representation to each other — then, now and into the future.

And so, the American story we should celebrate this Fourth of July is one of expanding representation — however slowly, unevenly, and imperfectly. It’s the story of a small circle of White, property-owning men in Philadelphia that, generation by generation, continues to grow wider, precisely because of the patriotic struggle and sacrifice of the people who were once excluded — above all, Black and brown people, and women.

Political theorist (and now candidate for Governor of Massachusetts!) Danielle Allen has recently written about Prince Hall, an 18th century black activist whose political work was energized by the values he saw in the American founding. Hall, she writes, “invokes the core concepts of social-contract theory, which grounded the American Revolution, to argue for an extension of the claim to equal rights to those who were enslaved. He acknowledged and adopted the intellectual framework of the new political arrangements, but also pointedly called out the original sin of enslavement itself.” Hall helped establish an activist community of free blacks in Boston and established a Masonic Lodge that bears his name. A founding father, too long neglected.

However one marks the 4th, I trust we can find some inspiration in Hall’s life and work, and in these words of Darren Walker:

In their flawed genius, the founders entrusted us with the tools to fix what they were unwilling to repair. They left us the capacity to build something that had never existed: a multiracial, multiethnic, pluralist democracy that extends the blessings of representation to all.

This is a legacy worth fighting for, preserving and passing forward — today and always.