We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Yesterday we celebrated Independence Day. Today we woke up to a complicated, messy reality. The ideals of the United States of America, so eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence, are inspiring. But we see, almost constantly, how we fail to live up to them. The national failure of COVID-19 has exposed so many ways in which the United States is failing to secure the inalienable rights of the American people. From poor public health infrastructure to the weakened social safety net – the rest of the economically developed world has managed the pandemic (at high cost to be sure) and is ready to go back to business. The United States is wallowing in an ongoing and at least to some extent avoidable crisis.
There are other failures, beyond those linked to COVID-19. The criminal justice system, institutional racism and sexism, and the way in which the financial industry preys upon those who have the least are just a few of the issues highlighted in recent years.
We are in an era of what Samuel Huntington called Creedal Passion in which the American people seek to bring American reality into alignment with our core values – our Creed. These are periods of enormous ferment and tumult – like the Sixties or the Progressive Era. In such times, the nation’s history comes under scrutiny.
We have never lived up to our values. Building the United States involved massive crimes against the Native Americans, the slavery of African-Americans, and other terrible depredations. Reputed golden ages – such as the Fifties were built on systematic repression of African-Americans, women were constrained in their choices, while corporations were able to harm the environment and consumers with limited oversight.
But this bleak view is not completely fair. Our values are not just a sham. We do in fact strive for them. It took too long, but slavery was destroyed. It took too long, but women received the right vote. The United States has accepted immigrants from around the world and allowed them to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a way they could not in their nation of origin.
I have a personal stake in this. My people were at the bottom rung of the latter across Europe for over a millennium. Here in the United States we have prospered, been accepted, and have been safe in a way unprecedented in our long history. I love this country for what it has meant for me, my family, and so very many. I want all Americans (and ultimately all people) to enjoy their inalienable rights.
There is much to be done.