The Day Between

(Another in the series of quotes to start the week series.)

I imagine that on this date in 1776, most people in the colonies were not yet aware that their representatives had voted to declare independence from Great Britain. The vote had been taken on the 2nd, and not until the 4th would the delegates present to the world at large the final form of those immortal words,

We hold these truths to be self-evident …

The rest, as they say, is history. But I wonder, at this point in history, if all of us still hold the same truths to be self-evident.

Betsy Ross Flag (1)
(Image: “Betsy Ross Flag,” by Ed Uthman, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Something to think about while we celebrate Independence Day.

Have a great week!

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The Inescapable Conclusion About Freedom

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, made famous by his challenge to Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev: “if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Earlier in that speech, Reagan contrasted the “free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history” with “the Communist world, [where] we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind–too little food.” And he said

There stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.

We could make the same observations today about the benefits of freedom. Where people are free to associate, to collaborate, and to trade, more of them prosper than do not. But where people are not free, whether they are forced to comply with others’ demands or restrained from acting in their own best interests, fewer of them thrive and more of them suffer.


President Reagan speaking in Berlin, 12 June 1987. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

I hope you exercise your freedom well and wisely this week! And don’t let anyone take it from you.

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We Must Be Strong

Much of what I observe in our polity today — and over the past several years, frankly — seems calculated to weaken the United States. Sometimes it appears to be for short-term financial or political gain, by people who want to cash in before everything goes Tango Uniform.* Sometimes it appears to be for ideological gain, by people for whom the U.S. represents something terrible.

In contrast, I believe we must not allow ourselves to weaken, to diminish, or especially to disappear. The U.S. must be strong: economically, diplomatically, and most especially militarily. I hold that an enfeebled, chastened, toothless United States would be a prelude to disaster for the world.

"If You're Not Outraged...You're Not Paying Attention!"
Our national symbol, making its voice heard. (Image: “‘If You’re Not Outraged…You’re Not Paying Attention!’,” by Kenny P., on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

Why? Because for all our faults, for all our failings, for all our missteps and miscalculations, we have done more than any other nation in history to protect and preserve the weak by virtue of our strength. The way I see it, in terms of the sheer power at our disposal, we have wielded our strength more judiciously and with less outright malice than pretty much anyone.

If you believe otherwise, I will not attempt to dissuade you in this brief missive. But I will not let your negativity become my prophecy or your perception become my reality. I will not let reports of our decadence and decay or predictions of our doom and decline dash my hope in a better future, or my belief that our systems are the best systems under which people can be free to live and produce and thrive.

We must be strong. I would rather we could demonstrate our strength in ways that build rather than break, heal rather than harm, and even when — not if, in this imperfect world — we need to use our strength to defend ourselves and those we treasure, I would prefer that we do so swiftly, cleanly, with as much restraint as possible. But we must be strong in the first place.

We are not perfect, and we will make mistakes. In spite of our imperfections, however, we are in general a shining example of what is good in the world: freedom of thought, freedom of action, freedom of association. If we are to remain so — both free, and an exemplar of the best that freedom conveys — we must remain strong.

___
*A technical term.

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Up or Down

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Today is President Ronald Reagan’s birthday (6 February 1911 – 5 June 2004). Before serving as President, Reagan served as Governor of California; and before he was Governor, he delivered a speech called “A Time for Choosing” that thrust him into the political spotlight.

This section of the speech seems to relate as much or more to us today as it did to his audience then:

You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down — up to man’s age-old dream; the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order — or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism, and regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.

I like that a lot. Not left or right, not progressive or conservative, but up or down.

Arrows up down
Which direction shall we go?. (Image: “Arrows up down,” by Counse, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

Reagan gave that speech on 27 October 1964. I don’t know if my parents watched it on television; I certainly don’t remember, since I was just over four months old at the time. But it resonates with me, and I remain committed to moving “up” — toward greater freedom within the bounds of the law, rather than down toward more constraints on our lives.

Who’s with me?

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How I Want to Relate to You

A while back I was thinking about our tendency to generalize: to take specific instances and apply them broadly. Our ability to make such mental associations may help us make sense of the world, so long as the associations make sense, but sometimes they fail to represent the whole (or even a large part of the whole). In particular, our generalizations often fail when we observe the actions or hear the words of specific people and act as if they apply to an entire cohort of people.

I don’t want to do that to you. I’d prefer it if you didn’t do that to me, either.

I want to relate to you on the basis of your individuality, your own unique nature, and whatever we might find we have in common.

  • Perhaps we have in common a shared experience in school or work or recreation.
  • Perhaps we have in common a shared appreciation for music or some other art.
  • Perhaps we have in common a shared belief in the founding principles of the United States.
  • Perhaps we have in common a shared faith, or a similar enough faith that the differences are not as important as the similarities.
  • Perhaps we have in common something more basic, more primal, like geography or heritage or history.
  • Perhaps the only thing we have in common is our shared humanity. Perhaps that could be enough.

Jackie Treehorns (The House on the Rock)
Surely we have something in common; if nothing else, maybe we can relate to one another based on a mutual appreciation of something simple, like a book. (Image: “Jackie Treehorns (The House on the Rock),” by Justin Kern, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I want to relate to you on the basis of who you are as a person — an individual, whole, complete person. And I would like you to consider who I am as a person, rather than any particular association I may represent.

If you permit me, I will try to overcome negative associations you may have. I will try not to come at you only from the perspective of my political viewpoint, my creed, my race, my sex, and so forth — I will not deny them, but neither will I flaunt them. Likewise, I don’t want to relate to you solely on the basis of your political viewpoint, your particular creed, your race, your sex, or anything of the sort. Our politics, our races, etc., are parts of us, but not the sum total of who we are. I am not my politics, you are not your race, and so forth, unless one of us insists on treating the other in that way. I do not so insist.

In other words, I don’t want to relate to you only as a representative of any group, or sect, or party, or biological construct. So, if we can, let’s just meet as two people, and look for something — maybe for anything — that can unite us.

And then, if we can, let’s move forward.

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Monday Morning Insight: 230 Years of Religious Freedom

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

On this date in 1786, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” into law. Thomas Jefferson had drafted the statute in 1777, and it was first introduced in the assembly in 1779. Jefferson considered the statute so important that he asked for it to be included as one of three accomplishments listed on his tombstone, along with the Declaration of Independence and founding the University of Virginia.

I love the way it begins:

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free

Indeed, and God wants us to use our minds well! There’s a reason the prophet Isaiah says, “Come, let us reason together.”

Religious Freedom
Detail on a monument to Thomas Jefferson in Louisville, Kentucky. (Image: “Religious Freedom,” by Don Sniegowski, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

The statute declares that punishments or burdens enacted to try to influence people’s thinking

tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do

“Hypocrisy and meanness.” Lord knows that often we cannot help but be hypocritical, but I pray God will forgive us if we persist in it and if our religious practice is either unkind or shabby.

As someone who believes that science and faith agree more than they disagree, I find this clause amusing:

… our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry

And given the unfortunate antagonism we face from time to time, no matter which side of whatever divide we find ourselves upon, this part is encouraging:

And finally, … Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, … she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict

Unless we disarm Truth by restricting “her natural weapons, free argument and debate.” Let’s try not to do that, shall we?

And, finally, the act declared that

… all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and … the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

Religious freedom: It’s a marvelous thing. I hope you have opportunity to practice yours this week.

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Monday Morning Insight: The American Crisis

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

On this date in 1776, the first article of a series known as “The American Crisis” was printed in the Pennsylvania Journal. Written by Thomas Paine and signed “Common Sense” — after his own pamphlet which had been published in January and was fundamental to the case for the colonies’ Independence — the series was meant to encourage the American public to remain steadfast in the Revolutionary War.

Paine wrote the first article in a particularly dark moment of the war, when General George Washington had been forced to retreat across the Delaware River. Washington had the article read to his troops to bolster their morale. And how could it not, with an opening like this?

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

The American Crisis

The first page of “The American Crisis,” number one (1776). (Image on Wikimedia Commons.)

 

Two hundred forty years later, our republic — for which Paine and so many others risked so much — is in the latest of a series of recurring but relatively minor crises over how best to govern our affairs. In some respects this may be because “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly,” and a great many of us have obtained a great deal with far less labor, risk and cost than our forbears.

I don’t think this latest internal strife is the existential crisis that some have made it out to be; in spite of all our faults and foibles, I remain optimistic about our prospects. But this passage from further on in “The American Crisis” seems particularly apt:

‘Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country…. Yet panics, in some cases, have their uses; they produce as much good as hurt. Their duration is always short; the mind soon grows through them, and acquires a firmer habit than before. But their peculiar advantage is, that they are the touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy, and bring things and men to light, which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered. In fact, they have the same effect on secret traitors, which an imaginary apparition would have upon a private murderer. They sift out the hidden thoughts of man, and hold them up in public to the world.

In the days of our Revolution, panics spread through word of mouth and the printing press: how different from these days of mass media and rapid messaging! And in this modern age, many people — whether secret traitors or not — are all too quick to reveal their hidden thoughts even without a panic, especially when those thoughts are hateful or destructive or degrading. The concept of shame has fallen out of favor, after all.

It is hard to deny that recent events have been “touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy” in our ongoing discourse, and have brought things to light about many of us … about our prejudices and preferences, our desires and depravities … “which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered.” These are just the latest in long lines of events, monumental and minuscule, that have prompted outpourings of angst, turmoil, and passion. Yet I still remain optimistic about our future, that we stand a reasonable chance of getting through these strange days with our nation intact.

And in the end, as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy points out, some of the best advice may simply be, “Don’t Panic!” Because this panic, too, will come to an end.

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Monday Morning Insight, from the First U.S. Chief Justice

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

Today is John Jay’s birthday (born in 1745). Jay was President of the Continental Congress in 1778-79, wrote five of The Federalist Papers in support of the U.S. Constitution, and once the Constitution was ratified he served from 1789-95 as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Before and after presiding over the Continental Congress, in 1777 and again in 1785, Jay — a slaveholder himself — tried to get slavery abolished in his home state of New York. In a 1785 letter, he wrote,

That men should pray and fight for their own freedom, and yet keep others in slavery, is certainly acting a very inconsistent, as well as unjust and, perhaps, impious part, but the history of mankind is filled with instances of human improprieties.

And he wrote in a 1786 letter,

It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honour of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.

Upon leaving the Supreme Court, Jay became Governor of New York. He served in that office from 1795-1801, and in 1799 he signed into law an act to emancipate the slaves in that state. In order to pass the legislature, the emancipation was only gradual, but by the time Jay died on 17 May 1829, there had been no slaves and no indentured servitude in New York for nearly two years.

Chain expressing freedom

(Image: “Chain expressing freedom,” by Stepph, on Wikimedia Commons.)

 

Like other Founding Fathers of our great nation, Jay was a complex and sometimes contradictory fellow. Some would chide him for not doing enough to abolish slavery, for not being forceful enough or speeding up the process. But even if he did not take the final step, he had the courage to take the first steps.

May we all have the courage to take the first steps toward whatever we deem important.

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Monday Morning Insight: Peace, War, and Freedom

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

For us in the United States, today is Independence Day. Back in 1776, our Founding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the pursuit of establishing the U.S. as a free country. Very shortly thereafter, the colonies-turned-states fought the Revolutionary War to secure their — and, by extension, our — independence.

Keeping in mind the price the patriots paid for the freedom we enjoy, it seems appropriate this week to consider this quote from Benjamin Franklin:

The way to secure peace is to be prepared for war. They that are on their guard, and appear ready to receive their adversaries, are in much less danger of being attacked, than the supine, secure, and negligent.

Happy Independence Day!

(Image: “Happy Independence Day!” by {Salt of the Earth}, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

This seems to be an expansion of Vegitius’s observation, Qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum — “Let him who desires peace, prepare for war.” I feel certain that the well-read Franklin knew the Vegitius quote, but his addendum caught my eye.

Are we as a country on our guard, and do our enemies (or would-be enemies) see us as ready to receive their advances and blunt their attacks? Perhaps on the level of nation-states, yes: our armed forces remain strong and vigilant. But seemingly not on the lower levels, the levels of the day-to-day where individuals and small groups of radicals operate and where soft targets beckon. In general, as a population it would seem we are not prepared for war. We as a society have given that over to professionals — I was privileged and proud to be one of those professionals, once upon a time — but throughout history professionals have had difficulty adapting to new forms of war.

We seem loath to name this ongoing ideological conflict as “war,” however. (Over a decade ago I pointed out our reluctance to name war and attacks and enemies as such when it comes to the “recurring jihad.”) We seem unwilling, in the sense of being unable to muster the national will, to develop and pursue a coherent strategy to fight this war. Perhaps that is because we do not understand it. Maybe we have confused preparing for war with desiring war. But we have other instruments of power at our disposal besides the military instrument, and they do not seem to be availing us much.

Have we gotten to the point where we are “supine, secure, and negligent”? Perhaps not completely, but I get the impression that many people today who live in peace and relative safety take it for granted, as if it is our birthright and a permanent feature of our society. We would do well to remember that peace, like life, is precious and fleeting; it needs to be nurtured and protected, lest it be lost.

This week, after the fireworks have faded, I hope during our normal routines we will give some additional thought to our independence, our freedom, and give thanks for those who protect it every day — not just on the holiday — by being prepared to fight for it.

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Monday Morning Insight: In Memoriam

Today we celebrate Memorial Day. I hope you find today’s quote, from the Gospel of John, the fifteenth chapter, the thirteenth verse, fitting to start the week:

“Greater love has no one than this, that one lays down his life for his friends.”

On Memorial Day, of course, we remember those who laid down their lives in defense of the United States. They laid down their lives for their friends and family, yes; for their comrades in arms, certainly; but also for us. The freedom we enjoy was bought at a tremendous, terrible price, and we do well not to squander it.

A place for remembrance - Memorial Day

(Image: “A Place for Remembrance — Memorial Day,” by Wayne S. Grazio, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

It seems a good day also to remember the last verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,”

O thus be it ever when free men shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto — “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

To which I say, Amen.

So, enjoy this day — and I mean really enjoy it, find joy in it, take joy from it, share your joy with someone else — but spare a moment to reflect on the freedom we enjoy, and the price that was paid for it. It is precious, beyond measure, and we should use it well.

I hope you have a fantastic week.

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