Monday, January 20, 2014

American history ... wubba wubba

For lack of anything better, perhaps, I find myself thinking about the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Constitution that followed in its wake (1787). I am lousy at history because my memory doesn't work all that well, but still, little bits of flotsam and jetsam float around ....

I would be a liar if I said I had not benefited and felt the lash of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, both of them ballsy and revolutionary social documents. Their fallout is woven into my life as an American, whether for better or worse. Whether I knew it or not, espoused it or not, blessed it or not ... still, it is part of my chalkboard of existence.

The flotsam and jetsam this morning includes questions of no particular import. I just wonder:

1. The Constitution opens with the words, "We the people of the United States ...."

How many cultures are there that refer to their constituencies -- whether implicitly or explicitly -- as "the people?" Navajo (or is it Hopi?) Indians do it. Jews, if I am not mistaken, do it with reference to "the chosen," a bit of nomenclature that (I have heard it argued) Adolph Hitler could not allow to go unchallenged since his vision of Aryan superiority might thus be undermined ... you can't have two "chosen" constituencies where the word "chosen" or "Aryan" assumes ascendancy.

And, if my history genes were a bit better, I suppose I could extend "the people" net to the Japanese, Chinese, French, British ... and no doubt countless others. As a phrase, "the people" unites and gives meaning and plants common ground. Much is accomplished. Simultaneously, it must be said, "the people" asserts social chasms and fissures. It relies on people who are not "the people." And deeper in the mix, "the people" distinguishes within its own ranks ... as for example on this Martin Luther King Day when "the people" might remember that slaves shanghaied to serve "the people" were not granted the status of "people" themselves.

"The people" collect their energies for projects that individuals might not accomplish alone.

"The people" rely on those who are not "the people" -- how else could they have an ascendant position?

Social unity creates marvels and comforts and realms of safety... but depends on an unspoken disunity. "The people," broadly speaking, are never really the people. War, famine, slavery, bigotry and various other sorts of cruelty prove the point from where I sit.

On the one hand "the people" are wondrous in their accomplishments. On the other -- and woven in as tightly as two DNA strands -- "the people" carry with them a curse. Failure to acknowledge both is probably cruisin' for a bruisin'.

2. The Declaration of Independence states:
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...
 I have two questions:

A. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are described as being among the inalienable rights all men are endowed with. What other inalienable rights did the authors envision if life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were part of a longer laundry list? Did the authors really think there were others or did the use of the word "among" serve as a legalistic way of leaving the door open to whatever anyone thought of later ... an acknowledgment that listing all of the inalienable rights would simply open them to an attack on their literary or philosophical prowess? Did they really think there were other inalienable rights or did they exemplify the kind of intellectual buck-and-shuffle that lives on even to this day?

B. "Liberty" is not a word I am capable of defining. Or, more precisely, I am as capable of defining it as it suits my purposes as the next (wo)man. But I do wonder if, in some over-arching way, "liberty" might be defined as the freedom to choose a preferred realm of enslavement.

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