Wednesday, April 20, 2016
The Corrosive Effect of ‘I Want Mine’ Factionalism And The Decline Of National Integrity
Americans are dealing with diversity very badly indeed. The nasty, argumentative, bilious screeds on Facebook are only an expression of how far we have strayed from our founding principles. Jefferson and his colleagues never intended for the nation to become a free-for-all where the commonweal was secondary to the satisfaction of individual and factional demands. ‘The pursuit of happiness’ never meant the freedom to pursue selfish ends. Individual liberty came with conditions, first and foremost of which was to respect the integrity of the Republic and the smaller societies on which it was built.
While it is true that neither Jefferson nor Madison could ever have envisioned the America of today, a nation more populous, wealthy, and variegated than that of the early 19th century; philosophy, like mathematics, has its grounding in principle, rules, and internal logic. Voltaire, Rousseau, and Locke had shown how democracy was based on sound rational and moral principles. There was a higher good, they argued, in the will of the people and the rule of the few.
Yet all of them understood the complementarity of individual free expression and respect for that of others. While most democrats in France and the United States were appalled at The Reign of Terror in France after the Revolution and how sound principles so quickly gave way to retribution and murder, they still were convinced that popular democracy would prevail. France returned to autocracy under Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbons, but has managed to sort out culture and society to accommodate both aristocracy and popular sovereignty.
Hamilton and Jefferson disagreed on how America should be governed; and the horrific history of ‘93 and the Jacobins was in their minds. The mob cannot be trusted, said Hamilton. Populism would result in the same violence and disregard for order that occurred in France. The people alone are not capable of being governed; and only if government is structured with this debility in mind can the Republic grow and prosper.
Jefferson disagreed and had an almost religious regard for the rights of man and the expression of the will of the people. In the end, he argued, they would always be right, whereas continuing even the vestiges of authoritarian rule would lead to ruin.
Hamilton, it appears, was right. The current electoral system, ‘democratized’ through the dismantling of the smoke-filled room nomination process and the institution of the primary system, is a good example. Narrow, factional, sectarian interests have dominated the 2016 campaign as never before. No candidate has or even pretends to have an all-encompassing vision of leadership, nor an understanding of nationhood and the importance of social integrity. There are no Churchills running . No men or women of unshakeable vision and principle. No one of honor, courage, and respect.
This is not the fault of Trump, Cruz, or Hillary Clinton alone. We the voters; we Americans have made them possible. We are the ones who in our distorted vision of representative democracy have redefined the process. Gender, race, and ethnicity and the corrosive nature of liberal ‘diversity’ have eroded the integrity of the nation. It is one thing to argue for equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal protection under the law; but it is divisive and self-serving to pursue these ends through exaggerated and intemperate demands.
Even granting the imprecision of the term ‘transgender’, the number of ‘alternately gendered’ men and women in infinitesimal. If the LGBT population is estimated at 3 percent of the population, the transgender portion of that is statistically insignificant. Why, then, has there not been a proportionate accommodation to transgender needs rather than raise the issue to the level of Supreme Court jurisprudence; and by so doing inflaming the entire country?
The issue is not about sexual legitimacy, nor even about tolerance. It is about subsuming narrow, parochial interests within the socio-cultural context of the larger society.
The issue of race is no different. The current racial discord in America has been exacerbated by the same kind of narrow, factional interests. There is no room for an open discussion on race. Daniel Moynihan was prescient in his concern about the growing dysfunction of the black community and argued that only structural change from within – an acceptance of responsibility, a refusal of entitlement, and a recommitment of black leaders to economic progress based on social reform – could solve the problem. White progressives in their refusal to heed Moynihan’s warnings aid and abet the continuation of neo-slavery – the consignment of inner city populations to a life of poverty, violence, and despair.
In other words, the Black Lives Matter movement is still dominated by old-school thinking – divisively racial politics at its worst; confrontational attitudes that teeter on demagoguery; and a reluctance to face indisputable socio-economic facts and factors.
Such factional intensity only hardens the views of the opposition – not only bigots and retrograde whites who, like blacks, prefer an ideological argument rather than a rational one; but more moderate whites as well who feel assaulted, put-upon, and marginalized.
Economic inequality has been a fact of human society since cowrie beads, barter, and tribal organization. There have always been haves and have nots; and while societies in the past have taken this fact of human life for granted, American exceptionalism prevents any acceptance of the sort. In our democracy such inequality is not only unacceptable but morally reprehensible.
Instead of facing facts and dismissing the idea that everyone is equal (Jefferson never said that everyone was equal, but only that everyone deserved equal opportunity), we try level the playing field. As a result of this impossible task, we have pitted rich against poor – or rather the idea of wealth against the reality of poverty. Such antipodal arguments in a country whose citizens still value enterprise and believe in opportunity can only add to the corrosive environment of today.
Inequality exists; but will dismantling the institutions and redoubts of the rich automatically benefit the poor? Has radically engineered wealth redistribution ever succeeded? Under what conditions can opportunities be opened for the working poor without sacrificing the enterprise and investment of the wealthy?
America was founded on religious principles. On the one hand our independence was predicated on freedom of religion and non-interference by the State in religious matters; but on the other it was founded on Enlightenment ideas which never strayed from God. Rational inquiry, said intellectuals of the period, was the best way to ponder and discover the wonders of God’s Creation. No nation, even the marginal Christians among the Founding Fathers said, can exist without foundational faith.
So how have we become so abusively intolerant of religion?
The separation of Church and State does not mean that religion must never be discussed in the classroom. How can one teach American, let alone world history without talking about religion. It is not enough to cast religious conflict in solely political terms. The Crusades might well have been Christian and European expansionism, but the motive was religious. ISIS may be a dominant political force in the Middle East, but it is based on Islam. Religious faith has been behind the greatest Western and Eastern art. The principles are universal.
The current debates about ‘religious liberty’ have convoluted the original intent of Jefferson and his colleagues. They would have done anything to assure the rights of anyone to practice, defend, promote, and apply his faith. The State should have no business in religious affairs. Is it so hard to accept that some secular interests might conflict with religious principle? Or so hard to reflect on Jefferson’s vision of the primacy of religion and the relegation of the State?
The clock cannot be turned back to the simpler, more homogeneous, and more temperately ambitious age of Jefferson; but we can reflect on his promises, consider the importance and permanence of principle, move even beyond tolerance, and return to more coherent respect for others. Accommodation in the interest of social integrity is not a bad thing. It is a good one.