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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Who Are We? Why Are We Here? Where Are We Headed? - Part 2

Last week, we asked the first of three important questions about ourselves as a nation:  Who Are We?  Why Are We Here?  Where Are We Headed?  Today, we aim to talk about those last two questions in light of the first, for Why We Are Here and Where we are Headed grow out of, and relate back to, Who We Are.
One writer provides his viewpoint on Who We Are as a nation by quoting a speech by a 19th century French writer.  His thoughts on our nationhood confirm the interaction between the three.

  Are We A Nation? ( Jan. 1997)
“One hundred and fourteen years ago, French historian Ernest Renan, in a lecture delivered at the Sorbonne, posed and answered the question, "What is a nation?" Renan began by disposing in short order of the arguments that nations are made by race, religion, language, commerce or borders. Many nations, he noted, do not share a common language, race or religion. Commerce, he said, does not rise to the level of a collective soul, a national principle; and there is neither rationality nor permanence to borders.
“A nation is ‘a group of people sharing a common story, a community by choice.’  A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which, in truth, are really one, constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is the present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the undivided heritage one has received.... To have the glory of the past in common, a shared will in the present; to have done great deeds together, and want to do more of them, are the essential conditions for the constitution of a people...”
“Can we say… that we still have an American national story which meets Renan's requirements?  What is our national story today?  You and I may differ; I may believe in larger government, you in smaller; but we must have some shared pivot, some point around which we both rotate, to be members of the same nation.  I respectfully suggest that the central point of the American nation ought to be its Constitution.  The Constitution itself may be built of words, but those words sing. They sing of the following:

We are all created equal and are to have access to equal opportunities.
The government governs by our consent.
None of us is to be denied procedural and substantive justice in our treatment by the state.
A zone of privacy exists around each of us in which the state cannot interfere.
No law may be made infringing our freedom of speech.
Ours is a secular state, in which each may worship as he pleases, or not at all.
We protect free speech because we are humble and not too quick to say that only our own ideas may be right. 
We recognize diversity, of ideas and races, because we are humble and tolerant. 
And we are optimistic, as we must be to trust ourselves and our fellows and to believe that all will always come out right in the end.

“If we are still a nation, what do we have in common if not our Constitution? I was raised to believe that ours is a compassionate story; and it is not hard to find the traces of compassion in the Constitution's protection of fairness and freedom of worship and speech. Even if we did not have our Constitution in common, if you and I had compassion in common, we might still be a nation, or at least the beginnings of one. But what that compassion means is that, no matter how radically I disagree with you, I am still beholden to you, responsible for you, dedicated to aid you when you need me, and entitled to expect your help when I am in need. So, though we agree on nothing else, we may agree that we belong to each other. 

“But this country is full of people today who have identified large numbers of their fellow citizens as outsiders, as "the other", with whom they have no bond. This year's initiatives to penalize legal immigrants in this country, to end Aid to Families with Dependent Children and affirmative action is not our national story of justice.  There has never been an era in our country when more faction existed, when more of us were more hateful and certain in our hate, and desirous to terminate our bonds with one another.
“A nation is a great act of solidarity, constituted by the memory of the sacrifices one has made and those one is inclined to make in the future. A nation supposes a past; it expresses itself in the present by a tangible fact: the consent, the desire clearly expressed to continue living together. The existence of a nation is (excuse me for the metaphor) a daily plebiscite, in the same way that individual existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.  “We must want to be a nation in order to be. We must search for the common ground, the overlapping thread in our stories. We must believe it is there in order to find it. A leap of faith is needed.”

Why Are We Here?
The clues to why we are here exist in the answers to who are we.  We are here to carry through on what makes us who we are.  We are here for a purpose; several purposes in reality.  The overwhelming reality is that purpose involves activity; it is defined by verbs not nouns.  It is more than freedom or justice or rights or compassion or hope.  It is, instead, the actions necessary to make each of these concepts active in the lives of citizens of this nation.  It is more than words spoken, although that action is often essential.  It is compassion in action; justice delivered; challenges met; obstacles overcome. 

We are here not only because the Constitution has given us rights and freedoms, but because it has also delivered challenges, responsibilities and duties.  Every right has corresponding responsibilities: free speech carries with it the obligation not to use it to harm others, but to dignify us all.  Every liberty carries with it a solemn obligation: not to use one’s religion to discriminate against another person, for example.  The Constitutional protections and rights like the 2nd amendment also carry the obligation not to use one right (to own a gun) to abrogate other rights like life, liberty and happiness by firing that gun to bring harm to another, and to bring hurt to everyone affected by that loss of a life. 

We are here in order to act on behalf of the people of this nation (and of other nations).  We are here because we have obligations to act in the best interest of other persons.  We are here because we are connected inexorably to every other human being by our common humanity.  We are here because we must act to honor and enhance that interdependence for we are not alone nor are we entirely self-sufficient.  What this nation does, affects the well-being of people in many places around this globe.  Such is the responsibility of a super-power; not to over-power, but to give back a measure of our power in the form of humanitarian and compassionate aid and goodness to those who have legitimate needs.  Likewise, what we do as individuals has far-reaching effects on other human beings.

We are here to take action for the good (the “General Welfare”) of the People.  To do less is to deny the pivotal purposes of our Constitution, and is therefore a denial of who we are.  Just to make sure we are on the same page, here is what the Preamble to the Constitution says in its entirety:

            “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Note, if you will, the string of action verbs that constitute this declaration of purpose for our Constitution:  form, establish, insure, provide, promote, secure, ordain and establish (again)  The Founding Fathers were not passive in their answer to why we are here.  They emphasized potent action from beginning to end.  
Unfortunately, the current Congress epitomizes some other verbs: delay, obstruct, scandalize, criticize, minimize, denigrate and divide.  They have not actualized much of anything except a social issue agenda: oppose abortion and contraception with no exceptions; close Planned Parenthood; denigrate Health Care Reform but provide no alternatives; diminish rights of Labor, women, children, the poor, Muslims, students and minorities.  Ignore comprehensive immigration, gun violence, the cost of wars; the over-incarceration of people of color; the plight of children living in poverty.

We exist as a nation to enhance liberty and justice; to expand help to the vulnerable and the challenged; to increase opportunities for the disadvantaged; to correct the faults of our justice system; and to make our governmental structures work on behalf of the People not to their detriment.  We are under an obligation to act upon the fact that we are interdependent and mutually responsible for each other, for government itself and for the outcomes we produce as both citizens and as a living branch of that government.   
We must ACT on the principles that under-gird our foundational document.  Every day is a day of action.  And, by those actions we re-affirm our intention to work together as a nation, a government and a People.  In order to keep what we have we must act, we must serve, we must protest, we must reform and we must promote the dignity and authenticity of every citizen, and every legitimate nation for that matter.

So, Who Are We?  Well, we know some things for sure:  we are a representative democracy with certain structural initiatives such as a bi-cameral legislature, with checks and balances between branches of the federal government and a separate Judiciary that has the responsibility of interpreting the meaning of our Constitution.  The nature of our government is meant to be an activist government that is responsible for our unity as a nation by “establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”  But there are some other important elements that make us who we are, and I will list some of those I consider most important:

  •   We believe in the principle of the primacy of law over the wiles and whims of men, but we also believe that the consent of the People must be obtained to sustain such rule of law
  •  We believe that all deserve equal treatment, equal opportunity and equal justice under the law
  •  We also believe that citizens have a duty to obey those laws, but if they have a grievance they may make that known in peaceful protest
  •  While some assert ‘that government is best that governs less,” we actually believe that restraint and prudence are the guiding principles for government intervention or action, and that is why the Constitution puts restraints like warrants, probable cause, a man’s home is his castle, a writ of habeas corpus, the right to due process, the right to privacy and protection of property into our Constitution. 
  • We also believe in unity (out of diversity) and in cooperation between branches as well as among legislators in order to make our system work
  • That cooperation has in the past been extended to other nations and to fair legislative consideration of Executive actions involving other governments
  • We believe in paying for government programs by expecting that a fair tax system will be progressive but not disproportionate
  • Our government is reluctant to be seen as infringing upon our freedoms
  • The national government is protective of us all at times of domestic and international difficulties, when our states act contrary to our constitutional principles, when there is a need of such proportions that only the national government can address the circumstances, and when a small group needs protection against larger predators, or vice versa
  • Our government is forbidden from establishing a national religion, or allowing one religion to be favored over another, but we are also a government that must not infringe upon the freedom to worship, or not to worship.
  • We are an optimistic people, a charitable people, and a people who favor underdogs, probably because our Constitution and laws tend to encourage those attitudes and viewpoints. 
Thus, Who We Are determines to a large degree Why We Are Here.  Attitudes, ideology and commitment to our Constitution and its principles help to determine what we might do about taking action.  But it is in taking fair, just, reasonable and responsible action that we fulfill the promise, the potential and the essence of who we are as a nation.  The current actions taken by a band of ultra Right Wing Republicans bent on diminishing the role of national government is tearing at the fabric of who we are and destroying the reasons why we are here as a nation.  So, perhaps it is time to ask:

Where Are We Headed?
Perhaps Straight to Hell if we don’t make the election of 2016 a recall vote on those Right-Wing Senators and Congresspersons who have failed to represent the constitutional call to protective and enabling action in order to resolve the needs and issues of their constituencies.  At the very least, if we fail to elect a Democrat for President, we shall be subject to a power bloc that will have the ability to transform our nation (and its actions) into an unfamiliar and unsavory entity that will take a very long time to reform and restore.  We have only to look briefly at some of the measures passed in states where Republicans control the Governor's seat and perhaps the legislature and we will find the living examples of voting restrictions, opposition to providing medicaid to the uninsured, the diminishing of Labor rights, stricter abortion legislation, de-funding of Planned Parenthood  (and even attacks on their primary  mission of providing health care to women); opposition to Syrian refugees, potentially harmful laws allowing unrestricted carrying of guns.  We will find hate speech about many different groups allowed and even encouraged; killing of black youngsters by police, unreasonable high unemployment rates among minorities as well as disproportionate incarceration of black and brown men.  We will also find the tax rates dropping for the richest while the middle and poorest classes suffer no minimum wage increase.   There is much more, of course, but the room it takes for recitation is just too high.

We must, instead, seek a better place where:
Ø  There is a larger Vision of service and humanitarian aid for this country to pursue
Ø   There is hope in large supply because common sense laws and cooperation in passing them return
Ø  People are not seen as “others” but as part of our common human family
Ø  We can express a Common Cause of service and justice for all and work together, despite differences, toward a common purpose
Ø  Reform is a constant expression of compassion
Ø  Human development and advancement are acted upon daily
Ø  Programs to meet special needs are seen as the fulfillment of an obligation to provide for the General Welfare, ensure domestic tranquility and to provide for the common defense
Ø  Ordinary citizens are included in government structures as advisers, evaluators, assessors, and citizen advocates.
Ø  Peace is not a dirty word signifying weakness but an activity celebrating the strength of human compassion and reconciliation
Leaders dare to speak out against hate, against injustice, against discrimination and neglect.

We can get there, but we must resolve to get into the action with a daunting commitment to who we are, why we’re here, and to where we need to go.  Money, time, energy, talent, action, commitment and devotion are all in the mix as choices of what one can contribute.  Start somewhere, but do take action.  Phone someone, write something and share it with the public; use your computer to make some noise on social media.  Join an activist group.  Volunteer where there is a need you can fulfill.  Use your talent – art/music/dance/other – to send a message.  Transport someone to register to vote, and then, on Nov. 8, 2016, to the polls to cast a ballot..  Hold a meeting of friends and neighbors to discuss an issue or book or activity.  This New Year—2016—is a watershed year.  Progressives have to act or regression will take-over.  

Who We Are – Why We’re Here -- and Where We’re Going – in the final analysis all depends on YOU and ME! - ACT NOW!