Two things prompt me to write this: the first is the number of Trump-aligned members of the GOP who are praising Putin’s incursion into and threat against Ukraine. The second is the verdict in the federal hate crimes trial against the three men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.
Bear with me.
With the ratification of the Constitution of the United States and the general agreement about what it suggested for the country then newly-formed, a divide opened between Ideals and Aspirations. That divide has widened and diminished over the years, but never gone away completely, and today it is a massive canyon.
The problem is buried in crossed purposes, unanticipated expectations, and simple human nature.
The declarations which accompanied the Founding, the philosophy embedded in the Declaration of Independence and, more importantly, in the Constitution, are of a rarefied idealism, statements of goals and ambitions, promises of intent that here shall be a place where the concepts of liberty and justice would triumph over the pettiness of ordinary daily existence, especially as opposed to what passed for these things in Europe. Here people would be treated equally before the law, would be given opportunity to pursue dreams, would enjoy property protections and permitted the unencumbered expression of their sentiments. We would have no classes, no aristocracy. Merit, expertise, ability would matter instead of birth and provenance.
The idea, emerging from Enlightenment ruminations, was that human nature possesses a natural…”rightness”…and that given opportunity it would emerge, more or less equally in everyone. And that with the proper political framework human beings would somehow coexist peacefully and look to their own abilities and expressions to be happy and productive, free to manage their own lives.
And of course, immediately this proved untenable. Because people have different ideas about what liberty means, what its expression looks like, and what constitutes oppression. The simple overwhelming fact that so many of the newly-minted citizens of a professed “free” nation believed it acceptable to enslave others serves to demonstrate this disconnect. The ideal of equity was an ideal many people simply did not understand.
The Anglo population had a rough sense of the outlines. Britain had been on a path toward a form of populist equality for centuries, although they were far from there at the time. The French Enlightenment thinkers embraced some of this, modified by their apprehension of New World sociopolitical concepts as gleaned from various encounters through the 17th and early 18th Centuries with native Americans, who represented an alternative to the hierarchical structures Europe embodied. But it was in the end framed by Eurocentric considerations born of a long history of social Place. Everyone had a slot in the social structure and as long as they stayed there, content, and tended the responsibilities and duties inherent in these structures, things ought to have been fine. Of course, they weren’t, for many reasons (wars, plagues, migrations, discoveries), but that was the problem with people who refused to accept their Place.
Much of this was in the process of eroding when the American split happened, but not enough that too many people did not still carry these ideas of Place and Position inside them, down in their psychés where the Givens of How Things Ought To Be reside in unexamined stews. So unfolded the piecemeal journey of coming to terms with the difference between what was expected and what was intended over the course of our entire existence as a country, of people step by step coming to be made to accept that Equality really does mean Everyone.
But then we run into the problem of defining Equality. Everyone has some notion about it, what it means, but generally I think it’s imprecise and muzzy, a “sense” of something that, the more we try to concretize it, the more it disintegrates in the attempt to lock it down.
Worse, for some people it seems to be at odds with concepts of liberty.
The westward expansion in this country was fueled as much by rejections of equality as by a desire for liberty. In fact, I would suggest that “liberty” for many people then was at least in part of desire to be apart from those with whom they did not wish to share equality. Not, I think, in any pernicious sense. Only in the sense of seeking self-fulfillment without owing it to anyone not of their choosing.
This was a newish idea. Groups had embraced something like this over history. But here, then, it became an individual aspiration of people who took the claim of Liberty as personal in a way that had not manifested in quite this way before.
Small proto-countries developed within the boundaries of The Country. Enormous ranches, religious enclaves, company-owned towns and counties, plantations…I call them proto-countries because in many instances they exercised the kind of internal autonomy usually only found in nation-states. (The geographic boundaries of these agglomerations have become less defined, dissolving, so that they more and more overlap the country at large.) Our history is rife with attempts at establishing separatist communities. The one thing they all share is a claim to independence of action and a desire for liberty. Often the liberty of one person, defining the parameters of liberty for everyone following. And that definition, while claiming consanguinity with the claims established in our Founding documents, almost always missed a primary element, namely a guarantee of personal equity across all class, racial, and ideological lines.
The point being that throughout our history there has been a functional disconnect between manifestations of equality and liberty, that the rallying cry of freedom and liberty have more often than not jettisoned embrace of equality at some critical juncture where the achievement of liberty, in the view of those close to self-defined success, was within reach. A realization that genuine equality would threaten that concept of liberty, while unspoken, came into play. Looking at the roster of “heroes” of our republic down the centuries, it seems obvious that Liberty means unrestrained action and freedom from ideological constraint. Obviously unachievable in whole, but that never stopped some from trying. Seldom is there any real acknowledgment of the need to conform to general embodiments of equality. If equality happens, it would be fine as long as it does not impede the personal struggle for liberty. Given the vicissitudes of human nature, this is obviously a conflicted arrangement. Equality and liberty cannot, in this formulation, coexist.
Basically, the people living here, while reveling in the lofty ideals of our stated principles, have rarely had the intention of living up to them if doing so meant abandoning a personal concept of freedom and liberty. And equality, in my opinion, was for most incomprehensible. Even where the concept was understood, it likely could not be understood without feeling that it meant yielding personal liberty. For all of us to be equal, none of us could be more or superior or better. For all of us to be equal, some would have to be granted that which was not earned. For all of us to be equal, all of us would have to have the same access, the same freedom of association, the same regard.
The same property rights.
The various eruptions of separatist sentiment over 250 years of our history is central to an understanding of where we seem to be today. People claiming the status of “true patriots” are attacking our institutions, declaring them illegitimate. (Without the least apparent sense that if they “won” then they would eventually be faced with the same reaction from a different group, making the same claim.) It would be refreshing to hear them just once explain that what they claim to prize about our Founding has nothing to do with the ideals of liberty, but the opportunity to accrue the power to be separate and beholden to none. Another unachievable goal, but one I believe is aspirational and inspires the sullen anger of those who reject out of hand the concept of equality that was, frankly, never something they had either faith in or inclination to partake of.
The various movements for secession exemplify this, frivolous though most of them are. These are folks who want to live in that Other Country that, for them, is also America. You know, the country where each man is a king and civilization is that state of community where everyone knows their Place? That Other Country that was implicit in the early promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The remarkable fact is, for most of our history, the system cobbled together by the Founders has managed to accommodate these countervailing ambitions without coming apart at the seams. The Constitution is a framework for allowing competing factions to break upon each other and flail until they fade. Only once have we come to serious blows from the strain, and for a brief time we came close to melding the two seemingly antagonistic aspects of our national ideal—liberty and equality. We’ve inched closer to that in the time since, but now we seem to be pulling apart again, and the struggle centers as much on the misunderstanding of those two concepts as on the outright rejection of their mutuality.
Mutuality. Because there can be no true liberty without equality. Liberty cannot successfully exist in a zero-sum game that requires some to lose in order for others to win. That’s not liberty. Winning is not freedom. And dominance is no basis for peace. If one’s life is always to be engaged in a competition not of one’s choosing, then is to be in thrall to impulses that do not nourish, do not enlighten, do not fulfill, but only distract. Until we stop pursuing the desire to feel superior to others, we will never be free of manipulation and we will never have the liberty we claim to value.
That liberty is only gained by the mutuality of regard that is the basis of equality.
We will not find it in that other country of kings and paupers, of the dominant and the resentful. We have to find it here and we have to find it with each other.
Oh, and Putin and the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery? It has to do with arbitrary power and the disregard of others. Hallmarks of the denizens of that other country. If that’s not apparent by now…