Our day of reckoning…

Looking back on the past 4 years, I get the feeling that the Trump presidency was wholly predictable, inevitable. Far from an anomaly, the American experience was always heading here — -a choice between democracy and all the worse alternatives. If history is prologue, the current state of affairs was unavoidable — -a time when we as a nation were going to have to choose between our ideals and our baser instincts, between the way we think of ourselves, and the way we act. On Tuesday, each of the candidates represents one of the binary choices we have lived with since our founding. While we may think of ourselves as existing on a spectrum of choices, our choice on election day is between two competing views of America.

Our Founding Fathers established the dichotomy when they declared that the right to rule is not a “divine right”, it emanates from the will of the governed, not princes and kings. The concept of freedom as an inherent right was becoming more popular at the time. It was not understood to be a universal one, extending to all men and women, which determined our limited embrace of it from the start. How different our history would have been had the Founders recognized that freedom and liberty were ideals that were absolutes — -if they pertained to one, they must pertain to all. And so, America has lived with this inconsistency knowing it must somehow, some time, be resolved. It is as if we have failed to recognize that the denial of rights to anyone and for any length of time could be mitigated by a gradual process of “perfecting”.

Our history is replete with events that demonstrated the toxicity of our failure to impose systemic freedom, which allowed a systemic racism to corrode our democracy. The Civil War was the most obvious result and a harbinger that a moment of reckoning would come. Whether we choose to recognize it or not, this is another moment.

I have always believed that the forces at work in our politics have tried to avoid our looming dilemma — -our need to choose once and for all just who we are and what we believe. Conservatives, in this scenario, have generally sought delay. After all, to argue for the status quo, to limit the sharing of wealth, and to deny freedoms to whole groups based upon race, creed. and gender reverts back to our original sin. Progressives have championed the recognition of those rights and settled for small victories over time. Up to this point, both sides have managed to hold serve. Conservatives have exerted their power to slow down the process, while liberals have fought and won incremental gains. As if this were a contest!

This administration has brought us to the end of that road. The “incrementalists” who believed that they would win out have miscalculated. There are no “paths to” freedoms, no comfort in a long protracted conferring of an inherent right. Persons are either free or not. No matter their race, gender, or sexual orientation, they are either equal or not. Liberty can not be dispensed in degrees. The so-called “arc of history,” it was thought, favored true democracy. Our history has proved that it favors those who wait, who stall. who obfuscate, who delay. Given time those who delay, win (see ACB).

Our argument should begin with what may have been an “originalist” miscalculation in our founding documents. Using the word “unalienable” to refer to those rights inherently possessed by virtue of one’s humanity, the presumption that these rights could be given or taken away becomes moot. Unlike what some may believe, the rights enumerated in our nation’s founding documents could not be conferred, they were inherent. In the first draft of the Declaration of Independence Jefferson and John Adams had first considered identifying those rights as “ inherent& inalienable”:

…T he Rough Draft reads “[inherent &] inalienable.” There is no indication that Congress changed “inalienable” to “unalienable”; but the latter form appears in the text in the rough Journal, in the corrected Journal, and in the parchment copy. John Adams, in making his copy of the Rough Draft, wrote “ unalienable.”

— “The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas” by Carl Lotus Becker

Adams was an avowed abolitionist, Jefferson, a slave owner. The “unalienable” rights of the enslaved were bartered away by compromise. It was and remains an omission of choice. They debated the issue of slavery and consciously subverted their own perceived principles. They chose not to recognize these rights for an enslaved population because it would be costly. Altruism was limited by the weight of their purses,

Today, we have no such excuse. The Republicans have taken a different tack in their adherence to the “original” denial of rights. Just as the Founders knew better and still embraced their hypocrisy, Republicans have decided to choose to limit those rights through subversion of both the spirit and the letter of our Constitution. Voter suppression and gerrymandering have placed an onerous burden on the exercise of these rights by those who simply seek equality. Similar limitations are applied to the rights of groups not favored by the current ruling cabal. Women and the LGBTQ community also must fight for rights they should own without question. The problem with those who would limit the rights of others is that they fail to understand that our Founders, imperfect as they were, considered their revolution and the justifications they employed to legitimize it, as a means to constrain majoritarian overreach. Ours is a constitutional democracy. our Bill of Rights and our amendment process argue for the rights of the minorities as a bulwark against the power of the majority. The protections enumerated within the founding document of record is the best argument against any limitation of rights that apply to segments of, rather than all the governed.

The Founders, for their part, were rationalizing the dissolution of the compact between the colonies and the rule of the British Empire. It was based upon a similar complaint. They were the aggrieved minority whose freedoms were usurped by the power of a majoritarian regime. The argument of the phony modern “originalists” who use unauthorized power for their own benefit is one proffered by the idle prince of the Trump administration, Jared Kushner:

“One thing we’ve seen in a lot of the Black community, which is mostly Democrat, is that President Trump’s policies are the policies that can help people break out of the problems that they’re complaining about, But he can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful.”

Those born to wealth and power often take Kushner’s point. If only they would bootstrap — -as if bootstrapping was the difference between poor young blacks and Kushner’s situation. The condescension is only exceeded by their lack of awareness and arrogance. The racist stereotype engendered in Kushner’s statement is neither new nor surprising. The idea that the “Black community” is done in by an inner failure to help itself serves the purposes of both rich and powerful white men and their less advantaged white counterparts:

Racism serves the interests of both white people in power (the elites) materially and working class white people psychically, and therefore neither group has much incentive to fight it. — Critical Race Theory definition of racism (partial)

Kushner’s racism is grounded in the Black Codes of post Civil War south. It survives today as the systemic racism that is found in our institutions and our laws. Folks like Kushner fail to recognize it because it is so deeply ingrained in our culture as to be accepted:

The black codes enacted immediately after the American Civil War, though varying from state to state, were all intended to secure a steady supply of cheap labour, and all continued to assume the inferiority of the freed slaves. There were vagrancy laws that declared a black person to be vagrant if unemployed and without permanent residence; a person so defined could be arrested, fined, and bound out for a term of labour if unable to pay the fine.

— brittanica.com

Donald Trump attempts to frighten us by suggesting we are on the verge of a second Civil War brought on by progressive audacity, but he is wrong. The war we are most likely to revisit is our revolutionary break from a king who underestimated the real limitations of his authority. King Donald and his mostly white majoritarian relics are inviting a second consideration of the ideals behind our original founding. The coming wave is nothing short of a second revolution-a second chance to align our principles as written and our practice. This is our long-awaited and long-overdue day of reckoning. We had best get it right this time.

Originally published at https://vincerizzo.substack.com.

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Vince Rizzo

Vince Rizzo

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Former president of the International Association of Laboratory Schools (IALS) and a founder of a charter school based on MI theory.