Thomas Jefferson, in writing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, set down the ideals:
“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.”
This was written before the United States was formed as an independent nation. First, a war had to be fought and won against the existing regime. The Founding Fathers used the words of the Declaration of Independence as a justification for self-rule. Then, after the war was won, they set out to create a new form of government. A government that would uphold the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
So, did they create a government that lived up to these ideals? Of course not. And some 236 years later, we still have a long ways to go to reach these ideals. The ideal is a society in which everybody has an equal chance at “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”; that the right to this equal chance exists in nature and a legitimate government will set up a system which will not deny these “unalienable Rights” to all individuals. This means that no individual or group of individuals can be treated as “second-class” citizens. We are all created equal. Equality, therefore, is the ideal behind the Declaration of Independence. Equality or the lack of equality is how we are to be judged, how our government is to be judged. Equality is the ideal.
We have made progress over the years. Progress is made one step at a time, and not in a straight-line fashion. Long periods of what seems like no progress, perhaps even periods of regression, followed by brief spurts of giant steps. These spurts of progress, because the status quo is defended so vigorously, often are anything but peaceful. The more the opposition to progress digs in, the less likely that any peaceful progress can be made.
What is taking us so long? Look at those words of Thomas Jefferson again. What they are describing is equality, an elimination of prejudice. For a government, this means getting rid of legal discrimination. This is a lofty goal to reach, based on where we are coming from. The ideals mean a departure from the old ways, and old ways die hard. It is much easier to go with what is familiar, and the old ways are always the familiar ways. The entire society, including the economy, are set up according to old familiar ways. New often brings fear. Fortunes, real and perceived, can be lost with change. Justifications for the only way that people know are easy. “It’s always worked out okay for me, don’t rock the boat”. “Those people are different, we can’t trust them”. “These people are asking for special rights.”
The old ways are written about in the Bible, so the Bible is often used as a justification, one that invokes the ultimate Authority: “It’s in the Bible, so it is the Word of God.” “It’s God’s law, we can’t mess with God’s law.” It is easy to take passages from the Bible, remove them from their context, invoke God as their author, and justify many different forms of prejudice, including legal discrimination. Once these passages are removed from the context, they very much sound like they are making a strong case for such discrimination. That is what has happened every step in the way as we attempt to progress towards these ideals set down in 1776. In many cases (thankfully, not all) even church leaders, and entire church organizations, are guilty of this.
Even the words of Jefferson themselves, as lofty as the goals that they express are, fail in one glaringly obvious way. Why say “men” instead of “men and women”? Possibly one part of the answer, but perhaps a very small part, has to do with a difference in the language used then and now; a matter of semantics. In some respects, “men” in 1776 might be considered to be interchangeable with “men and women” in 2012. But that must be only a small part of the answer, because the masculine reference, in terms of rights, reflected the times in 1776. The concept that women and men are equal wasn’t something that would be on a leader’s mind as he prepared a people for war and a self-determined form of government.
But over the years, we have made some progress, progress in the form of giant steps. We have a long ways to go, but we do have a history that shows us how we got from where we were to where we are now. This history can guide us to look at what we had to go through, perhaps how to avoid doing everything the hard way. Learning the lessons of history, however, is not something that we are very good at.
Each fight, and each advancement, is a unique step. Yet I find one consistency in all of the different struggles:
Every step of the way, every milestone where we can say “we accomplished something important in our quest for these ideals”, has been accomplished by progressives, with conservatives being the opposition, the stumbling blocks to any real gains. This includes the opposition that often leads to violence before it leads to progress. But it is always the same formula, and it pretty much follows by definition of the terms: progressives work towards progress, conservatives defend the status quo vehemently.
This is the consistency, and it follows pretty much by definition: progressives create progress, and conservatives try to deny progress.
Look at the major steps we have taken in the United States in this regard:
The whole point that history makes in this regard is that progressives are in favor of progress, conservatives in favor of the status quo. That might sound redundant, since it is pretty much true by definition. But, the progress that is at stake, and the violence and divided government that occurs because the conservatives dig in harder when threatened, this entire issue of progress, is simply progress towards the goals, the ideals, laid down by our Founding Fathers at the very beginning. The stumbling block is prejudice against somebody who is “different”. That is the way it has been since the beginning, and that is the way it is today as we continue the fight towards equal opportunity and the elimination of institutionalized discrimination. Today, the fight is focused more on rights for gays, rights for a large influx of brown immigrants, along with the continuing battle for equality between the sexes. And I don’t want to leave out the rights of people to choose their own religion, a fight which involves a dishonest assessment by many conservatives of the intentions of our Founding Fathers.
The same old methods, including invoking the Bible to justify prejudice, are being used today. Same today as yesterday. Progressives working towards a better future for all, and conservatives doing whatever they can to maintain a status quo of inequality and institutionalized discrimination.
It appears, based on the overwhelming evidence, that being in the conservative camp in terms of equality issues puts you squarely on the wrong side of history. You won’t be remembered kindly by future generations if you are on the side of discrimination. That might not have been a big deal for many ordinary citizens of the past: their views may have been lost to history. But we now live in a time when all of our electronic comments have the potential to be saved for future historians, including everybody who is researching geneology. You could become, forever, a black sheep of your family if your comments are on the wrong side of history! Whether you realize it or not, what you say online now is part of your legacy, perhaps the only part that future researchers will see. And you won’t necessarily need to be somebody important for somebody in the future to be looking into your comments – you only have to belong to somebody’s family tree.
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