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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Let’s Think Carefully, Then Talk to Each Other


Out in the countryside

Friends and strangers stopping in the bookstore the last couple of days have been shocked to see me underlining phrases in a book. With a pen, no less! I explain that it’s an old paperback, spine cracked and pages ready to start falling out, and that some previous studious reader already went through the whole thing with yellow highlighter. One young man asked, “Are you doing a word search? My mother does that.” Seems the whole concept of underlining key ideas in a text had passed him by. But I am of another generation, of course....

The book I’ve been reading is a little anthology of historical writings on the American Revolution with an arresting title: The Ambiguity of the American Revolution. The book’s editor, Jack P. Greene, in his excellent introduction, traces the history of our history, as it were – the different interpretations given over time to the Revolution, starting with contemporary accounts -- because even in the 1770s, there was no unanimity of view. Loyalists saw the conflict one way, patriots another, and their perspectives colored the way they wrote their accounts. John Adams himself said there were as many American Revolutions as there were colonies and perhaps as many as individuals in those colonies. Everyone had a slightly different take on it at the time, and through successive periods of our country’s life new interpretations have emerged in waves, to be supplanted in their turn by others. This diversity of perspective is something we often lose sight of, now that we’ve had two hundred and forty-one years to come -- more or less, in textbooks if nowhere else -- to agreement on a national narrative.

[See continuation of discussion of this book here.]

David Ramsay, a Maryland physician who graduated from the College of New Jersey in the year of the Stamp Act crisis (1765), eventually wrote of the Patriot cause and the newly formed United States of America:
The world has not hitherto exhibited so fair an opportunity for promoting social happiness. It is hoped for the honour of human nature, that the result will prove the fallacy of those theories, which suppose that mankind are incapable of self-government. 
– from his History of the American Revolution, first published in Philadelphia in1789, an excerpt of which appears in The Ambiguity of the American Revolution
President Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War, addressing the crowd at Gettysburg, noted that the crowd that day “met on a great battlefield of that war,” a war “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Far short of three hundred years old, our country remains an experiment, its success into the future far from guaranteed.

Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press: If the “national security” entails restricting those freedoms, what “security” do Americans have? I picked up another book at home this morning, Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Time, and, opening at random, fell by chance – true story – on a chapter entitled “Journalism and Democracy.” On the first page of that chapter, Bill Moyers (one of my heroes) says that after less than two years as White House press secretary,
It took me a while to get my footing back in journalism. I had to learn all over again that what’s important for the journalist is not how close you are to power but how close you are to reality. ... 
 I also had to relearn one of journalism’s basic lessons. The job of trying to tell the truth about people whose job it is to hide the truth is almost as complicated and difficult as trying to hide it in the first place.

The lighter side
Today is the 4th of July, and Americans are gathering again, all over the country, in crowds large and small. We take time out from our ordinary pursuits to re-read the Declaration of Independence. (In Leelanau County, such readings usually take place in front of a village post office. See below for Northport event.) The mood of Independence Day is celebratory. There are parades and marching bands and flags waving in the breeze and displays of fireworks against the summer night sky.

Patriotic village gathering
While most of us do not see ourselves “met on a battlefield” this July 4, 2017, we are painfully aware that our country is deeply divided. We are divided not only on issues, but on our most basic core value, freedom. What does ‘freedom’ mean, and how is it best protected? Beneath all the posturing and tweets and insults, that is the crucial question.

Coming fast upon the heels of the first question, however, is another: How can the question about freedom be answered in a civilized manner?

If we cannot agree on an answer to the second question, the first becomes moot, because when civil discourse gives way to hate, attacks on freedoms proliferate, and repression ensues, and when hate gives way to violence, life and liberty both fall victim.

Can the current trend of incivility and increasing repression be reversed? Can our freedoms endure? It’s worth taking a few minutes to ponder these questions on this day of air shows and hot dogs and sparklers.

Eternal vigilance!


9 comments:

twessell said...

Pamela, a great 4th of July message. Thank you. In his Inaugural Address, President Kennedy said, 'So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness ...'

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for the Kennedy quote, Ty. A piece in yesterday's New York Times also inspired me: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/02/business/media/independent-press-is-under-siege-as-freedom-rings.html
as well as a boxed row of quotes from presidents all the way through George W. Bush, stressing the importance of a free press.

On a completely different subject, do you think that last photo shows a thirteen-lined ground squirrel? It certainly had a lot of stripes, much stripier than our ordinary chipmunks closer to the house.

Dawn said...

Well said. It's all very confusing, contrary, and heartbreaking.

Farshaw@FineOldBooks.com said...

Loved this. May I post it on my timeline?

Anonymous said...

We moved to Washington when I was in high school. I was not happy about it, but there were compensations, especially for someone who loves history. I remember going to see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution displayed under bulletproof glass in a case that was lowered into a deep vault each night. (That's what I remember. I do not know if the memory is accurate.) What I know is true is that looking at those documents, right there under my nose, made their promise more real to me. I was young. I've learned that the promise was real, but it takes more work than I would ever have realized to make sure that it is kept for all of us, all the time. Maybe one day. Maybe not in my lifetime. But the work is worth doing.

Also worth doing - paying attention to the wildlife. I looked up that stripy little rodent in my beloved Stan Tekiela, and his photo of the "Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel" (Spermophilus tridecemlineatus) looks just like yours.

Porter said...

Thanks for these thoughts and references, Pamela. Paul Moyer is one of our heroes, too. And, yes, it's hard to reflect clearly on where we are, where we came from, and where we are going. One of the more disturbing, and helpful, books I've been promoting lately is Timothy Snyder's short, clear, compact On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from from the 20th Century.

KATHLEEN WESSELL said...

Very thought-provoking, Pamela.

Peter Wolcott said...

So torn about this 4th of July because I honor and apreciate the genuine patriotic feelings most of us have. Yet I am disturbed by the undercutting of so many programs which supported the American people by the Trump administration and the blatant ignoring of the truth in so many Presidential statements. Most of all, I cringe at the America first feelings when America is no longer considered a paragon of freedom by most of the world.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for all comments and suggestions. Helen, I would be honored to have you share my post on your timeline. Glad to have that 13-lined ground squirrel positively ID'd, too! The description in the Baker's big MICHIGAN MAMMALS book gave a handy clue: this particular ground squirrel's stripes do not continue onto the head, as do the stripes of Eastern chipmunks.

Peter, I know what you mean by our world reputation. All our lives, we have been accustomed to having our country looked up to, and it hurts to lose that source of pride.

I continue with the AMBIGUITY reading. Last night I read an excerpt from a very flowery 19th-century patriot account, that of George Bankcroft, whose history of the United States eventually ran to 10 volumes and who saw our country's founding as the inevitable result of moral evolution in the world. "The spirit of the age moved the young nation to own justice as antecedent and superior to the state, and to found the rights of the citizen on the rights of man. And yet ... [i]ts form of government grew naturally out of its traditions by the simple rejection of all personal hereditary authority...."

The following chapter presents "The Case for the British," from a review by Herbert Levi Osgood of Moses Coit Tyler's THE LITERARY HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, 1763-1783. By "literature" Tyler and Osgood have in mind all written documents, and Osgood points out that precious few historians before Tyler bothered to undertake the laborious job of researching written records in England that had never before been gathered into a book. Tyler's argument, with which Osgood seems to agree, is that the Declaration's language against King George and his usurpations and settled design of despotism were greatly overblown and that Parliament should have borne "at least an equal share of the blame." The trouble was that the colonists "had no effective legal guaranties against Parliament" in their charters. Also, the need for military defense of the colonies made sense.

It's fascinating to read so many different views of our American Revolution.