Jonathan Chisdes "Content of Character" # 7 Orlando Spectator May 1993
JEFFERSON'S 250th BIRTHDAY: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO US? by Jonathan ChisdesLast April 13th was Thomas Jefferson's 250th birthday. Throughout the country, but especially at his home of Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia, this event was celebrated with great fanfare. _Time_ magazine's "Man of the Decade" (that's Mikhail Gorbachev, for those who don't remember) traveled across the seas to pay tribute to Jefferson. Too bad the old man wasn't around to enjoy the party in his honor. Or is he better off dead? How would Jefferson feel if he looked around this crazy, mixed-up world and saw how we've corrupted the great principles he cherished so? Before we can begin to guess what he would think of us, we must first try to understand him and the world he came from: the Age of Enlightenment. In the late Colonial period, thought tended to be very rational and optimistic about the order of our world and human nature. Great documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were based on the belief that humans were basically good and perfectible. Jefferson and Franklin and most of the other educated people of their time believed that humans, by nature, were rational and orderly. When they did evil things, it was _against their nature_, and they only acted against their nature because they were _not _ educated--that was why public education was so important to our Founding Fathers. They believed power corrupted, ergo the government that is best governs least; and we were all equal in a moral sense. As one of my textbooks described the period, "Few doubted that with the application of intelligence the human lot could be improved." I believe that. That's what I was taught as a youngster; that's the logical conclusion anyone would draw who has faith in the ability of humans to reason and progress. I come to that belief because if you look at human history over the long haul (for instance, compare the contemporary world to, say, the Middle Ages) we have overcome certain barbaric attitudes, such as the ending of slavery, etc. Why doubt that it is not impossible to overcome other barbaric attitudes that we still cling to? The problem, though, is that society has since gone through many social, ideological, religious, and philosophical changes. Too many in today's world no longer believe we can better ourselves. We've seen so many horrors since Jefferson's day, that it's much more difficult to be optimistic. However the question remains: What do we as Americans believe, what do we _not_ believe, is it true, and, more important, what _should_ we believe as moral beings? And does this go to the heart of my disagreement with most of my fellow citizens over the Persian Gulf War? Are my beliefs stuck in the eighteenth century? I think it's a question of pessimism vs. optimism. Many times, during the war, people told me I was wasting my time opposing it; there will always be war, peace is a dream and nothing more. So many criticize the Enlightenment belief that humans are rational; they say we're too complex, self-centered, and have a tendency toward evil. They say Jefferson's beliefs fail to explain murder, evil, disorderliness, emotionalism. Ergo Jefferson was wrong--humans are naturally inclined toward evil. This view, that humanity will never progress, is the mirror opposite of what our Founding Fathers believed. Well, if we, as a society, no longer accept the beliefs that underpinned our political system, doesn't it follow naturally that we need to tear it out and form a new one? That's exactly what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. (Sounds like a good excuse for a revolution.) If so, then the new government would be based on the opposite concepts--freedoms would be extremely limited, security given the highest priority. This is not the kind of future worth struggling for. And this brings up the more important question: Is it _right_ to believe that humans are evil, that we cannot change? That's often the traditional excuse of conservatives for not taking action to solve problems: They can't be solved, so why bother trying? Take, for example, the issue of racism. Every so often there is a story about it in the news. Many people (mostly whites) say that we've done all we can--made discrimination illegal--but that we can't force people to behave a certain way toward others--we can't change their long standing beliefs. Well, I consider such thoughts amoral. I think government has a responsibility to protect the social and economic rights of _all_ its citizens, not just their political rights. Hate crime should be illegal, not condoned but condemned by a moral government. All in the hope that in time it will vanish as the old generation dies off and does not thrust its bigoted beliefs onto the new generation; racism will be gone in a generation and all men will love their brothers. But that's not going to happen if we keep insisting on teaching our children to hate those of a different race, especially if we drive home the point by antagonizing the other race into striking back at us. The same applies to the issue of peace and war. Just substitute "nation" for "race" in the above argument. If we encourage war and glorify it, as George Bush did, what motivation would future generations have to try to get rid of war? People use the word "evil" as an excuse. Evil is an important concept to the religious, but not to me. I don't see the world in black and white, like the Puritans. There are very few constants. Everything is relative. What I see as bad or wrong, others see as simply protecting their own interests, or they simply have different priorities. "So how do you explain things like murder?" my challengers ask me. How can I explain an irrational Jeffery Dahmer in my optimistic view of human nature? Well, I really don't. I dismiss him as alien. I can't understand it, so I think of it as an irrelevant minority. Why worry about the relative handful of sickos out there when most of the world's population is basically good? Why should we live our lives in fear? But maybe I'm the one who's wrong. Maybe we should worry about the sickos. It's too easy to dismiss that which we don't understand or that which seems to contradict our values. On the other hand, many people are _too_ scared. They want security. They don't want to get rid of war. They feel that men are evil and we need war to keep the evil away. Look at Hitler, they say. Without war, he would have enslaved the world. It's the United States' responsibility as a world leader to rid the world of dictators. But I've got news for them... The United States _is_ a dictator. Think about it. Is there any country in the world where we cannot wield our influence? If we said to a country, "Do this!" what country would dare to say "No"? Okay, Iraq. Bush told that country to get out of Kuwait and it said, "No." Look what then happened. Where did Iraq's arrogance get it? It will be a damn long time before any country dares to stand up to us again. What kind of morality is that? That's the exact sort of thing that Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers would be against. Washington wanted us to be isolationists. "Avoid foreign entanglements," he warned. Lead the world by example, not by force. I think most Americans would admit that war is bad, but they don't beleve itr can be eliminated. Where is their imagination? I admit that I don't have the solution on the tip of my tongue, but that doesn't mean there is no solution. Don't you think that if the world's greatest experts got together, given enough time, they could find a way to eliminate war from the planet and solve disagreements peacefully? And even if they can't do it in our time, that's still no reason to blindly accept war, to give into its corrupting force. Victory in war doesn't prove might makes right. All it proves is might makes... more might. Progress only occures when imagination transcends experience. I believe Jefferson would truly be disappointed if he saw the Unites States on his 250th birthday. What we need to decide as a nation then, is should we try to live up to the ideals of Jefferson and our other founding fathers. Do we really believe them? Should we try to strive for perfection, to solve our problems, to believe in the goodness of humankind? Or should we give up, accept our imperfectibility as a given, put up a giant fence around the country, shoot first and ask questions later, live for security? If we choose the latter, then we should come up with some new documents for our government because those ideas don't fit those of the Constitution and Jefferson's Decaration of Independence. Author's note: Does anyone know what I am talking about? What is the content of the human character; good or evil? And how do we build a nation based on that assumption? Any thoughts? Write to me.