I spent my morning and evening strolling through the physical commemoration of U.S. history in Washington, D.C. It’s hard not to chuckle at the Washington Monument (currently closed for earthquake repair), and hard not to be awed by the Lincoln Memorial. But my favourite was the FDR Memorial, perhaps because it represents very poignantly the physical frailty of men alongside the resolve that a people can muster to do good and change the way we think about the world.
The monuments to Lincoln, Jefferson and King depict majestic men, frozen in stone, untouchable and timeless. Roosevelt, on the other hand, is portrayed in the midst of his era, surrounded by references to the Civilian Conservation Corps (a work relief program which simultaneously recognised the value of human dignity and natural resources) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (an imaginative and ambitious—if also flawed—program designed to develop an economically adrift region).
The statues of the Roosevelts are accompanied by representations of destitute men and women, and unemployment lines, reminders of the circumstances which call us to step outside our comfort zones and ponder our moral universe.
While there’s nothing to be gained from wallowing in generally-misplaced nostalgia for leaders past (as encumbered with moral warts as the amphibians swimming in our own day’s political cesspool), it is striking, wandering amongst the nation’s monuments and memorials, how much these earlier men were willing to ponder big moral questions, and fundamental issues of human relations, societies and governments.
Roosevelt remarked that “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little”. This is above all a moral argument, and petty considerations of tax levels and budgeting would be entirely secondary ones.
Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits”. This is urgent idealism on a level that entirely escapes our much-debased political discourse today.
And on the question of the relation between societies, its values, and its laws, Thomas Jefferson had the following to say: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors”.
This is a statement at once more fundamental and elementary and sophisticated than anything the so-called defenders of our Constitution have today. It recognises the fluidity of societies and cultures, warns against allowing the past to become a prison, in which we find ourselves shackled by the smallness of our predecessors and soiled by the muck of historical failures.
Each of these three thoughts marks a serious meditation on what it means to live in a society, in a nation-state, and to aspire after a rooted yet dynamic form of government. They take a strong moral stand. They reflect on citizenship at individual, national and global levels.
Today, by contrast, we are bombarded by the faux deliberations of the Tea Party and the Republican Party, in which serious consideration of liberties and responsibilities gives way before a sordid, grubby little gutter debate about ‘rights’: the right to hoard every last penning of your earnings, no matter who else contributed to your success; the right to kick little people, weak people, while they’re down; the rights that corporate entities supposedly have...rights, we are told, astoundingly, which ought to be the same accorded to living, breathing human beings.
In the evening, I stopped by the National Museum of American History. I was drawn to an interactive exhibit commemorating the lunch counter sit-ins at the Greensboro Woolworth’s store. The docent acted out the role of an activist training the audience in civil disobedience. After explaining what four courageous students experienced in 1960 in North Carolina, and the significance of their moral courage for the civil rights movement, he asked the audience whether we believed there was something wrong with people being asked to sit at different counters at a restaurant on the basis of their skin colour. There was universal, murmured assent.
Then he asked on what grounds we could say such a thing was a problem. The answers were telling. It says so in the Declaration of Independence, said one man. Nope, said the docent. Must be the Bill of Rights, said another. Nope. The Constitution! guessed a third. Our rights come from God, shouted a fourth, and the docent politely reminded him that as many people were invoking God in defence of segregation as otherwise in 1960. Brown v Board? came still another response, but alas, that only dealt with schools.
An elderly woman finally put up her hand and said firmly but quietly, “I say it’s wrong”. And the docent beamed. But it was peculiar how struck the audience was by this unabashedly moral statement, by the assumption of responsibility for collectively-done wrongs. They had turned to judicial precedent, to the Constitution, and to other forms of legal authority without approaching the problem from a personal or moral standpoint.
And such is our difficulty today. We are beset by many of the same ills as in Roosevelt’s era: we are in economic doldrums, we are at war, we are institutionally becalmed, and in danger of experiencing political wreckage. And yet our troubles spawn cynically cautious men like President Obama, soulless technocrats like Mitt Romney, and morally stunted creatures like Newt Gingrich.
The Official History of the United States, as laid out on the national Mall, may let the efforts of too many people and groups go unrecognised. It might glorify flawed men and women. It might let the real lessons of far too many bloody wars go unlearned. But there are still some things that we can learn—or re-learn—from it. And there’s no time to lose.