Monday, April 27, 2009

Ms. Liberty

Dear Children:

There are few things that people have longed for more than liberty. In human history liberty is the one thing most denied, the most feared and the least understood of political concepts. Worse yet, once granted liberty is a moving target and will never be perfected.

That said, it’s easy to see why liberty is found so dangerous by even enlightened of dictators through the ages. For liberty to come into flower it must be granted to everyone. The country bumpkin and the wheelwright and the clergy will all outgrow their britches. The untutored as well as the learned from every corner will want a say in the affairs of state. It’s just too messy of a prospect to keep strict order.

Actually, liberty can be a bit scary for those on whom it is thrust. There will come a time when you are released from the clutches of your parents and set out on your own. Liberty can be quite prickly indeed.

Liberty is understood in modern parlance as synonymous with words such as freedom, independence, franchise and license. Mr. Jefferson, on the other hand, thought of liberty as a broad political right stemming from a previous condition of servitude. Serfs, peons, prisoners, slaves and other vassals of the state are said to be set at liberty. Liberty, in the view of Jefferson and his fellow conspirators, was different from a notion of freedom that included independence, franchise, privilege and license.

Freedoms were thought of as conditions that may be enumerated, restricted, controlled and even proscribed. Physicians, for instance, are free to practice medicine within the confines of a license granted by the state. Voting is a freedom restricted by age. Use of alcohol, tobacco and other dangerous products are controlled by taxation. A person with a license to use dynamite is not necessarily free to blow up his neighbor’s outhouse no matter how deserving that outhouse might be.

Freedom is also a feeling. We can feel free to act. We can feel coerced thereby robbing us of a feeling of freedom. Freedom may be the absence of necessity.

We’re going through this muddle to make a point: We are at liberty to experience freedoms. It is a wonderful feeling. Most of the peoples on earth are not at liberty to experience freedom.

Put another way, liberty means not captive.

Captives have a special place in our narrative. Throughout the Hebrew Bible there are stories of captivation and captives – who got captured and who got ransomed, who did the capturing; who got carted-off where. In the Christian canon, however, we have this single, poignant passage:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

Here we have a license that grants little in the way of freedom in the usual sense. That is, if we accept the usual construct of freedom as a range of permitted actions, the wider the better. Who would volunteer to be constrained? Who would accept obligations without prospect of reward?

The answer to those questions is at the core of the concept of liberty. We are at liberty to accept or reject commissions that severely restrict the range of our actions.

That’s where you come in. How you express your liberty is mostly up to you. But, as we have said in these pages before, the cost is always high. Express your liberty in a way that affronts, you will surely be affronted. Express your liberty in a way that is healing, you will lose your freedom to abuse. Express your liberty in a way that is selfish, you will do so alone. Express your liberty to control others, your life will be spent keeping them shackled. Express your liberty in the service of money, money had better be good enough.

By the same token, we are at liberty to keep our options open, to not commit one way or the other. That too has a price.

The idea that there is some higher recompense for a valued choice or penalty for a bad one doesn’t work either. Mr. Jefferson, for one, used the liberty he was granted in his own time and was judged worthy and grand. In another time, he has been vilified as a slave owner and hypocrite. He is known for articulating high-minded concepts yet abused his chattel maid.

James R. Lowell wrote a poem in 1845 that was set to music fifty years later from a Franz Josef Haydn tune. It was written to protest an American military incursion into Mexico. The Poem is called: Once To Every Man and Nation. It was once part of the rich hymnody that graced our churches. One couplet says it very well.

New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Liberty is powerful medicine. It is given to you unbidden with all the dangers, joys and challenges that attend it.
I’m just sayin’.
Much Love,

P.S. One of the reasons our hymnody is rich has everything to do with the subject of Mr. Lowell’s poem and the music to which it is set. Fashions run in and out of our culture. Some things that are quite evocative and expressive in one age become passé in another. The Haydn tune (Austria), was originally written as a patriotic song subsequently adopted by the Nazi thugs mostly for its ill-advised line: Germany is above every nation in the world. Add to that the fashion among hymnal committees in recent decades to excise martial themes, references to physical infirmities, gender-specific believers and lyrics whose context are no longer easily accessible. The poem here loses on two of those counts. The tune survives in lots of hymnals with the title: Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken.
Just in case you’d like to read the Lowell poem, it follows.

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Zygote This, Your Highness!

Dear Children:

In The Declaration of Independence, Mr. Jefferson and the other rebel leaders held that individual persons had an inalienable right to life. That doesn’t sound very radical to us. We have a right to live and that’s that. That’s right.

It wasn’t so settled a principle as the eighteenth century drew to a close. The Sovereign on the one hand or The Mob on the other had all the rights over life.

The Founders seized the immodest idea that government could not deprive anyone of life capriciously. From the beginnings of civilization, governments treated life as an asset to be exploited for its own purposes as one would the water in a lake or clay in the earth. In the case of a kingdom, the ruler could sign a warrant for anyone’s death on his own authority. In other cultures, any gang of pitchfork-wielding vigilantes could have your head.

We’re still working out what this means in fine slices. Be that as it may, the idea that government cannot willy-nilly take life only began to be codified for ordinary people with the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to our Constitution. That codification required something called due process of law. As big a deal as this was and is nothing in these principles guarantees life.

Your life is a result of a freakishly random set of circumstances that began when the first set of human parents produced children. Lucy Hominid met Dezi Australopithecus in the Addis Ababa suburbs more than three million years ago. Over the millennia some people died before they could reproduce, some lived to reproduce. Of those who did reproduce, some had one child, some had many more. Some of the issue of those parents survived to reproduce and so on until we get to the six or seven billion people now alive. Three million years is a long time, but Humankind really got started about ten thousand years ago as the last ice age receded. Figure four or five generations per century. Imagine the productive power of a single grandmother given four hundred generations.

Next imagine the toll of war, pestilence, disease, natural calamity and pure dumb luck.

The math geniuses among you will want to work out the odds but, trust me, the odds of you being on the planet at this moment are not anything approaching possible. Complicate the calculus further by factoring the odds of your living where you live under the rule of law with the parents you have and the wealth you enjoy. Your unique selfness was lifted up a very steep, very tall cliff to get you here.

Yet here you are. What are we to make of that?

Well, dear ones, we can start with amazement and top it off with gratitude. You can be amazed that something like you that had no say in the matter really matters. You really matter to your friends and family. You matter to me and, one hopes, you’ll matter to the wider world. As zany as it seems, our infinitesimal speck of cosmic dust swirling in an infinitesimal eddy of infinitude of light and space and substance really matters. In a cosmos where it can be said that life is empty and meaningless, where it is empty and meaningless to say that life is empty and meaningless, you are present and meaningful.

That’s why we have reason for gratitude. That’s why expressions of gratitude are important.

Beyond that, though, there is another small matter to consider: We are stuck with each other. We are stuck for better and for worse. We are stuck with all the vagaries that will produce the next generation of people who will matter and who will, in their turn, be stuck with each other.

I’m just sayin’.

Much Love,


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dude, Where's My Scar?

Dear Children:

The last thing anybody wants is to be laughed at. As much as we abhor the experience, as assiduously we may guard against the possibility, as loathsome is the aftermath; it still happens. Somebody thinks something we did or said was worthy of ridicule. Whether it’s a disparaging remark, sneering mimicry or purposeful misapprehension, it always stings.

You shouldn’t jeer at other people. You never know what the real effect will be. What starts out as a harmless jape in your mind often ends as a permanent bruise on the other’s psyche. It’s also wrong on a couple other counts. For instance, it wouldn’t be particularly brainy on your part to point out the obvious like fatness or pimples. Similarly, there are no style points for repeating someone else’s observation of yesterday; she is stuck with those glasses no matter how hideous.

Of course, we’re all aware of what passes for funny on TV. Fictional people being mean to each other is both easy and predictable. It is not for polite company.

I know, I know. The temptation is sometimes overwhelming. Me? I bite my tongue over people who imagine they sound Wagnerian but what comes out is Alvin and the Chipmunks. All modern poems that contain the words “twas” or “twill” are a regular source of amusement. Fashion advice from the outlandish, elbow digs during concerts and reflexive opinions by the patently ill-informed often oblige an unkind comment.

It is still a temptation best resisted. If someone genuinely wants your opinion and there’s something cute to say, by all means … Even at that, one needs to be sensitive to the real question. An inquiry into whether a new haircut is flattering is an invitation to flattery not a wish for beauty advice.

Two years ago we were calling to invite classmates to a reunion. You would be astonished to learn how many people used as an excuse for not coming the teasing they took forty five years ago. That, for sure, is a long time to hold a grudge. That, for sure, is instructive on the power of the unthinking sneer or foolish observation.

I’m just sayin’.

Much Love,


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Do You Want Trites With That?

Dear Children:

Can you stick with me on a complicated topic?

Picture a predicament that comes up every day, is a source of conflict, is not taught in school and (most of the time) goes unacknowledged.  Picture a set of terms that everyone uses and no one understands.  Picture an impossibility that regularly substitutes for observable reality.

That would be cliché.

Just to be clear, cliché refers to overused but accepted expressions. A bromide, to make a fine distinction, is an unoriginal expression in response to an original happenstance.  Both are applicable here.  Old wives tales, chestnuts, rules of thumb and platitudes may also serve proxy.

Most of the time we easily recognize cliché for what it is: no problem.  It’s just something harmless that gets said to fill up the space between important things.  Most of the time a bromide is the gloss we use to brighten an otherwise dull recitation on a dull subject.  Whether there are any old wives around to enlighten us is debatable.  Most of the time a rule of thumb simply gets us past pesky precision.

It’s the gooey middle ground between the nugget of truth that first spawned the cliché and the rocky hard place of something you can take to the bank – something on which you can depend – that’s the problem.

See, each of us has at least some values, ideals, principles and ethics that suit us well enough – that make sense to us.  We use cliché as shorthand.  “Honesty is the best policy”, as we have discussed before, is a rich tapestry of interdependent threads that are well attended using cliché.  Each of us shares some of these values and threads and differs on others.  That’s okay too.  A little divergence here and there is healthy and makes us hardier.

No, it’s dependability that we need.  Cliché doesn’t work outside our little circle – our tiny circle of shared ideals and established ethical constructs.  Witness our consternation with pirates and rogue states and terrorists and warlords and animists and communists and anarchists and any others with whom we differ fundamentally.  There’s no shorthand to make common cause with those who don’t and won’t share our codes, customs and dispositions.

There are terms for this too: Culture Clash, Racial Narrative, Class Struggle, Received Truth, Religious Animus, Homophobia, White Guilt and (my personal favorite) Self Loathing all come readily to mind.  No definitions need to be made here.  They are mostly cliché about cliché.  They describe Cliché Conflict.

Nobody expects you to solve intractable human relations problems.  For now, let’s confine ourselves to the everyday and close at hand.  In that spirit, here are some tests for sorting out the harmless from the tricky cliché.

If you are asked not only to agree, but to agree in some specific and fulsome way, you just might be in a cliché conflict.

 If you must recite some prescribed mantra or pay some humbug lip service to be admitted into a community, you just might have a cliché conflict.

If you are dealing with someone for whom jargon takes precedence over substance, you just might be in a cliché conflict.

If you express a thought that is met with anger, resentment or sullen silence and you have been sincere and kindly, you just might have a cliché conflict.

If your colleague is only interested in opinions she shares, you have just observed cliché conflict.

If you are accused of being unable to “get” something by virtue of your race, gender or similar circumstance, you just might have been stung by cliché conflict.

There are lots of examples.

Suffice to say that when argot stands in for thought, pique substitutes for engagement and exclusivity relies solely on the plainly apparent, it’s unlikely to be your problem.  You are better than that.  You have been taught to actively engage, look beneath the surface and to mistrust inconsequential certainty.  You are willing to be convinced by force of argument and not by earsplitting harangue.

It may be hard to hear in this age when we honor diversity and embrace differences, but people who will not try to understand you are the ones with the problem.  There isn’t much we can do about it either.  There is no percentage in a program to kiss a bully into right relationship, for instance. Other means need to be employed.

Cliché then, while useful, is merely a basket of thin reeds that neither protect nor instruct.

I’m just sayin’.

Much Love,


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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Happy Pursuits

Dear Children:

The Declaration of Independence is one of those great documents in human history that, at once, lays out a set of ideals that forever elude us and makes a list of specific failings that can be unambiguously redressed.

Among the most ideal of the notions expressed in The Declaration is that of the pursuit of happiness. In the future, we’ll examine what life and liberty rights entail.

Delegates to The Second Continental Congress who approved the document were not vexed in the slightest by the idea. The Virginia Declaration of Rights adopted at about the same time included the phrase and thinkers such as John Locke writing a hundred years earlier were quite clear that this was a bedrock gift of natural law.

To Locke, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and others who held this truth to be self evident knew the pursuit of happiness to be a right to engage in the trade of one’s own choosing. It was not the province of government, church, family, guild or tribe to decide for an individual what employment he should undertake.

In those days, it was quite common to restrict this right. People took names like Miller, Baker and Wheeler. Sons were granted immediate admittance to a guild upon successful completion of an apprenticeship. Other apprentices were subjected to longer periods of servitude and “proofing” before admittance. A person expected to follow in the family business. This, of course, was for the greater purpose of maintaining a class system based on the idea that certain people who practiced certain professions were better or lesser than persons who practiced other professions.

You get the idea.

But imagine the confusion that resulted: Someone named Baker was shoeing horses and someone else named Blacksmith had the temerity to study law. It was quite an unsettling time. The established social order was turned upside down. People who could lay claim to peerage were reduced to mucking barns and others with the humblest of lineage were laying claim to huge tracts of land and exploiting its resources.

As a direct result, the average person living in North American from long before the Revolution to this very moment was richer by far than the average person living on any other continent. We went from a system of resources rationed according to inherited privilege to a system that rationed resources according to wealth. But, because our poor people were still richer than other nation’s poor folks, we were not guilty of abuse.

Maybe not.

In a time like the present when we have become aware that resources that were once thought to be inexhaustible are becoming exhausted, we need to rethink the meaning of the pursuit of happiness. When services such as health care are grievously expensive, is it fair to ration it on the basis of wealth? When we reach the point where finance drives our economy, can we take pride in production and the creation of wealth through endless subdivision of fleeting assets? Have we found the ugly side of the pursuit of happiness?

I don’t think so. We can still work with it. The idea has served us well. As a matter of fact, you should embrace the gift you have now as a matter of settled law; the opportunity to seek your own happiness in the dignity of work. Work is its own reward made all the more sweet by its having been freely chosen. Naturally there are problems for each age to shape and perfect. We hope you will be part of that debate.

The pursuit of happiness as seen by Mr. Jefferson carries strictures of its own. It holds that no institutions may tell an individual what employment she must seek, to be sure. Yet, nothing in the concept repeals other natural laws that bind us together as members of the family of humankind beholden to each other.

Just remember that he says we are the inheritors of inalienable rights granted by The Creator. He lists the pursuit of happiness among them.

That’s where life and liberty come in.

Much Love,