Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Need for an American Reset



Mary Morris Phelps with her husband Bill Phelps at Cat Island near Georgetown, South Carolina.
By Bob Ferris

I remember a time about forty-five years ago when I sat drinking corn whiskey with my great-aunt on an island in South Carolina at her winter retreat known as Blackout.  We drank the whiskey from a tall, glass demijohn with a cork made from a candle stub wrapped with a paper napkin.  The whiskey was some of the finest I had ever tasted but I strongly suspected that certain federal taxes were never offered or paid for our libation.  But this is all setting and not point.

My reason for recalling this moment in time is that we were not only drinking neat and eating crab claws from a can, we were talking politics.  My aunt, Mary Morris Phelps, was arguing that Ronald Reagan would never be elected to a national office because he had been divorced.  Her argument was that politicians had to be squeaky clean and beyond reproach.  They had to be paragons of virtue.  I was fresh out of the 1960s and argued that the times were a’changing.  In retrospect, I was wrong to dismiss her concerns.

Parson Weems and his legend.
I grew up on the Parson Weems stories of George Washington’s honesty and also Abe Lincoln’s charcoal and shovel education.  We knew these and others were often largely myths or purposeful exaggerations but we also understood that they were important in terms of setting expectations and crafting our own lives.


Science and inventiveness were also emphasized when I was a child.  We all wanted to fly kites like Ben Franklin or invent things or processes like Thomas Edison or Eli Whitney.  And we were constantly reminded of Alexander Graham Bell because of Bell Laboratories and educational films (see above video excerpt).
I also grew up with stories of how my country was a melting pot and my childhood home in the San Francisco Bay Area teemed with examples of immigrants from the south and east.  Yes there were lying and bigotry in abundance but these were shadow sins seen rightfully as ugliness when exposed to light.

Robert Morris Ferris about the time that I started learning these lessons.
It is hard to reconcile this conversation with my great-aunt and my All-American programming to our current happenstance.  How, for instance, can we talk about George Washington’s honesty when our sitting President has been called a liar repeatedly in nearly every major paper in the country?  How do we talk to children about scholarship and science when every presidential candidate from one party disagrees with 97% of the scientists working in a particular field?  Or innovation when a party platform includes pushing a dirty fuel that was old news at the end of the 19th century?  And how do we talk about our melting pot nature when our President’s “big idea” is to build a wall that cannot work to stop other immigrants from accessing what his grandparents, mother and two of his wives were freely given?

Elizabeth Gouverneur Morris Ramsay Ferris my grandmother.
Who is to blame for all of this cultural dissonance?  We all are to some respect, but that is probably not the best question.  A more proper query is how can we reclaim what we have so casually tossed aside?  This is a tough challenge particularly when we look at the more than considerable cultural momentum that we would have to first slow, then stall and eventually reverse.  We have our collectively credibility to repair.  We must re-embrace science and innovation so we create a future rather than clinging to a tired past that only increasingly damages our long-term prospects.  And we have to reestablish ourselves as not just another country in a dangerous world, but the safest and most welcoming one.  We need to be the island of hope in the sea of despair.


The idea of these changes seems monumentally prohibitive.  Scary even.  But quintessentially American in scale and stretch.  We have only to remember those lessons and exemplars from so long ago.  We have only to remember what we were taught and commit to pursuing it in the future.  The American Dream has never been gained by bemoaning its demise in our rear-view mirror, but rather looking over the ship’s bow, oxen team, hood or whatever comes next and accelerating.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
I inject the Preamble to the US Constitution as written by Gouverneur Morris here for several reasons.  I know that this simple paragraph is often disregarded as not really an essential part of the US Constitution or even enforceable.  But I would argue it is the most important part as it defines the character of the envisioned nation and should influence all legislation that flows from the aegis provided by this document.  That Gouverneur and his half-brother Lewis Morris—my relative and ancestor respectively—gave up much of their status and wealth in order to form this union should be another of those American threads that is exemplified rather than forgotten.

Gouverneur Morris
Unfortunately, we currently have a Congress and a President who think the Preamble applies only to a thin sliver of America’s most prosperous rather than the whole.  How this societal screen would have allowed trickle-down economics or the sharing of our internet data with companies is hard to fathom.  Likewise, while the Affordable Care Act embraces the idea of general welfare, its repeal or modification coupled with tax-breaks to the least deserving does not.  And I would defy anyone to explain how this current administration has forwarded domestic tranquility or made gains in our common defense by picking unnecessary fights with almost any other country that moves.

So it is a tall order with many pieces.  The pathway to success is unknown but we know that our current direction spells nothing but disaster for us and future generations.  It comes down to what it always has for us and that is courage, sacrifice, and leadership.  We need to remember what those are and then seek ways find them within ourselves and others.

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