|But Honey I was smiling.|
While we were experiencing this let-me-help-you-through-the-process environment I could not help but think about the scene in the movie Selma (see above video) where Oprah Winfrey’s character is trying to register to vote in the pre-Voting Rights Act of 1965 South or same sex couples trying to get marriage licenses in Kim Davis’ office. In my mind there is little or no difference between the actions of the Registrar character played so ably by Clay Chappell and those of Ms. Davis—they both let their own personal prejudices block others from enjoying their legal rights as citizens. They exercise a privilege they felt was afforded them because they were more white or more Christian than those they were exercising power over.
I have been writing a lot about the above and related political and philosophical issues lately (1,2,3,4,5) because it is clear that we all need to take a timeout and remember why this country was founded, the lessons we have learned in our nearly 400 year evolution from starving and struggling colonies to global super power, and the very real risks we run if we do not continue to learn from past mistakes both within our country and those happening in others.
In a very real sense America is an experiment—a cobbled together Frankenstein built from the best ideas that the best minds of the time could assemble. And since that time this hopeful monster of a country has been on the “operating table” frequently as we learn what sustains us best and how we need to live. The Civil War, for instance, was fought over slavery which was a cancerous growth that needed to be removed. The robber barons nearly wrestled us down to the ground again in the early 1900s, but anti-trust legislation and bold leadership from Theodore Roosevelt acted much like a heart bypass operation to make us thrive again.
Since then we have weathered two world wars and dozens of wildfire conflicts that have tested us mightily and continue to test us, but we seem generally to work hard or at least stumble artfully to avoid the most dangerous pitfalls thrown in our direction. We survived too the ugliness of the McCarthy era, but right now the “cancer” is back in the form of bigotry and religious intolerance as evidenced by the shootings in Charleston, Ms. Davis’ actions in Kentucky and the recent arrest of a student in Texas for making a clock while being a Muslim. We once thought that we cured all this through education and legislation, but we are clearly not past this.
And the “bypass” we underwent in the early 1900s followed by a tune-up during the Great Depression has nearly been nullified by the fatty diet exemplified by Citizen’s United and the undemocratic influence of the country’s 1%. We cannot pretend that we are following a healthy and balanced dietary regime when 492 families have more than 3000 times what the average American has in terms of net worth and 6 of the 10 richest people in America are members of two families.
Moreover, we cannot ignore that while wages of the average workers have stayed fairly flat or dropped, average CEO compensation of the largest companies—e.g., those given tax breaks and subsidies to create jobs and other so-called public goods—have increased their pay roughly 20-fold. We all like the idea of an American Dream that is available to everyone but when it is abused we need to make corrections.
“The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.But let’s get back to privilege, because that in many ways is at the core of this—the privilege of race, creed, and money. George Washington in his 1790 letter to the Synagogue in Rhode Island (quoted above) wrote elegantly about his vision of a society absent of privilege where all citizens share all rights equally. America is not America in this Washingtonian view when lawful citizens are not allowed to vote; loving couples are not allowed to marry; a teacher can identify a bright student as a potential terrorist because he does not have an a “normal” name or enjoy the privileges afforded to Christians; or the very rich have special access to politicians or candidates because they can write a big check (1,2).
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” George Washington’s 1790 letter to a Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island
Now there are those who might argue that I push Washington’s quote too far. They will point to the fact that Washington owned slaves and women did not have the vote during Washington’s time. They might even mention that there were very few Muslims in the US at that point and that the idea of gay marriage was not even an issue. To them my response is two-fold, first they really need to read history more closely because the issue of non-Christians and our relationship with non-Christians (1,2) has been around along, long time as has the idea of women voting and gay people wanting to maintain permanent relations—even probably including a past US president (1,2).
My second message is that this quote expressed Washington’s hopes and vision rather than his claims about existing conditions. So if we truly want to support the Founding Fathers, we should all work to help this vision come true.