Friday, December 3, 2010

a kaddish for self-evident truths

A good friend jogged my memory a week or two ago at the tail end of a post on his blog. Well, it was more like a jolt than a jog. It was something about the Declaration of Independence. Which I suppose we've all been taught nothing but respect, awe and reverence in the face of that hallowed document. But suddenly something about it felt wrong. Massively wrong. And I don't think it was 'cause I was in a bitchy mood, because I'm pretty sure that was not the case.

It was those words. Those words we just spout off and don't even hear anymore. Suddenly, those words really pissed me off.

We hold these truths to be self-evident —

Now, it really doesn't matter what follows after that, does it? You could say anything, really, and the implication is that whatever follows must be true, and that that truth is self-evident. And you can't question it.

The word 'truth' is bad enough, in my book especially when it started it's life, as this one did, as a capital 'T' Truth.

But self-evident? Self-evident means no evidence at all. It is hyperbole.

No, it is worse than that. That which cannot be questioned wreaks of tyranny.

All 'truths' require a) evidence, b) the ability to test and question that evidence, and c) independent verification. But what follows here is not that kind of real truth at all — it is an aspiration. We aspire to equality, perhaps, but we are not 'created' that way. And this is apart from the fact that we are not 'created' at all — not in the sense that the Declaration of Independence has in mind.

that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights —

You know where I'm going with this: it's that bloody Creator thing again, for starters.

So the whole set up here is to make what follows unassailable, unquestionable, and emphatic. but these words do not make any of it actually true. And of course, the whole bit is preceded by the winning combo of 'the Laws of Nature' and 'Nature's God' — more stuff you can't argue with.

It's not that I think the sentiments here aren't admirable. Well, while we're questioning, maybe we should question these sentiments as well:

endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I don't actually have evidence that we have these Rights. Let's take them one by one:

Life: This sounds reasonable, if we don't think about it. But right from the beginning, I think about unequal prenatal care, a woman's ability to 'choose' whether her unborn child lives or dies, whether that child if born, has access to sufficient good nutrition and health care (oh, and safe neighborhoods) to keep that Life sustained...

Liberty: Surely, I don't understand this word at all. When I lived in Brussels there was a law that prohibited folks from borrowing more than a certain proportion of their income. The idea was that to become overly indebted would make us unfree. In Belgium, too much liberty was equated with very poor decision making, leading inevitably to no liberty at all. In which case, it is the role of the State to intercede on our behalf. In our country, on the other hand, Liberty seems to mean just the opposite: we are at liberty to be as self-destructive as we like — immersing ourselves in debt, weaponry, foods, and habits that lead to greater not lesser suffering. So. Liberty. Too much brings about too little.

Pursuit of Happiness: gevalt. It's a very fuzzy concept — it could mean anything, anything at all. Does that really belong in the Declaration of Independence?

Much of the rest of the Declaration consists of complaints against the then King of Great Britain — and that part seems a whole lot more rationally considered, if a bit whiney. It is, at least, specific, and makes the case.

But the part we like so much? The self-evident truths?

There's something just terribly wrong with it.

Or maybe I've just graded too many papers in my life. The thing needs a much bigger editing job than it actually got. This is definitely not an A+ document.

I invite you to a re-writing party. Right here, right now. How would you phrase it? Would the sentiments be the same? Or are you just plain happy (sic) with something as sloppy as ''self-evident truths' that are not self-evident at all.

What would you really like to see in there?

For me, I'd ditch the 'created equal' bit in favor of a right to 'equal opportunity.' Which was another thing that struck me living in Brussels. Tuition there was a small nominal fee per year. At the time, it was about ten bucks. Anyone, whether citizen or not, could get a higher education for next to nothing. And if you failed, you had the opportunity to try it all again... No student loans. No three jobs just to stay afloat. No debt into the hereafter. Anyone, anyone could study and learn...

But the most important thing I'd change, is I'd add responsibilities. For rights do not stand alone. They go with an obligation to serve the system that provides those rights. Taxes. Military service. Voting. Scraping graffiti off the walls. Sweeping the sidewalks. Planting trees...

Rights are always accompanied by Responsibilities — even if our hallowed document is too busy complaining about the King, or espousing the self-evident to remember this vital part of establishing any viable new order.


  1. I know it's not really the point of your lovely kaddish, but you may be interested tangentially in a lovely book called _The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson_. In other contexts, I use it to teach social theory, American culture, and politics. I think you might find Jefferson's conception of 'pursuit of happiness' more satisfying that it appears on the surface in that bit of rhetorical flourish meant to rouse the populace against Britain.

  2. I was hoping you'd explain it all to me, this being more your area than mine. And yah, 'pursuit of happiness' would have to mean something more satisfying than hedonic libertarianism. Looking forward to picking your brain...