Americans are sentimental. The past and those that came before us, we honor at every chance given. We are a society that values tradition. Whether you’re of a religious bent or not, chances are there are traditions and customs you practice because they were passed down to you – a baton passing from generation to generation – and what is done with that baton is what forms our two major political stakeholders. The Liberals and the Conservatives. The left-leaning liberals want to take that baton and run forward as hard and as fast as we can. The conservatives suggest perhaps just pausing, right where we’re at, and preserve things as they are as to prevent societal decline.
I’m not suggesting that conservatives are the brakes of progress. There have been plenty of political conservatives that have made contributions to mankind’s progress. And just because I can’t think of a single one right now, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Liberals have icons like Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln (yes, I meant that, and no, not ironically). Conservatives have icons like Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan, and Ronald Reagan. Regardless of which side one finds themself on though, tradition and near genuflection to the past is part and parcel to American politics.
Each side pays tribute to the gurus of the past in various ways, referring to them in speeches to illicit warm feelings of accomplishments past. There is one group though, that both liberals and conservatives bow and scrape to. The group that all parties involved believe they are direct descendants of, shepherding their ideology. The Founding Fathers.
But honestly, have you have asked yourself, “Who the fuck cares what George Washington would think about cap-and-trade?” If you haven’t, you’re doing it wrong.
Before I go much further with this, let me make something clear. I’m a big fan of the Founders. I think studying them, their thoughts on a free society, and the work they did to create this nation is invaluable. We can learn from their mistakes, and we can also learn from their triumphs. All things considered, they were able to pull off a rather extraordinary task. They beat the world’s most powerful empire – at the time at least – and established a new, sovereign and “free” society.
Everyone likes to put themselves in the shoes of Thomas Jefferson or John Adams when contemplating a challenge we face today, as if a man who lived over two hundred years ago would have the slightest clue how to solve an issue like whether or not citizens should be allowed to own and stockpile assault rifles, or what role the government should have in policing the Internet. Frankly they lived and died so long ago that it seems a trap to get too caught up in what they would have felt or said in regard to any issue that faces us today.
We can argue all we want about what the Founders intended when they wrote the Second Amendment into the Constitution. But in the end, does it matter? As Jefferson said himself, “The earth belongs always to the living generation.” Jefferson then clearly understood the bounds of mortality, and that once his time had expired here, it was going to be up to those left behind to do with the country what they pleased.
The genius then of the Constitution is the mechanism of revision built right into it; the amendment process. The existence of that amendment process indicates the Founders at least had an idea that they couldn’t expect everything to stay as it was the day they signed the Constitution. And isn’t that a good thing? There are millions of African-Americans in this country who I’m sure would much prefer the updated Constitution to its original version. The fact is that many of the men we hold in high regard for creating this country also happened to participate in its most sinister vice, the trafficking of human beings. Would we love Thomas Jefferson today if he was just a rich, racist, old white dude from Virginia? Probably not. Of course, he wasn’t those things, and you can’t boil Jefferson down into a distillation of a human. He was imperfect but still made a positive impact on us.
No one who walks on the Earth can predict the future, not with any real certainty. So why do we insist on shackling ourselves to these old men instead of bravely taking their challenge to guide this country into the future? I’m not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bath water, but how about some modernity? How about some acknowledgment that nearly 250 years have passed and that is a long fucking time? It’s as if we’re afraid to hear Tommy, Ben or George rolling over in their graves if we tweak or update something.
I am of the opinion that the Second Amendment was a means to ensure that our citizens would be armed should the Brits decide to come back and quarter themselves in our homes. In fact, many of the amendments in the Bill of Rights I believe are built-in protection against future invasion and occupation, not from our own government. Our government is a response to tyranny, not a tyranny itself. If you think you live in an oppressive country now, try Syria on for size.
But let’s play a little Devil’s Advocate and pretend that indeed the Founders envisioned a future where everyone would have the necessary firepower to wage their own small-scale war. They’d be wrong. That’s it, just flat-out wrong. What does it say about a populace that is so afraid of the other guy’s gun that rather than sit down at a table and discuss what kinds of guns sensible should own, we just keep buying a bigger gun than our neighbor? It says that something went belly up somewhere along the line and we’re in need of a course correction.
The same can be said of marriage equality or women’s suffrage. Again, the genius of the Constitution is that it gives us a chance as a society for an “Oh, Duh!” moment. Those are times where you realize you’ve been missing something or doing something wrong for a long time, but you’re completely capable of doing it correctly now. Our country’s history is full of those such times. It’s what being in a representative democracy is all about. The power of this nation isn’t necessarily in the lone voice, it’s in the lone voice that finds like-minded citizens and then amplifies its volume to ensure the message is heard and action is taken.
Someone very angrily asked me the other day who the fuck I was to tell them what kind of guns they can own. I told them, “I am an American citizen. That’s who I am to tell you what kind of guns you can own. You’re allowed to disagree with me, and if you get enough people on your side that outnumber my side, you win! But guess what? The same goes for me. If I get enough people to agree with me, I win.”
They didn’t have a response.
“You can’t take it with you” is an adage that attempts to explain the idea of mortality. It puts it into a context of “worldly” things. You can’t take anything with you when you die, especially not a set in stone policy that allows for unlimited armament of the citizens. It’s our duty to evaluate and re-evaluate our laws incessantly, because life changes incessantly. Slavery is no longer legal in this country because enough people had finally decided that perhaps owning another human being was not an American value after all. Why can we not have a frank and honest discussion with each other in the same way about guns?
The problem of course is our reactionary ways. The “discussion” over slavery in this country turned into a long and bloody war, so the nightmare that could ensue over gun rights is something certainly to be considered. But we owe it to ourselves to have that conversation about guns anyway. And about marriage equality, and what we consider a “dangerous” drug as opposed to a vice that should be taxed and regulated heavily. We have to do that because life is not stationary, it does not stop moving, ever. A deifying of the Founders, to the point that we are have real trepidation over changing even a single word in a two-hundred year old document is not a healthy way to continue moving society forward.
The bottom line as I see things is fairly simple. What is the point of being alive now if we’re not even going to attempt to make life better according to how we know it to be? We can look to the Founders for inspiration, and for lessons, but at the end of our lives, we will be held accountable for what we did, not what they did. If we cannot at the very least improve things, much less solve them, then we have failed. We have failed not just ourselves, but our children, and ironically we’ve failed the Founders.
After all, it’s not up to the Founders to figure out how to stop climate change, it’s up to us. It’s not up to the Founders to figure out how to make education our nation’s number one achievement again, it’s up to us to do that too. It’s not up to the Founders to declare that just because you’re attracted to your own gender that doesn’t make you ineligible for committed love, it’s up to us to make that declaration. And it’s not up to the Founders to keep our citizens out of the sights of a gunman, it’s up to us. Those long dead can do nothing to make life better; that’s up to Jefferson’s “living generation.”
We are the living generation. Let’s own the Earth.