We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial.
--Barack Obama, January 21, 2013
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-- Matthew 5:48 (NRSV)
How could the founders have declared that all men are created equal while owning and exploiting human flesh?
On the other hand, how could they not?
Ask it the other way around. How could a nation that bought, sold and exploited human beings declare that all men are created equal, turning its future against itself? Isn't it strange? Isn't it remarkable?
It all depends on the order of your thoughts, on what you take for granted and what you choose to be surprised at.
Fernand Braudel subtitled one of his works of social history "The Limits of the Possible." What he meant was that the physical and social structures of everyday life present a limited menu of choices.* You can't for instance choose -- it's almost impossible to imagine -- private life in a world where there are no private spaces. Which is why Western individualism was born in the envious lust of lower classes for the privacy of aristocrats, who were once the only people who could shut a door when they wanted to. Bourgeois and working-class imitations of the baron's castle -- the detached home with multiple chambers and doors, the expensive and laborious "yard" or "garden" -- made it possible to re-conceive privileges of the well-born as universal human rights. Bonaparte and Adam Smith described England as a nation of shopkeepers, but it was the shopkeepers of America who charted their nation on a map of unalienable rights.
For the founders, Eden wasn't on the menu. Some of them owned human flesh directly, and the rest had profited indirectly from such ownership. They could declare 1) a country that was tainted with slavery, or they could declare 2) no country at all. Those were their two lamentable choices, and yet out of their colloquy came a remarkable third choice: "2b" we might call it. They declared a country that was both soiled by slavery and pledged to universal, unalienable rights. This act was a contradiction, but I rejoice that they chose it rather than either of the internally consistent options before them.
There's no question which of our two propositions was heard round the world, as Emerson put it. Slavery was already on the defensive, an embarrassment among the nations, and we have spent two centuries of blood and treasure, prophecy and confession, abolishing it and owning its legacy. In that time our declaration went round the world, inspiring good and bad revolutions, resounding in the texts of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Universal Declaration of human rights.
So I am glad that someone wrote that document; for without it, or something very much like it, the modern ideas of justice and civil peace could never have entered the world. I rejoice that the person who wrote it, with help from a committee, was an American. I am happy that the American who wrote it was no outlier but an eventual president. And I am proud that the author was, like me, a Unitarian. I am not proud that he owned slaves, that he fathered children by a person who had no power to refuse him, or that his writing, his research, his architecture and his politics were financed with stolen labor.
As an adult living in the real world, it is my obligation to distinguish between good and evil, particularly as they appear in the same person, the same institution, the same nation. But it's not rocket science. If we pretend that the distinction is difficult, if we wait for our country, our city, our family, our self to be perfect before we love them we shall wait forever. Indeed, one of the ancient corruptions of character is to wait for the perfect before committing to what is good. The good is not a metaphysical but an operational term: "good" means "better than what we have."
Another timeless corruption is proudly to imagine that our present plan of reform will bring an end to history and to sin; to imagine that we are not ourselves sinful as we put it forward, with scores to settle that we have not owned; to fantasize that as we prevail we will not love the power and long to bring down our boots on the necks of adversaries. Both we and the ancestors are judged; but judgment is a sifting, a separating out of the noble from the shameful in us. My headmaster used to say that the best of us are molded out of faults,** and since we do not get the noble without the shameful, we must hope that, whatever there is that answers to the name of God, It is merciful.
As a Unitarian I stand in footprints of people who rejected the doctrine of Original Sin, condemning it as immoral and unbiblical. I don't know whether I speak Burke's conservatism or Niebuhr's liberalism when I say there is a strange loopiness about the world, and there is no place to stand that is not off its kilter and sagging under our weight. We play, like one of the Mikado's criminals, "on a cloth untrue, with a twisted cue, and elliptical billiard balls," and we know not what we do. It is this fallenness of the world, and of ourselves in the world, invested from birth as we are in its gripes and grievances, flights of fancy and body noises -- this is what the ancient doctrine tried to describe. I don't think the world is strange because my first progenitor tried to know right from wrong, but rather that in his reach for knowledge he learned that the world had always already*** gone strange. Again I remember Beckett's character who said you're on earth, there's no cure for that.
And yet, with our twisted cues and elliptical motives, we must do good, and seek truth. We must expand our fleeting glories, growing our contained and compromised gardens of virtue into fruitfulness.
Lady Bracknell said (among other things) that the whole theory of modern education is radically unsound, and it is a blessing therefore that education produces no effect whatsoever. The harm of education comes when, instead of rewarding the achievement, it punishes the mistake. I never learned anything valuable without making mistakes; and the learnings that made me what I am came when I allowed myself to get it wrong a hundred times. Only then could I begin to grow up, for growing up is a risky business, requiring compassionate governance of oneself and guidance from others. This is how we learn to master an art, or to love a person, or to write an essay.
There are those who lament the extinction of the pen and paper, or more recently the typewriter, both of which devices forced one to think ahead before committing to the word. But I have thrived in the digital age, when I could plant myself in the middle and enlarge my thoughts forward and backward, setting down any nonsense that comes into my head with the surety that it can be changed, expanded, destroyed, and rearranged as many times as I want before it goes before other eyes. My mistakes do not signify. They do not even need to be crossed out. All that matters is that there is some rightness about the last version.
So we must own the twistedness of our mothers and fathers, as well as their achievements and their truth, for their truth is inseparable from their twistedness, as ours shall be. History doesn't present us with the menus we would like, and our choices are usually between unappetizing options. But some of those options are better than others. That is to say, some of them are the good choices, the right ones. And occasionally, in the colloquy of irreconcilable and detestable alternatives, a novel alternative appears, an option 2b that changes life for the better by miraculous birth of a welthistorische contradiction. And when that happens, we must not be put off by the humility of its birth or the sordidness of its conception.
"Behold," says Isaiah's God (43:19), "I'm doing something new here. Don't you see it? Even now it's coming to fruition." A movie came out recently about Lincoln, that shows him bribing and bullying and lying, so that he can get the thirteenth amendment passed, to make slavery no longer possible in the nation he preserved. We all know that what followed was not freedom for our brothers and sisters but another century of terror and exploitation, before we began seriously to address the assurance of their rights. But can we honestly say we are not proud that Lincoln did these things? As he walks down the hallway, in the scene that should have ended the movie, into the light and on the way to Ford's Theatre, does he not grow larger as he recedes?
It's not rocket science.
*Les structures du quotidien (1967), which was Vol. I of Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe siècle
**He attributed this saying to Abraham Lincoln; but Lincoln must have been quoting Shakespeare (Measure for Measure, V. i.: "Best men are moulded out of faults.")
***"Always already" was of course a strategic phrase of Jacques Derrida, who deconstructed great texts of European philosophy, and was oxymoronically followed by the locusts of Deconstructionism.