A Great Nation, But Not Greatly Good

Among the election night victory and concession speeches, there were the usual “we lost but we really won” variety, and others that were nothing short of mawkish.  But one in particular disturbed me to the core.  I shan’t mention the name.  Just listen:

“…America will remain great, if we remain proud of America, if we remain proud of the American system, the system that is enshrined in our founding documents, the system that protects and promotes the free exchange of goods, the system that protects capitalism, that has made this country great. Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘That government is best that governs least.’  Likewise, freedom is best when enjoyed by the most. America—America can rise up and surmount these problems, if we just get government out of our way.”

First of all, Jefferson did not say, “That government is best that governs least.”  At least the good folks at Monticello who catalog his writings have never been able to find any such reference.  Most famously, it was American philosopher Henry David Thoreau who quoted the maxim in his essay “On Civil Disobedience” (1849).  It was actually the motto of a popular political periodical of the day, The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, which championed Jacksonian democracy over its more conservative and aristocratic rivals.  

Interestingly, however, Thoreau had protecting neither Capitalism nor property in mind when he wrote this.  Quite the opposite.  The issue of slavery, and specifically of what was to be done with fugitive slaves, was tearing the nation apart.  Federal laws demanded that runaway slaves be returned to their owners and any persons aiding such slaves be prosecuted, even in free States.  Thoreau’s rationale in using the quote is both anti-slavery and anti-imperialist, since in the essay he also goes on to attack the U.S. war against Mexico.  He felt strongly in both cases that citizens should not allow themselves to be used as agents of injustice. His condemnation of slavery encompassed not only the Southern slave holders, but also their Northern accomplices in New England, “…who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may.… There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them.”  He exhorts his fellow citizens, therefore, not simply to wait for the next election and vote for justice, since this was the equivalent of wishing for it.  Instead, people should actually be just and to act justly, not to violate their consciences, no matter what the law required, even if such a stand brought imprisonment.

Yes, Thoreau advocated that citizens ought to refuse to pay taxes, not because the government had no right to tax or because he wanted to hold onto his money, but because taxation supported an unjust system (slavery) and an unjust war.  “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” he states,

“.… where the State places those who are not with her, but against her,– the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.… Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.”

Obviously, the speaker was unaware of both the author and the context when he used the quoteSince he doesn’t seem like a big reader, he should have used Wikiquote.  It’s usually more accurate. But then, he wasn’t the only one.  During this campaign misattributions were falling like acorns (the result of over-reliance on the Net).  Both sides quoted our Founding Fathers with an accuracy that would make even Norm Crosby laugh.  The speaker may have also been oblivious of the fact that Jefferson did say this:  “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”  Old Tom is famous for his articulating the Constitution’s “wall of separation” between religion and government.  Few people know he also advocated erecting a similar wall between government and corporate power.

I agree that government can at times be meddlesome and avaricious.  It is not the answer to all our ills and can be an ill in itself. The problem, however, is that there is often too much government regulation in one sector (usually the bottom) and none at all in another (usually at the top).  Was the recent economic meltdown the result of too much government?  It is tragic that many earnest and hardworking citizens involved in the Tea Party movement do not see that there are more powerful and sinister forces at work, channeling and manipulating their anger in order to give yet another green light to more corporate deregulation, unbridled greed and the continued siphoning of wealth from the bottom to the top.

Secondly, the speaker’s claim that “America will remain great if we remain proud of America” is not patriotism but empty chauvinism. There is nothing wrong with national pride; every nation has it. Such pride is common; true greatness is not. For it is not merely a nation’s pride which determines its greatness.  History is replete with powerful nations.  To be powerful, all one has to do is have a large citizenry and bigger bombs than one’s neighbor.  But true greatness implies more than mere size or strength; it involves greatness of character– as one of Shakespeare’s characters says, “Good king, great king– but not greatly good.”  He’s referring to moral greatness.

America will never be truly great until it is willing to look honestly at its failings, sins and injustices and correct them.  That would be a truly great country.  America does not need more pride; we have enough for the rest of the world combined.  We need more soul-searching.  We don’t need more power; we need more justice. In effect, what that speaker was saying was this:  “Don’t take your eyes off the flag, because if you do, even for one moment, you will see things you do not want to see, things that will fill you with shame and anger. You might even notice that we’re stealing you blind.”

Thirdly, we need not only to be “proud” of those “founding documents” (i.e. our Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence), we actually need to take them seriously and practice their principles, not tossing them to the winds as soon as trouble bares its ugly teeth. As one politician said during this campaign: yes, no doubt we could capture more terrorists if we just dismantled our system of civil rights, but that is not a country we would want to live in, is it?

And lastly, I felt disgusted, but not surprised, at the lack of press coverage of the war during this election. It seems that the biggest discretionary expenditure in our budget (over 1 trillion dollars so far) is a non-issue when it comes to the election cycle.  So I guess the American people can’t think of more than one thing at a time? Or more likely, our leaders and their servants in the media want us merely to forget about the thousands of our children and hundreds of thousands of civilians lost in these conflicts.  ‘Cause that might make this great people uncomfortable, and we can’t have that.  Some greatness. 


So keep waving that flag, O elected officials and men and women of the press.  All those stripes and stars are colorful and distracting, and they’ll keep us from focusing on what’s really important. 

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