REFLECTIONS ON HOPE AND HEROISM AND THE WORK AHEAD OF US!
It has been an interesting month* as far as the news is concerned. We have our issues of course. The U.S economy, as Vice President Biden acknowledged honestly, is worse than expected. The overwhelming media attention to the death of Michael Jackson. The tragic murder of Steve McNair takes away a pro football figure that many including me admired as an icon of the sport. The unpredictable shifts in career direction for Sarah Palin continue unabated. This is what has filled our papers.
Well, fortunately that is not the sum of it, for the past several weeks have also witnessed some events of much greater significance and I believe transcendental importance as the people of the world and their leaders, at least in some places, strive to achieve greater freedom and justice and peace.
We have witnessed hundreds of thousands of people in Iran risk their lives—and in hundreds of cases give their lives—to achieve freedom and ownership of their lives. One of these brave souls—Nada—who was killed mercilessly while protesting in a square in Teheran—will be a beacon of inspiration for decades to come. She has entered that galaxy of heroes willing to risk their lives for what they see as a moral right—the right of every individual to freedom and justice. The fact that we are still so far from achieving this ideal should not, cannot be allowed to discourage us from what we can to progress toward it.
We have also witnessed President Obama in Moscow signing an agreement with President Medvedev to reduce nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles.
We celebrated the 4th of July, recalling that 233 years ago 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence. It contained not only one of the most aspirational but in relationship to the then current reality one of the most preposterous propositions imaginable: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Imagine saying that while 600,000 slaves were being held as chattel in this country, while slavery was a legalized institution in every country in the Americas, when women were largely consigned to the home and unable to vote, while individuals of different religious persuasion were sometimes being burned at the stake, when the death penalty was being carried out in many of the most “advanced” countries by decapitation when it was intended to be “humane,” and by having a team of horses draw and quarter the human body when it was not.
Yet, I hate to think where we would be if these ideals had not been expressed so cogently in these 36 introductory words to our Declaration of Independence.
There is no prevarication here. Not a bit of wiggle room. No “ifs, ands or buts.” No “we believe;” no, “it is our view.” No “in most circumstances.” No qualifications whatsoever. Rather: “We hold these truths to be self evident.” Truths we know to be true based on our religious convictions and by our moral reason. These ideals have served and continue to serve as a calling, as a vision, as a justification, and above all, as a mandate to move forward. Again and again, for example in speech after speech, letter after letter, President Lincoln, whose 200th birthday we celebrate this year, anchored his opposition to slavery in the Declaration’s articulation of the right of every person to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
And the world has progressed. Slavery, legal in every country in the Americas at the time of the Declaration of Independence, is now legal in none. Torture, while far from extinct, draws the greatest scrutiny not only when practiced by our enemies but by ourselves. We talk about abolishing the death penalty altogether. We, in the U.S, have elected our first black president. I shake my head as I remind myself that in the year I joined P&G (1963), there were still high schools that only allowed black boys to swim on Friday, then cleaning out the pool over the weekend so the white boys could swim from Monday to Thursday.
The peoples of Eastern Europe risked their lives (and many gave them) in the late 1980s and early 1990s that had been denied for decades. Anyone approaching my age will remember the inspiring scene of hundreds of thousands of people joined together in Wenceslas Square in Prague just 20 years ago demanding their freedom and freedom came as it did shortly thereafter in Romania and Bulgaria and Ukraine and the other countries of Eastern Europe. And then there is South Africa, lifted from the plague of white apartheid thanks to the courageous and persistent leadership of Nelson Mandela and the hundreds of thousands who supported him.
Of course none of these advances was obtained easily or quickly. It was one thing—and a great and bold thing—to author and sign the Declaration of Independence. It was another to WIN that independence. That took a war and the sacrifice of thousands of lives. That sacrifice was made by many of those who signed that Declaration. Of the 59 signers, five were captured and tortured by the British; nine fought and died in the Revolutionary War; 12 had their homes ransacked and burned by the British. No, freedom is not free.
Before slavery’s legal status was ended, an estimated two million enslaved men and women had died aboard ships bringing them to the Americas and hundreds of thousands more died fighting for their freedom after they had arrived. People of all races and creeds risked and gave their lives as part of the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights movements which were determined to make real the freedom pledged in the Emancipation Proclamation.
No, freedom is not free. It takes courage and stamina. It requires that people stand up for what they believe to be the moral right of every person to be all they can be.
Yet, there has been progress. I cite this not as a source of self-satisfaction and even less a justification for any sense of complacency but rather as a source of hope and of energy and courage to continue on. And continue on we must for the gap between “what is” and “what ought to be” is still very great.
We take satisfaction from the reduction of nuclear warheads held by Russia and the United States but have to recognize that the use of even a fraction of the thousands that remain would end civilization, as we know it. And new countries are developing these weapons as you read this.
Yes, slavery has been outlawed virtually everywhere as an institution. Yet, there are an estimated 27 million people held in bondage and other forms of contemporary slavery, including sex trafficking.
Women continue to be denied education, the right to vote and work, and other natural rights in far too many parts of the world. In our own country, tens of millions of people are without health care insurance; the drop-out rates in our major urban areas continue to hover near 50%; the cry to improve our childhood development and educational outcomes in The Nation at Risk report of 1983 is still there 26 years later, even more so given the competitive global world in which we live.
While more conscious of the need to act responsibly to protect our planet environmentally, the gap between where we are and where we need to be is very large.
Yet, still, with all we have to do we should not be discouraged. I have experienced and learned more than enough in my 70 years on this earth to know that man has the capability for great good and considerable evil. We are a mixture of instincts, drives and motivations. Yet history shows that with perseverance and courage and acting in line with that basic instinct to do what we believe is right and put ourselves in the other persons’ shoes and, yes, sometimes with a bit of luck we can – and we have – made progress. Major progress. Progress that in earlier times seemed inconceivable. If in the 233 years since this country’s founding slavery has been eliminated as a legal institution, if life expectancy in the developed world has been extended by over 20 years, if women have achieved the right to vote and receive education and take leadership positions, if the countries of Western Europe instead of having a war every 30 or 40 years are joined together in a strong if not perfect economic union, if Russia and the United States can become allies on many important matters, who is to say we cannot make major progress against the most important issues of our day!
As Susan Neiman says in her excellent book Moral Clarity, the demand today is not to abandon the ideals of our youth. What we must abandon is the naïve belief that they will be completely fulfilled. The abyss that separates “is” from “ought” is too deep to bridge entirely. But we can narrow it and narrow it significantly and to do that we need the same kind of visionary and uncompromisingly expressed belief and goal that the authors of the Declaration of Independence articulated 233 years: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights (including) life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Very few of us will be called upon to risk our lives in the name of Freedom as were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, or the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, or President Lincoln, or the protestors still on the streets of Teheran. But we will be asked to do something still challenging and less dramatic. We will be asked to live for and make a difference in supporting the dignity and potential of others whose lives we touch. Much of this can be considered banal, acts that can be hard to recognize as heroic: caring for a sick relative or friend, mentoring a young child, helping out at a soup kitchen. The best lives combine both the great and the good.
Again, as Susan Neiman writes, heroism that stays alive is harder to notice precisely because it is impure, hazy and jumbled. Ordinary goodness is fraught with veins of vanity and self-interest and above all with pleasure, because goodness makes one feel alive. But that does not detract from its adding to the dignity and happiness we can provide to the lives of others.
So I say: there is much to do. And it is urgent that we go about this work for today’s generation and for all that follow. There are more than adequate grounds for hope that we can do this. Hope anchored in the progress that has been made in the past. Hope fired by the inspiration provided by individuals who have fought valiantly on their own behalf and on behalf of others for Freedom. Individuals who bring to life those values of courage and perseverance and cooperation that at our best will lead all of us to do all we can in our circle of influence to advance the personal dignity and freedom for those whose lives we touch.
*I wrote these reflections on July 4th, 2009