Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On redemption.

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, then that of blindfolded fear.”
~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, 10 August 1787

Thomas Jefferson, quoted above, was the draftsman and the main author of the Declaration of Independence, which at once declared war on the country that engendered ours, and established the ethos of our nation. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." 

Beautiful, inspired words, yet in Jefferson's America, owning slaves was the norm. He himself owned slaves, and even carried on a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave who worked in his house. Can their relationship ever be considered truly consensual on her part, considering Jefferson owned her? He could do anything he wanted to her, and she must have been painfully aware of this. We forgive Jefferson by saying things like, "He set Hemings and her children free when he died." We do not think overmuch about how he kept them in bondage while he lived. Admittedly, it was a different time, and one that is difficult for us to imagine. The complexities of those relationships must have been very fraught indeed. Still, one thing is clear: Jefferson was a brilliant statesman, and a forward thinking president, but he was far from perfect.

Indeed, he was a slave owner declaring the inalienable rights of all men. This is a contradiction of a particularly American flavor. Our country is filled with contradictions. That's what comes of being a culturally pluralistic nation founded, not upon the history of an unbroken line of peoples, but upon an idea: Freedom -- a word that has great resonance in the ears of Americans. In the above quote, Jefferson, the man who set our nation free with his pen, tells us that people should feel free to question even the existence of God, for it was God who gave us reason, so he must delight in our use of it. 

I think this is a lovely idea, but there are those who would disagree. The Texas Republican Party seems to feel that critical thinking is a dangerous skill to teach children. In their words, "We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority." Clearly, the Texas GOP does not believe that the "fixed beliefs" (read religion) of their constituents can stand up to critical thought, and so this skill should be abolished from our nation's public classrooms. I think Mr. Jefferson must be spinning in his grave.

For a democracy to function well, it must have an informed populace. For people to be well informed in this age of a fragmented, commercially motivated media, people absolutely must have the ability to think critically about what is packaged as "news" these days. More and more we hear incomplete statistics and vitriolic sound-bytes that are crafted by experts to obscure, to confuse, to deflect. BOTH sides of the congressional aisle are guilty of this, by the way. I'm not naive. The middle class electorate is being led around by the nose, often talked into voting against our own interest, soothed into accepting unnecessary warfare while we are impoverished by an outdated healthcare system and a lopsided tax code that favors the wealthy, all the while being represented by a congress that has been bought and paid for by corporate America. The only way for this trend to continue is to keep the electorate from really thinking about the spoonfuls of crap being coaxed down our gullets.

I believe that if there is a God, and if he gave us a brain, he must have intended for us to use it and to use it well. What better way to show him our thanks than to use the gifts he bestowed upon us? Much has been made of this gaff by the Texas GOP, and it should be held up to scrutiny. When people in your government want to keep you from thinking, look out. 

There are still good men in government. I believe Barack Obama is one of them. He's made mistakes, but he's trying his hardest under very difficult circumstances. Another man with great integrity who cares about his electorate is John McCain, a republican who I dearly wish had been sworn in as president of our nation in the year 2001 instead of who we got instead. Both these men are wading uphill through piles of excrement trying to do what is right for their country. Neither of them is perfect. Obama was overconfident and naive when he took office, and the nation has paid for it with a sluggish economy and a congress in chaos. McCain made mistakes too. In his presidential campaign, after years of taking a back seat to lesser men, McCain finally decided to try pandering to see what it got him, and chose a disastrous running mate that made him look like a garden variety power seeker. Do these mistakes undo the greatness of these men?

In answer, I give you this to ponder: Here is a letter written in 1787 by Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, a legislator from South Carolina: "I congratulate you, my dear friend, on the law of your state [South Carolina] for suspending the importation of slaves, and for the glory you have justly acquired by endeavoring to prevent it for ever. This abomination must have an end, and there is a superior bench reserved in heaven for those who hasten it." Another American contradiction: Jefferson, a slave owner, was in his heart an abolitionist. Why, then, did he keep Hemings and the children he fathered by her in bondage? I give you a letter to Edward Bancroft in 1789: "As far as I can judge from the experiments which have been made, to give liberty to, or rather, to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children." From this we can conjecture that he was trying to protect them. Does this redeem him? It's up for debate. I'm not sure it does, but I do like him a little better now that I know this. 

Some of our leaders, like Obama and McCain, are good men with integrity, and they try their hardest. If history shows us nothing else, it is that people are fallible, and they do their best with the circumstances they are given. To tell the charlatans from the good men, we the people need to be free to think about the puppet show they put on for us. 

The long and short of it is: believe in whatever you want. Believe there's a God, or don't. It's up to you. But for the love of God, never stop thinking!

(For a full text article about the Texas GOP go here:

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