The staccato occurrence of violence in America has generated all kinds of handwringing about America losing its unity. We are, the arguments go, losing that all-uniting American spirit. One side says that is because we are dividing by race or wealth or religious beliefs. The other side says it is because we have allowed our borders to be too open and have not retained a homogeneous worldview.
I put it to you that we are not losing our unity, but rather that the key problem is that we were never unified in the first place. What kind of American unity could there have been that would result in Americans slaughtering each other for years in the Civil War? What kind of unity results in court-approved segregation, unpunished lynchings, the crushing poverty and oppressions of the Great Depression and the more recent Great Recession?
The problem is far more central. It lies deep within the very moment of the founding of the United States. The key rationale for this country breaking away from its original rulers was that every human being has certain inalienable rights, and those rights were being routinely violated by the ruling power. Our founding fathers announced that they were creating a nation where these inherent human rights were going to be honored, and that, in fact, those rights would be the very basis of this new form of government.
Sadly, though, the founders left, at the very inception of that government, a gaping contradiction. While proclaiming universal human rights as the very reason for the existence of the new nation, the founders not only tolerated but formally incorporated into that new nation the existence of slavery and the refusal of the rights of women. So the nation was founded on the idea that every human being has certain inalienable rights, and the new nation immediately denied those rights to the majority of its inhabitants.
That cancer would fester until it ultimately resulted in the horrendous slaughters of the Civil War. The war ended, but the denial of rights continued. Women had to fight on to get their basic rights, and their struggle continues to this day. People of color continued to have their rights denied, even by the law itself, and to this day bigotry and prejudices of every kind color our society’s daily life. It must now be clear to all but the densest and most bigoted that being black in America carries with it some serious disadvantages.
So the problem is that, while we were founded on the notion that all human beings have inalienable rights, and while the people of the world rightly hold this nation in awe for putting forth that ideal, the fact is that we have not yet achieved that ideal. We do not hold those truths to be self-evident when we support racial bias in schools and neighborhoods and employment. We betray our denial of those truths when we allow minorities to suffer greater poverty and inferior education and higher prosecution and imprisonment. We give the lie to our commitment to those truths when we put personal gain before community progress and promote the concentration of wealth in a few at the expense of the vast majority.
Nothing in life is simple. There is war. There are bad people, of all colors. We need freedom to grow and to be creative and productive. The ugly experiments in homogenizing people in the former Soviet Union and in Maoist China and most notably now in North Korea make it clear that human rights demand the recognition of individual freedom and diversity. But freedom is not license. Freedom, true freedom, is rather a commitment to responsibility. We are only free when we are committed, heart and soul, not to first protecting our own rights, but to first protecting the rights of every human being. The people that comprise this nation are truly free when every human being within it is given the basic needs of health care and education and adequate living conditions.
The unity of this nation is an ideal that we have never reached. We have not reached it because we do not hold those founding truths to be self-evident. Maybe we never will, but the American dream still lives. Our hope lies in the fact that, while we do not now hold those truths, we still want to.