Today is the Fourth of July.  Today we celebrate that time, back in 1776, when our country was born.  Its birth was announced by that most precious of American documents, the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration announced the reason for the creation of this new country.  Unique in all the nations of the world, the United States was founded, says the Declaration, on a self-evident principle.  That means that the United States was founded, not as a certain land area with a certain kind of people in it.  Rather it was founded on a guiding ideal so fundamental, so undeniable, that if you don’t believe in that principle, if you are not guided by that principle, you are not only not an American; you are unfaithful to what it means to be a human being.

Here is that undeniable, absolute principle:  all human beings are born equal, and every human being is endowed by her or his Creator with inalienable rights.  Inalienable rights are rights that cannot be denied, cannot even be given away.  Before anything else, first and foremost, to be, not just an American, but a human being, means to recognize and be responsible for the rights of every other human being.  As Patrick Henry said so succinctly, my commitment to that principle is more important than even my own life.

This is the profound, the defining beauty of the United States, the thing we celebrate most today.  Before we are anything, before we are a collection of states, before we are a land area bordered by water and other countries, we are a people dedicated to the most fundamental principle, the defining principle of what it is to be a human being.  Yes, we have, individually and as a nation, failed that principle.  At our very founding, we denied these fundamental rights to whole groups of people, to Africans and others brought here as slaves, to people who lived here long before our ancestors ever came here, even to all women.  But we have worked, and we are working, to correct those failures.  That first principle is an ideal, our ideal, and to be an American is, before anything else, to work toward that ideal.

So today we celebrate, laugh and play and watch parades and fireworks.  Tomorrow, July 5, we go back to the hard work of being an American, that most important work of pursuing that undeniable ideal.  We go back to earning a living, of course, but in doing even that we go back to making that ideal come closer to realization.  We do whatever we can to bring us close to that ideal.  We embrace our fellow humans.  We honor every other human.  We contemplate and discuss the best means of honoring our fellow humans.  We vote for people who are committed to that ideal.  If we have the nerve and the strength, we run for office on the simple ground of wanting to make that ideal a reality.  We object, in every way we can, to the conduct of our people and our government that violates that ideal.

It is a hard thing indeed to be a real American.  It is exactly as hard as it is to be a real human being.  So enjoy the Fourth of July.  We have a lot of work to do tomorrow.













“XXX.–In the government of this Commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: The judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.”

With these words, set into the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the State of Massachusetts in 1780, John Adams captured one of the pillars of the American form of government.  In revolting against England, Americans did not merely reject King George III.  They rejected the entire system of government by a single person or group.  This principle of a government of laws and not men is the natural consequence of the founding American ideal that all human beings are born equal and endowed with inalienable rights.     It is a critical point, but one that is easily missed.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all human beings are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”  That statement announces a community based, not on individual license, but on a fundamental responsibility of every human being for every other human being.  We are each responsible for honoring the rights of each of our fellow humans, and that responsibility is what gives us our meaning, and it is even the source of our freedom.  We are free because all those people for whom I am responsible are responsible for me.

The enemy of America’s founding ideal rests precisely here.  When a government makes its decisions, not based on the laws of that government but rather by the orders of a single person or group, the source of the people’s meaning shifts from the ideals embodied in their laws and constitution to the personal needs and desires of the person or group ruling them.  “L’etat c’est moi,” said the imperious Louis XIV.  I am the state, and your rights, and therefore your meaning, are defined entirely by me.  This is the real peril of dictatorship.   The individual has no meaning by himself or herself.  Even the dictator’s meaning is gone, because it is completely subjective.  It might be something one day and something else another.  Moral value derived from one individual is the morality of self-interest, and self-interest is no morality at all.

This is the real, fundamental crisis being caused by Trump’s actions and words.  He may or may not have overstepped his bounds with the ban on seven Muslim countries.  We have a judiciary to determine that in accordance with the laws and constitutional provisions that express our journey to our ideal.  It is what he did in response to that judiciary, and what his people have done in response to criticism, that is far, far more dangerous.  He denigrates the judiciary, calls a judge bigoted or characterizes the judge as “so-called”.  His advisor tells the press to “shut up and listen.”  All this and much, much more describes an attack on the fundamental rights of the people and the checks and balances system that guards those rights.  Trump doesn’t want to befriend Putin.  He wants to be Putin.  His goal is dictatorship, and if he succeeds we will not just lose our form of government, we will lose our very meaning.

We are not a perfect nation.  Our worth and meaning lie in the fact that, with all our flaws and failures, we strive for a perfect ideal.  The actions and words of Trump and his representatives signal an attack on those ideals.  We cannot allow that attack to even begin.




A wise mentor of mine, instructing me on the art of teaching, once gave me a rule that has applications far beyond the classroom.  He said that I should remember that, if one student fails to get my point, it is the student’s fault, but if many students fail to get the point, it is my fault.


If some lone, crazed individual decides to wreak havoc on us, the blame for that lies with that individual.  If, however, a whole group of people espouse some wild view that is damaging to society, we need to ask another question:  what is it that leads these people to commit themselves to such bizarre and destructive movements?


In the case of those who commit themselves to the monstrously perverse worldview of ISIS, the answer is no doubt complex.  It must, however, be addressed if we are ever to rid ourselves of the horror of this societal cancer.


David Brooks, in his December 8 New York Times Editorial, “How Radicals Are Made,” appeals to the analysis made many decades ago by Eric Hoffer.  People, says Brooks sacrifice themselves in the name of a larger cause, like ISIS, out of frustration:  “Their personal ambitions are not fulfilled.  They have lost faith in their own abilities to realize their dreams.”  Their commitment to a destructive cause, says Brooks, can only happen “when a once sturdy structure is in a state of decay or disintegration.”


I am not sure that Hoffer’s observations, directed toward the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, are altogether applicable to the evils of ISIS.  More importantly, however, and with all due respect to Mr. Brooks, we need to ask a far more difficult question:  what is it about us that contributes to people like the man and woman in San Bernardino committing to the heinous slaughter of completely defenseless and innocent people?


At the very least, we have to ask ourselves if we as a society fit the description of “a once sturdy structure in a state of decay or disintegration.”  History teaches us that the decay of any civilization does not appear evident until it is about to collapse.  To detect the signs of decay, I suggest that we need to see if our national and local conduct has wandered from accord with our founding ideals.  For Americans, those ideals are that all humans are created equal and that each human is endowed by her or his creator with certain inalienable rights.  As I read that ideal, it means that our society is grounded on responsibility for others.  Recent events, and recent political discourse, makes clear that a large part of our society places self-interest above that responsibility.  Left unchecked, the worldview of self-interest must necessarily contribute to the decay of our society.


The second and far more difficult question is why so many young people born and raised in America would find it appealing to either leave this country for the misery and savagery of the monstrous world of ISIS, or would decide that their meaning, their “salvation” if you will, lay in destruction and mass murder.


Frankly, I have no clue as to how to answer that question.  I only know this:  we must ask it and we must seek an answer that will help us to reduce or eliminate the desire in these young people to seek such a disastrous course of action.  The fact that it happens, the fact of such people as the couple in San Bernardino, is certainly a calamity.  It is also an opportunity for self-examination, an opportunity to make sure that we are being faithful to the ideal that has made the United States a beacon for the world.


Everyone has experienced the torture of watching monstrous young men, men who have apparently been scoured of any shred of conscience, going about killing everyone they can find. Everyone has equally experienced the torture of seeing a man carrying the body of a little boy who was drowned while fleeing the horror of the world created by those monstrous young men. The juxtaposition of those two experiences forces us to face a critical question, a question beyond all others, a question that might very well decide our fate as a culture and perhaps even as a species. It goes beyond the obvious question of how we expunge these deviate moral mutants. It goes even beyond the question of how we respond to the pleas of these thousands upon thousands who give up all they have to flee the hell that their home has become.

The real question, the question that is being dodged, ignored, evaded, but the question that will define us is not easy to formulate, not because it is so complicated but, on the contrary, because it is so simple. It is the first question, the key question, the question that precedes all other questions. It is the question of meaning, of worth, of value, of significance. It is the question of how we define ourselves. Who are we? What do we stand for? What is it that gives us our identity?

There was something sinister about the Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump demanding that we uproot millions of people and build a wall between us and our neighbors and close our borders to those oppressed by violence and hatred and poverty. What made it so much worse than just bad policy was that Trump insisted that we had to do these things “if we are a country.” To be a country, he was suggesting, means building our own isolated kingdom, identifying ourselves by our assets and our powers, and therefore relating to all other nations and all other people as adversaries, opponents, rivals to those assets and powers by which we have defined ourselves.

There is nothing novel about defining a group of people by power. Kings and czars and dictators have been doing that for centuries. The problem is that, if you define yourself by power, your use of power will ultimately result in your own destruction. As a great thinker who suffered through the wars of the twentieth century once put it, “Not only modern war but every war employs arms that turn against those who wield them.” If you define yourself by power, then you have agreed to the use of power against you. Justice itself will be defined by the use of power. More accurately, there is no such thing as justice or the morality that grounds justice. Justice is the will of the strongest, and there will always eventually be a power stronger than yours, and that power will destroy you. Value, worth, meaning, are all just propaganda techniques.

The problem is that America was not created on the basis of power. It was, in fact, created precisely in opposition to a rule by power. The logic of the Declaration of Independence begins with a first principle, a principle so critical and so elemental that it is self-evident, i.e., impossible to deny. All human beings are created equal, and each human being is endowed by his or her creator with certain inalienable rights, including (but not limited to) life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Being an American is based, not on power, but on the responsibility for the rights of others.

No doubt the questions of responding to ISIS violence and caring for the refugees from the violence of the middle east and elsewhere are difficult, and no doubt the answers to those questions are complex. Before we can begin to answer them, however, we must decide the elemental question of what we stand for. We are a country only so long as we stay true to the ideals upon which we were built. About that, at least one thing is sure: we were not built on walls.


The tragic events in Ferguson and Milwaukee and New York and elsewhere of a black man being killed by police officers has resulted in some strong responses. People have demonstrated, both legally and illegally. People have resorted to violence, including looting and the destruction of property. In response, people have condemned the lawless conduct and have strongly supported the findings of various authorities that the evidence surrounding these killings was not sufficient to require an indictment of those who had done the killing. The relative merits of charging or not charging these officers will be debated for a very long time, and there is abundant evidence to support the arguments of both sides.

There is, however, an issue underlying all of these events that is not being much mentioned, and it is an issue that merits a great deal of discussion. It is this: whatever may be the merits of any particular case, it is undeniable that the experience of being black in America is radically different from that of being white. If you don’t think that’s true, then it is quite likely that you have never raised the subject with someone who is African-American. If you are in that position, then it is easy enough to get the idea by asking yourself this question: all other things being equal, would you prefer to be white or to be black? Aside from a few rather snide remarks that I sense you formulating, I think the honest answer is pretty evident. Being black in America automatically subjects you to some prejudgments and some indignities that few whites will ever experience. For example, many of my African-American friends refer to the traffic offense that they call OWB — operating a vehicle while black. It is still not uncommon in some suburbs for a black person driving a car to be routinely, and frequently, stopped for no apparent reason. Black people find themselves far more closely scrutinized when they browse in stores. Black people still feel held to higher standards when they apply for jobs. And, as is obvious to anyone who looks, there is still a distinct segregation in housing, as witness the so-called “inner city” and the almost lily white suburbs.

There is no quick fix for that disparity, since it is so deeply grounded in history and economics. It does help, howwever, to understand the intense level of anger and deep feeling expressed in the protests surrounding these recent killings. Killing an unarmed man or a boy with a toy gun may or may not be a disputable event. Those killings may even have somehow been justified by the circumstances. I am not a police officer, and I was not present for any of these killings. Nor did I know either Michael Brown or the boy with the toy gun. What I do know is that those killings could easily ratify the undeniable sentiment shared almost universally by the African-American community that they are automatically disadvantaged merely by the color of their skin.

Is that feeling justified? You would have to be from another planet to think otherwise. The centuries-old practice of legal American slavery is barely 160 years behind us. Legal segregation is only a few decades behind us. All-white clubs and churches and neighborhoods abound. Statistics about traffic stops and arrests and job opportunities and a host of other things make it clear that we have a long way to go to achieve, if ever we do, a culture that ignores race in our prejudgments.

So, I put it to you, here is the value of all this intense unrest. It is an opportunity to have the real discussion that we have so long avoided. We need to look at those marches and demonstrations and even that looting and destruction as a rebuke to our nonchalant dismissal of the issue of race in America. We ignore, and even promote, the continuation of the problem at our peril. America has put equality as its ideal. This unrest demonstrates that we have not achieved it, and we will not have it until we face this cancer that has existed since the founding of the Republic.