Founding Nonsense: 21st Century Problems, 18th Century Solutions
I would like to begin by stating I graduated in May of 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in history, and I am in no way attempting to discredit the study of history in any way, shape, or form. What my aim is, however, is to extinguish a fire which has been raging in the United States for far too long, and unfortunately has only been given new life with the proliferation of the Tea Party. I do not wish to attack members of the Tea Party for their policies, but my criticism is at the way America often treats its founders. Certain members of the Tea Party are simply easy to point to in this regard as some adopt the dress of the Founding Fathers in the hopes this inane gesture will spark the flames of the inner patriot within the primate who adorns the garb of our most “sacred” of citizens.
It has been written by those who provide a much more acute sense of facet and portrayal than myself of the dangers of blind faith; of the dangers which come with the territory of following the words of those who have come before you, as though they alone were the ones who knew the enlightened path—after all, they lived during the Enlightenment! As true as it is our Founding Fathers were children of the Enlightenment and they indeed did provide the world with what were at the time the greatest political documents the world had seen. But compared to our modern viewpoint, we have far surpassed them in every aspect imaginable. It is our generation which has the potential to shape the world which lay before us, not men who did not grant suffrage to women or who considered those who did not have white skin as three-fifths of a person. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others can be said to be far better moral compasses than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, or any other living person of the time. Should the Founders be credited with the greatness they deserve? Of course they should; but if we fail to come to the realization they were mortal men like you and I, if we attribute the characteristics of divinity to them, then the slave owners who forged the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and the Declaration of Independence have found new slaves who have not advanced in intellect far enough to respect themselves as they properly ought to.
In witnessing the bombast of insanity which is engulfing our political process in the year of another presidential election, and the candidates who insist on following what the Founder’s laid out in their written words, it is my own conclusion, given our circumstances, we must embark on a campaign of practical criticism of the views of those who political leaders take as being the infallible creators of our country. Like it or not, Benjamin Franklin, though the great inventor and scientist he was, could not figure out how to play a song on an iPod. Thomas Jefferson, though as enlightened as he was, would likely be taken aback at the proposition of same-sex marriage, climate change, or evolution. My point is simple: we find ourselves in a moment in time when we can no longer afford to use seventeenth and eighteenth century ideas to solve twenty-first century problems.
Virtually every person in America today has a much more open worldview than the Founders and is vastly more intelligent simply because of our place in history. Society, culture, and technology have evolved far beyond what the Founders could have imagined from their tiny outlooks. The developments of the past decade alone squander the developments made by the Founder’s generation. As a recipient of a degree in history, I do not need to be informed of the importance of the intellectual, cultural, and technological inheritance we have been able to expound upon, but this is my point precisely. We have made our world better. Billions of people are better off today than in the mid-eighteenth century and this is in some part yes, to those who at times rightly deserve praise, but the praise is not theirs alone, nor is the majority of it theirs. No generation of human beings have bettered the world more than the generation which is alive today still innovating, still pushing the boundaries of all aspects of what we now or may come to know. We need no prophets from ages past. Indeed, a man with a prophecy is a fool in need of a more frighteningly idiotic follower. Not us. We have no need, and what is more, we have no time for such fools to watch over us as our fellow citizens brutally criticize us for not adhering to St. Madison or the vicar of our hearts George Washington.
The twenty-first century is just over a decade old. At this time a century ago the Titanic had just sunk and Europe was not yet plunged into World War I. The Massacre of miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado at the hands of the US National Guard in the pay of the Rockefellers was not yet a story not taught in high school American history classes. Was the time simpler? Perhaps it was. Should we wish to know? Of course not and whether it was simpler or not does not imply it was better. Women were not guaranteed the right to vote. Half the population was not recognized by the government as being worthy of possessing such a responsibility. We have come a long way in the last century and we still have further to progress. Our journey will not come to an end by the time we die, but it would be a tragedy if we had to tell our children we failed to tear down all the prejudices we could get our hands on, we failed to let go of our illogical and brutally consequential superstitions. What parent wishes to say to their child they failed to commit apostasy in the greatest way they could, from fallacy to reason; from intellectual drunkenness at the altar of those who have long been dead to the sobriety of a handshake with the living, breathing person who invents the new world alongside you?
The world is never set in stone for all time. It is constantly being taken out of the fire, smashed with a hammer and thrust back in to forge something newer, stronger, and more adaptable to the new conditions we find ourselves in. Such is evolution. Nationalism, as defined by Andrew Vincent in his third edition of his textbook Modern Political Ideologies, states “The word ‘nation’ derives from the Latin terms nasci (to be born) and natio (belonging together by birth or place of birth).” Given the innate tendency within humanity to group itself together into groups both large and small, nationalism may seem like a very natural phenomenon. To a degree this is correct. The groupings we create will foster cultures which will have significance for those who have helped shape them. The interactions which create these cultural expressions will lead us naturally toward great levels of affection for those memes and what they represent to us individually and within the group who creates them.
However, nationalism as a political doctrine shows a much more sinister agenda, and rightly so. Nationalism “makes national self-consciousness, ethnic or linguistic identity into central planks of a doctrine which seeks a political expression.” One would not be hard-pressed to find examples of nationalism in contemporary American politics. Some are perhaps more naïve and harmless than others, while some are crafted with blatant sophistication; with a plain desire to incite bigotry and hurt. There are different extremes presented here obviously, a more benign example could simply be a slip of the tongue utterance which was simply a mistake on the part of the speaker. On the other end of the spectrum could lie this:
I wrestled with my innermost soul; are these people human, worthy to belong to a great nation?
A painful question; for if it is answered in the affirmative, the struggle for my nationality really ceases to be worth the hardships and sacrifices which the best of us have to make for the sake of such scum; and if its answered in the negative, our nation is pitifully poor in human beings.
Before proceeding any further, I am not accusing anyone of being a Nazi or Hitler. The example was brought up simply to show how dangerous nationalism can be when taken to an extreme. This being said, however, I cannot fail to acknowledge the fact we have seen a rise in nationalistic tendencies; both since September 11th, 2001, and since the financial crisis in 2008. While the terrorist attacks on American soil in 2001 were caused by Islamic extremists, many of those who participated in the suicide attacks were highly educated men, several with PhDs. Even with the high level of education which these men had, they still believed something which would seem to fly in the face of a rational, educated person. If we think of Voltaire in his essay ‘Common Sense,’ “An Arab,” he wrote, “may well be a good calculator or a learned chemist or a precise astronomer, will nevertheless believe that Mohammed put half the moon into his sleeve.” Common sense, in the eyes of Voltaire, was the ability to have empirical knowledge about a topic while at the same time holding a contradictory belief which is based on nothing other than faith.
There is the religious element to 9/11 but nationalism often functions as a very dogmatic sort of religion. The notion of blind faith, of allegiance without question is constantly demanded from those in power in nationalistic regimes. A religion, after all, gains its authority from its assertion it has obtained certain knowledge of the world—knowledge derived from a divine, infallible source. During the Middle Ages, as Stephen Greenblatt pointed out in his 2011 work The Swerve, “curiosity was said by the Church to be a mortal sin. To indulge it was to risk an eternity in hell.” When monks were informed they must recite scripture—one monk doing the reading while the rest sat and listened—the Benedictine Rule prohibited any discussion or debate after the recitation had finished. The point of this was discussion and debate might well lead to different interpretations than those sponsored by the Catholic Church. If an opposing view of the world were to gain momentum then the credibility of the established church may be in danger of decline and collapse.
Those who run for political office will often resort to such views, albeit mostly in a less violent manner. However, we have heard on more than one occasion during this campaign cycle how the election in November will be a “fight for the soul of America.” Obviously, a soul is supposed to represent who one really is and so the election will determine our innermost character. In the Christian tradition, it is our immaterial soul which lives on and leaves the material world after death to be judged on where we will spend eternity. Eternal bliss in heaven, eternal pain and torture in hell, or perhaps even in purgatory where we may one day hope to reach heaven. What is projected from candidates who use the slogan of fighting for America’s soul is if we elect the “wrong” person our soul will be a depraved, hollow shell of its former glory; our ensuing damnation will be sure to follow.
Conservatives certainly are not solely to blame for this, but those candidates often invoke a concept known as “American exceptionalism.” American exceptionalism has all the usual characteristics of a strong nationalistic doctrine. It is a concept which views the United States as being qualitatively different from other countries in the world. While it does not necessarily mean America as a country or Americans as a people are superior to people of other nations, many conservative and neoconservative voices have promoted the concept in just such a way. According to the doctrine of American exceptionalism, the American people are viewed as special, not necessarily superior to others, but special nonetheless, and we as Americans hold alone the great destiny to lead the world before all others toward a world of liberty and freedom.
When people ascribe to such a doctrinaire belief about themselves, a new religion has set in with all the dogmatism of the most conservative organized religion. It is us who have the destiny toward greatness, not them. This is ultimately no different than a religion. In religion, because its authority is derived from a supposed knowledge of the world, the view will arise since a certain group has the “right” knowledge—meaning the right faith—those people will see themselves as superior because they know how to act in the world because through their faith, they will be saved after their deaths. As has often been the case, those who believe themselves to possess a sense of superiority will persecute those who have different views. Medieval Christians often turned to Jews to persecute because since Jews denied the divinity of Christ, the Christians believed God thought it was a disgrace the Jews were allowed to exist amongst them. When something bad happened, Christians marched into the ghettos and began killing Jews.
It was the belief of superiority which justified the actions carried out by the Christians. It was the same with the case of the Nazis, Stalin, and the Inquisition. “It is often government,” Jared Diamond wrote, “that organizes the conquest, and religion that justifies it.” We are certainly nowhere near carrying out another attempt at genocide as the Nazis did less than a century ago, but it is worth remembering some of the ideas of eugenics which the Nazis explored were adopted by them from Americans. Henry Ford after all was a supporter of Nazism, as well as other prominent figures in the US. Even one of the most renowned philosophers of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger, was a full-fledged Nazi.
My point here is a simple one: we have no need, nor can we afford such thoughts and concepts to infiltrate and dominate our discourse. I am not suggesting the slightest bit of pride in our country will lead us down the road of totalitarianism, perhaps the likes of which Orwell could not even have imagined in our new digitalized world. What I am saying is we should reject any notion of dogmatism which is conjoined to our national figures, even the ones we are most proud of. If we crack open the door to dogma and blind faith, we will simply succumb to nonsense.
It is for this reason I titled this essay Founding Nonsense. It is not meant as a dismissal of what the Framers of the Constitution did whatsoever. The nonsense is what political candidates use to play off the emotions of voters to get them to believe a few slave owners who lived two centuries ago had a better moral picture of the world, and acquired the correct path and vision for such a holy land. The plain fact of the matter is the Founding Fathers would not have been able to comprehend some of the problems we face today. Climate change is an issue which is of immense importance to us today, but is something the Framers would not have ever thought of as even possible. It is easy to see why given their drastically limited scientific knowledge compared with ourselves. A social issue which is still very divisive today sadly is same-sex marriage. In the eighteenth century the issue would have been an easy one. Given their limited knowledge of biology, genetics, and neuroscience, it would have been unthinkable to grant the right of marriage to same-sex couples.
In conclusion, we should not rely on what the Founding Fathers said about many things. The world is incredibly different than it was at the end of the eighteenth century. With this change we have seemingly advanced in some areas and regressed in others. The problems we face are unlike those any other generation of humans have had to deal with. These new challenges require new methods and new institutions to deal with them and we have new technologies which will help us communicate and navigate our way through the new difficulties. While we can recognize the contribution the Framers have bestowed upon us, it would be terribly brainless if we should in turn bestow upon them the title of sainthood. “There is no morality,” Voltaire wrote, “in superstition….morality is the same among all men who use their reason.” We must not dwell and worship; we must only learn and progress, move on, and evolve. We can take the latter path and give our best efforts to ensure the survival of our species on the planet, or we can frame each election as a battle for our redemption or damnation. We may blindly cling to the past, or we may study without fear of decrying historical figures in order to preserve the great intellectual tradition which we ourselves were given through the same method: demolish the sacred and forge a discussion.
 Andrew Vincent, Modern Political Ideologies, Third Edition, Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992, 1995, 2010, p. 226.
 Ibid. p. 227.
 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, New York: Mariner, 1999, p. 41.
 Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, New York: Penguin, 1972, 2004, p. 377.
 Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2011, p. 16.
 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1997, 1999, p. 266.
 Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, p. 322.