OXFORD — Did a teacher make you memorize the Declaration of Independence, or at least the first few paragraphs? With apologies, here’s an update … if written by today’s political leaders:
“When in the course of human events it becomes expedient to exploit people for purposes of power and to forsake the principles of good government at the altar of maximum self-preservation, our method will be to deceive and disregard the betterment of mankind through tactics to create and maintain division.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are susceptible to manipulation, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable vulnerabilities and among these are fear, complacency and competitiveness, and by that preying on these vulnerabilities, gridlock will keep us in office.”
The actual declaration, celebrated his week, boldly enumerated the natural rights of humanity and the invidious nature of too much government.
The first portion of the document was followed by details of King George’s abuses of the colonists. Good thing we didn’t have to memorize all that.
Since July 4, 1776, most new nations have recited similar ideals, knowing it would be up to the people to promote and protect the common good on an ongoing basis.
America’s design team believed in this, for sure. It’s just that you’d never know it by watching five minutes of “news” from our capital.
From ancient times, it has been well-established that the weakest argument is what the Romans called an ad hominem. We don’t call it that in Mississippi. We should, however, recognize when a person delivering a message is attacked in an attempt to discredit the message. For example, “Fred drives an F150 and says it’s a really good truck.” And then, “What do you expect? Fred’s from Louisiana.” See? When the response is about Fred as opposed to what Fred said, that’s ad hominem.
Democrats have some good ideas. Republicans have some good ideas. But that’s lost — completely — in a media-exploited political environment that pits people against each other.
A derivative of the ad hominem also fails to hold water. Our parents told us two wrongs don’t make a right, yet look at what passes for reasoned debate today: “Donald Trump is a sexual predator.” “So was Bill Clinton.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Republicans answer criticism of their immigration actions with clips of Democrats also calling for strict border security.
When Republicans first gained congressional majorities two years into President Obama’s first term, an explicit and implicit pledge was to thwart him in every possible way, to assure his time in office would record few, if any, successes. The loyal opposition, which is an essential component in a healthy democracy, became the vicious opposition.
Now, the shoe is on the other foot.
“They did it, too,” however, doesn’t move the needle of right or wrong one way or the other. It merely confounds those pursuing the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
Commentator Charles Krauthammer, as it happens, was one of those people. He was a Harvard Medical School graduate who practiced psychiatry, wrote speeches for Walter Mondale and later perplexed his friends on the left by becoming a frequent voice on Fox News. Dr. Krauthammer, who died in June, didn’t stick a finger in the breeze to decide who was right. He took what leaders proposed and evaluated their ideas against the nation’s principles — not what the other camp was saying or doing.
Too few follow the Krauthammer model.
It’s hard to think of a president who has been vilified more by the media than Donald Trump. At the same time, there’s no doubt that Trump — in way over his head and lacking any semblance of a moral center — has it coming.
Meanwhile, as rancor rises, the nation drifts.
There may never have been a time in American history when the focus was totally where those few gathering in Philadelphia thought it should be. Our better angels have won a few rounds and — significantly — we’re still standing despite the dysfunction.
The Declaration of Independence (the real one) closes by asserting that a just government is people-centered, not self-centered. As people design or modify their government — and it is their job — it says they should do so “laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
Not simple or easy, but sometimes we forget that America will always be a work in progress. We become bystanders, too easily misled and manipulated.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.