by Stephen Young, 7/5/08 • I read the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July and, to my surprise, the words came up with a new meaning. Or maybe my current distemper about our politics put new meaning into the old words.
Right there in the famous introduction lies the conundrum that is our polarized politics. The proposition supporting American nationhood is that we hold certain truths to be self-evident. It is a leap of faith voluntarily taken and not requiring any revealed religious truth or rational proof that all are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and that government must not be destructive of these individual rights.
One important proposition here about Americanism is that rights – the vessels for our values, cultures, society, families, ambitions, fears, etc. – come first and governments second. Rights precede government and government must bend before them.
On these grounds five members of the Supreme Court supporting an opinion written by Justice Scalia just overturned a law of the District of Columbia so that individuals could enjoy a right to have guns in their homes for self-defense.
Some of us – the libertarians, social conservatives, along with some voices on the left – give primacy to the originality of rights and resent and resist enlargement of government’s ordering of our lives, culture and society.
Others, however, move first to another self-evident truth: that we are entitled to the pursuit of happiness. Here we have not only affirmation of a culture of consumerism and indulgence, but also a demand that others make us happy when we are feeling blue.
We are entitled, it is assumed, to a feeling of happiness and whatever negates, undermines or threatens our subjective sense of self-satisfaction needs to be done away with.
How odd, if you ask me, that the pursuit of happiness can so easily lead to a deep sense that we are all put-upon victims if we are unhappy.
So right in the Declaration is a serious tension between two visions of what America should be. One looks at what we should do for ourselves and the other at what others should do for us.
Now since 1968 our politics have been largely responsive to the demands of the Baby Boomers. And their choice between the two alternatives for America was clear: let’s us be happy in our own ways.
The Boomers are perhaps history’s ultimate “Me Generation” blessed with lives in a rich country bountiful with opportunity, clean and good food, free and easy sex, facile marriages and divorce, cheap energy, nice houses, technology and all the rest that supports Boomerism as a life-style. What’s not to like?
And thinking about the Iraq War and those who fight, it occurred to me that the greatest cultural triumph of the Boomers was ending the draft. The burdens, risks, and personal regimentation that come with military service were lifted from our society as a norm for all. Now only those who want to find happiness in the military need enlist. The rest of us can pass the buck of responsibility over to their minds and hearts.
I have come to think that such selfishness writ large over a society is both fundamentally unfair and morally corrosive as are all structures of poorly justified privilege.
It is some solace to note that neither major candidates for the presidency this year is a Boomer. I think that America is coming to the end of the Boomer Era. Once they have moved on, we can get a better balance in our culture between acting as responsible individuals and pursuing happiness from such a stance of wisdom and maturity.