It's time to ask yourself what you believe


Here, I’ll go first:

I believe that if people are to live together in societies, we must then form some kind of government. And further, that social democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms, and that capitalism isn’t a value or a model so much as it is a fact of societies themselves. Capitalism is like our thoughts: they arise whether we planned for them or not.

I believe the founders were right to guard against the tyranny of one person, and also right to guard against the tyranny of the mob. I believe what Benjamin Franklin said to a passerby after the Constitutional convention is true: that we have a Republic, if we can keep it.

In other words, it’s up to us.

President Obama echoed that sentiment in his 2020 convention speech: that power in our Democracy can only be taken from us if we give it away. But I also believe, crucially, that he meant us together, not us as individuals.

Not me with my gun and you with your gun, but us as a country with the gifts of reason which evolution (or God, if you want) gave us. I live in this society with you, and you with me, and thus it is us who must decide. Or, you could just not show up, which means you leave it to me, and you forfeit all rights to complain later that anything has been taken from you.

Also, I believe this, and it may be cliché, or it may be naive, but I don’t think so: the things which unite us are far, far greater than those which divide us. After all, we are all human:

So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests, and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link, is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

You will note: none of that has changed one iota since Kennedy spoke the words at a 1963 commencement address for American University. We all still inhabit this small planet. We are all still mortal.

Living in rural New Hampshire for most of the past year, where one can see Trump signs in equal number alongside Biden signs, the two mingled together on country roads weaving through fields and farms and across rivers and mountains, I can only say I still believe that.

We all want meaning and purpose in our lives. We all love our kids and want them to succeed and be happy. We all want to be treated with decency and respect. I believe in the importance of family: fatherly, motherly, brotherly, and sisterly love. We learn to love each other, most of us, through our family.

I believe the goal of a modern society should be to carefully, thoughtfully, expand that love outward toward a progressively increasing circle of humanity: our friends and neighbors, our towns, our community, our country, and yes, each and every living human. What other choice is there? Tribalism, greed, and war.

As a core value, I believe broadly in secular humanism, which is to say I believe the moral foundations for a good and meaningful life do not come from without, but from within. That whatever meaning and purpose exists, we can find it for ourselves and in dialogue with each other.

I believe America to be exceptional in many ways: in our optimism, in our historic stability as a Democracy, in our multi-cultural foundations, and perhaps especially in the fact that the vast majority of us self-selected to leave everything behind in pursuit of a better life, or is descended from those who did. That genetic heritage is real and it is with us. And yet many of us were also brought here enslaved and in bondage, a legacy that is also real, and still with us. If there is any kind of core to American identity, I believe it must be found there: in somehow reconciling all that hope and optimism and freedom with the legacies of slavery, oppression, and racism.

America is exceptional in other ways, too: in its level of gun violence, in the number of its own citizens it decides to incarcerate, in its hypocrisy (a country built on equality which tolerated slavery; espousing peace while instigating war; championing human rights while abridging them; I could go on). And we are exceptional in our certainty in our own exceptionalism.

Finally, I believe as I said at the top that societies must determine how to govern themselves — even the most anarchic, supposedly egalitarian hippie communes ultimately had systems of voting and decision-making on behalf of the group’s welfare. It really is inescapable. And thus, if you believe as I do that we must form a government, you must also believe that government has a role to play in our lives.

I do not believe, as others before have suggested, that “government is best which governs least.” In fact, I believe that sentiment is reductive dribble, and no wonder it was (wrongly) attributed to someone famous for living alone in the woods for a while, and then writing about it. On the contrary, a government and its people must determine under which circumstances government is necessary and right and just, and set in place the institutions and mechanisms which enable government to do its job and do it well. It’s not simple. It’s hard damn work, not for the faint of heart or for the ideologues.

Ultimately, you have to ask yourself: do you believe in government at all? Is government a thing that should work? In my lifetime, I’ve never seen a national Republican party which believes that it should. At least since Reagan declared “government is the problem,” the national GOP has been concerned mostly with breaking government, and then pointing to it and yelling ad nauseam, “Look, see? It’s broken!”

Like a child.

So, it is indeed time to ask yourself what you believe. Do you believe this little American experiment can prevail? Or will it perish from this Earth, as Lincoln surmised it might?

Or I suppose you could consider whether has it already perished from this Earth. Is the country we live in today too far gone, too divorced from reality, too detached from the will of the people who consent to be governed? Have we so broken the social contract? I believe, actually, that we have, but also that the founders gave us the amendment process so that we could fix it ourselves. People forget that when the founders met to draft a new Constitution, implicit in their actions was a literal plot to overthrow the existing government, which they eventually did… simply by meeting and voting to do so.

Perhaps ultimately, in the final analysis, the question isn’t whether the social contract is broken, but whether we as a people have so lost touch with our humanity, with what really matters in life, that we are incapable of fixing ourselves.

So, that’s it. Up to you America. A Republic, if you can keep it.