Fri Nov 7, 2008

Revolution as Fulfillment

Via Cosma, Canadian historian Rob MacDougall on a characteristic American tendency to see radical social change as the inevitable expression of values expressed and promises made at the country’s inception:

“We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” said Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. … King went on: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note … a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

And here Sancho [Panza] or Sacvan [Bercovitch] whispers to the guy standing next to him, “Were they? Really? If we went back in time and asked the architects of the republic–Jefferson and Madison and Washington and the rest–did you mean for this to apply to your slaves too, would they agree? … Because it would have saved a lot of trouble if they’d spelled all this out in 1789.”

The black belt rhetorical jiu jitsu of the “I Have A Dream” speech is that King pulls it off. He convinced the better part of a nation that dismantling segregation was not so scary, not so radical, but really what they’d all meant to do all along. They just hadn’t gotten around to it, like the laundry I need to sort, or those slaves Jefferson never quite got to freeing. … And this is an old and hallowed American trick. On July 4th, 1852, Frederick Douglass blistered the ears of his white audience with prophesy … Douglass reveals that, “interpreted as it ought to be interpreted,” the Constitution is in fact “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” He embraces and celebrates the Constitution as a bulwark against slavery. … At Seneca Falls in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton cribbed Jefferson’s words for her Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, the intimation being that “of course” the patriarchs of 1776 must have intended equal rights for women. … And so on and so on down through history, with every kind of American reformer looking backward to move forward, couching their goals as nothing more radical than America’s alleged founding ideals.

Barack Obama’s big speeches live firmly within this tradition. He’s all about “change,” but it’s change that reaffirms the traditional virtues of the nation. “In no other country on earth is my story possible,” he says … Obama talks about fulfilling “the American promise,” about living up to “the American creed.” “The answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution,” Obama said, almost quoting Douglass, in “A More Perfect Union,” his masterful speech on race in Philadelphia last March: “Yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part–through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk–to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”

I try to explain this maneuver to my students, to show them how it returns again and again in American rhetoric. And then they are free to make up their minds about it. It is logical and entirely defensible to decide, as I think Bercovitch does, that the whole thing is a kind of put on. … But I like my students to at least try to hear the music. To imagine themselves Americans for a day. To contemplate the possibility that words like “all men are created equal” might be bigger and more noble and enduring than the flawed men who wrote them. Like George Lucas and the original Star Wars.

It almost doesn’t matter what Jefferson “really meant” by “all men.” No, that’s not it. It matters. It matters each and every time great and noble promises are broken. But here’s an idea Greil Marcus put in my head: the promises made in the Declaration and the Constitution are so great that their betrayal is an inevitable part of the promise. And that’s what makes them work. Marcus … calls that betrayal “the engine of American history.” The “more perfect union” is a limit approaching infinity. As each generation discovers–inevitably!–that the promises made to them were false, they battle to make them a little more true.

Canadians are not against life or liberty or happiness, in moderation. But we don’t hear the music, by and large. We see windmills where Americans see giants and damsels in distress. And because we do, we don’t have that engine driving us onward, those whirring pistons of the gap between the real and ideal. As a result, we can perhaps be more flexible and pragmatic than Americans: if something is worth doing, we ought to do it because it helps people today, not because of some marching orders we got from Sir John A. Macdonald in 1867. We can stay out of some trouble that Americans seem constitutionally (heh) incapable of avoiding: the world doesn’t always need saving. But, and this is a real but, we can also be passive and maddeningly smug. Here’s a heresy of heresies, buried all the way down in this ridiculously long and breathless essay where I expect few will read it: many of the best reforms in Canadian history (welfare state? multiculturalism? democracy?) snuck over the border from the United States. The Canadian mindset requires less of us. It asks little suspension of disbelief.

Anyway, I guess I must be a lost cause. Revoke my Canadian citizenship. Because last night, for a few hours at least, I totally bought the myth. Like Walt Whitman, I heard America singing.