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Posted by aaron at 01:01PM, Tuesday, December 06th, 2005

Doing What's Right: America's Visionary Legacy

What is the American legacy -- the American Dream? We've seen a lot of strident debate lately about the makeup of American families and the definition of marriage; about whether gay Americans may lay claim to civil rights, or whether heterosexuals have a state-given right to exclude others from the state-given protections they enjoy; and about whether the courts will continue to have a Constitutional obligation to interpret laws passed by legislative bodies, ignoring or overturning those which they find to be in violation of the Constitution which covers their jurisdiction -- or whether the role of the courts will profoundly change in this century. While we will certainly continue to see and hear this debate for the foreseeable future, what I haven't noticed is much attempt to put the dialogue we are witnessing right now in the context of other, similar dialogues that have challenged America in the past -- to move beyond covert references to Loving v Virginia and Brown v Board of Education, and note that America's history is defined by the gradual broadening of freedom and equality to encompass ever more of her people.

American history is lit by activist figures who stood up to the majority, moved by their consciences to demand what was right, what was moral, extending freedom and equality to ever more of America's children -- to religious minorities, to non-landowners, to racial minorities, to women. It's unfortunate, but unavoidable, that all Americans didn't always see as self-evident, the necessity of extending these rights and freedoms -- unfortunate that there was a time when most Americans believed that slavery was acceptable, that black people shouldn't vote, that women shouldn't vote, that a man and a woman of different races shouldn't marry, that black schoolchildren shouldn't share schools with white children. But it's a central point of American pride and progress that we have always come around, have always seen what's right, and, in the end, done what's right, driven by our collective national conscience, with the occasional prod from visionaries and prophets with names like Thoreau, Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony, Linda Brown, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King. These proud people showed us, at times, shocking bravery -- standing up for what they knew in their souls was right, regardless of the cost to themselves, and regardless of the often-cruel weight of public opinion.

It can be difficult, in the moment, to see what is right, especially for those of us who haven't had the occasion or necessity to know, to share in the trials and struggles, of proud people oppressed. We as a nation have been blessed by a steady stream of individuals who have shared in the pain and the glory of such struggles, and then stood up to broadcast their clear, blessed vision of righteousness, to fight for what's right, and articulate the necessity of their fight to the nation at large. Well-meaning souls will call upon activists to slow their push for equality, to put it off until the eternal tomorrow when the time will be right -- but there always comes a day when tomorrow is not soon enough. Indeed, the very birth of our nation was the result of one such struggle. One hundred and fifty-six years before that, the Pilgrims fled religious persecution in the Old World to find a New one, where they could be free. Our history, our destiny, has been one of freedom, of expanding equality and acceptance, and this has made us a shining beacon to the rest of the world, inspiring the oppressed to break their chains and overthrow their oppressors across this planet. "Liberte, Egalité, Fraternite" is our legacy as much as it is that of France; that legacy has inspired visionaries from Ghandi to Nelson Mandela. Such struggles have sometimes been bloody -- but we are fortunate that, often, the oppressed have fought by word and example -- by responding to those who hated them with love and patience -- rather than by brick, chain, gun, and gas.

The history of these United States demonstrates that freedom will find a way to prevail, that all of America's children, rich, poor, pink, brown, black, yellow, boys, girls, those who will share their lives, their love, their households, and their trials with women, those who will do so with men, those healthy or plagued by sickness, those who are clever and those who are strong, those who live among the trees and fields, those surrounded by city bustle, those in the desert and those near the sea, those who own land, those who rent, those Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, those brought up Jewish, those brought up Hindu, or Catholic, or Episcopalian, or Moslem, those who worship one God, those who worship many, and those who worship none but the potential of their fellow humans, those with two loving parents and those with none -- that all of us will one day be equals. One day, each child will have as much potential and ability to overcome the obstacles facing her as do her peers. American progress is unstoppable, fueled by the love, and courage, and freedom of our citizens. The day comes for us all, when our children look back at the difficult decisions we made, to extend freedom to more of us, and wonder, why was that so hard? It is our duty as patriotic Americans to help move that day closer, overcoming our personal squeamishness and reservations to make sure that we never rescind or decrease those freedoms that we hold dear, but rather broaden them for the benefit of us all.

Our founding fathers sometimes used their faiths to help illuminate their course -- to pique their own consciences and help them extend the freedoms they loved as far as they could envision at the time. Their vision, like ours, had limits -- but the freedoms they espoused did not, and they did not invoke God's name while using the Constitution of the nation they built to limit any individual's freedom. We have not done so since, either. The highest virtue of many of the faiths that make this country great is love: in the First Epistle of John, from the Christian Bible, we hear that "God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him." Love is not only a Christian virtue, or a Jewish, or a Moslem virtue; Love is an American virtue -- love of freedom, love of our unending pursuit of happiness and our unalienable right to it, love of our fellow men and women, and that love between two consenting, free adults who choose to share their lives and struggles, and, if they so wish, to join in raising proud children. The world is always a violent and troubled place: instilling fear, and hatred, and animosity and oppression, bringing that violence and trouble from the rest of the world to our shining beacon of equality, stripping away rights and freedoms forever in our most precious and treasured documents -- these things are un-American like no others, for ours in a nation of progress, built on the pillars of Freedom, and Love.
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