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2020-02-08

Progress is Our Myth and Our Reality

There's a famous quotation by John Adams that bears repeating:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
Adams was writing his wife while we were fighting the British in our war of independence. The prospect of victory was on the horizon, but by no means assured. Yet, he offers us a progression of steps from one generation to those that follow where the purposes of our lives are meant to rise. Granted, he only lists his sons as involved in the endeavor, but that's just a relic of his time. The point here is that he embraced both the gritty reality of his time and the promise of the future. 

We stand at a similar juncture faced with grim realities. We suffer under a regime animated by white, male supremacy and abetted by institutions that should have other, more important allegiances. These include some in the evangelical community who forsake the admonition to love one's enemies to those in Congress who ignore their oaths to protect the Constitution. It seems that their love of power and hopes for reasserting gender and racial supremacy obstruct these higher callings. 

What would Adams have made of these people and the situation where we reside? What would his colleagues say who later worked to create the Constitution and form a government meant to serve the general welfare? 

Some may call these the myths of the American imagination. And they have some justification for using the term. since when our government was founded it enslaved one-fifth of the people living here and continued periodic efforts to drive Native Americans from their lands. Moreover, Adams and the other Founders did not "remember the ladies" in their formation of the new government. It was not until 1920 that we rectified the prohibition against women voting and not until 1965 that we did the same for people of color in the South. Most of our history is a story of conflict and subjugation as white men spread their domination across the continent. 

Yet, there is that persistent myth. There is the notion that all are equal, however imperfectly expressed and usually honored more in its breach. The myth persists and animates those who oppose efforts to silence others' right to speak--whether on the street or in the ballot box. 

The myth lives as a progressive dream, like Adams' thoughts about the generations to come. It has power to lift our eyes above the ground we must of necessity trod. It beckons us to become better than we are. 

The myth calls for pragmatic and practical steps. More to come.