Saturday, June 18, 2011

The (2-Part) Question O'The Day: Who Are We & Where The Hell Are We Going?

Duke history prof William Chafe asks some tough questions (in addition to the title of this post): Is health care a right, or something only the comfortable can afford? Is quality education something that every child deserves, or is it something that only those who can afford it should have? For the answers to all of these questions, so tuned. If this is a (fair & balanced) query, so be it.

[x Seattle Fishwrap]
Wrestling Partisanship Is The American Way
By William Chafe

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The partisan battles tearing us asunder in America today raise a fundamental question that has reverberated throughout our history — who are we as a people? Are we a community that places the good of the whole first, or a gathering of individuals who value first and foremost each person's ability to determine their own fate.

The choice is artificial, of course. Each day, our lives represent a mix of the two. But looking at our history in light of these competing values can illuminate the choices before us.

When the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 in search of religious freedom, their leader John Winthrop delivered a sermon titled "A Modell of Christian Charity." Winthrop said their mission was to create a "city upon a hill," a society that embodied values so noble that the entire world would emulate them.

Winthrop wrote, we would need to strengthen, defend, preserve, comfort and love each other, and bear one another's burdens. "We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes the community as members of the same body."

Massachusetts was governed in its early decades by a sense the communal good must prevail. "Just prices" were prescribed for goods, and punishment was imposed on businesses that sought excess profits.

Soon enough, a surge of individualism challenged such regulations. Entrepreneurs viewed communal rules as shackles to be broken so they could pursue individual aspirations — and profits. The "just price" was discarded.

While religion remained a powerful presence, secularism ruled everyday business life, and Christianity was restricted to a once-a-week ritual. Class distinctions proliferated, economic inequality increased, and the values of laissez-faire individualism displaced the once enshrined "common wealth."

Not surprisingly, these tensions between the good of the community and the freedom of the individual have continued through history. Thomas Jefferson sought to resolve the conflict in the Declaration of Independence by embracing the ideal of "equal opportunity" for all. But he did so in the context of celebrating the "inalienable" rights of every citizen to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Note that he did not champion equality of results, only equality of opportunity.

Still, Americans have rallied to support the value of the common good against special interests, or unbridled individual freedom. The nation fought a Civil War to erase the contradiction that slavery posed for the dream of equal citizenship.

As sweatshops, diseased tenements and unsafe factories blighted cities at the end of the 19th century, Americans insisted on legislation ending child labor, ensuring factory safety and creating food-safety standards.

During the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt called everyone's attention to that one-third of a nation that is ill-housed, ill-clothed and ill-fed, and Congress passed legislation establishing Social Security for citizens over 65, protecting the average farmer from foreclosure, and guaranteeing the right of working men and women to join unions.

This focus on the "good of the whole" culminated during World War II when everyone was reminded that they were part of a larger battle to preserve the values that "equal opportunity" was all about — the dignity of every citizen, the right to freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom of political expression. That same set of concerns resulted in enactment of civil-rights legislation in the 1960s, the anti-poverty program and Medicare.

Today, the conflict between the good of the whole and the ascendancy of individualism lies at the base of our political debates. Is health care a right, or something only the comfortable can afford? Is quality education something that every child deserves, or is it something that only those who can afford it should have?

Do we wish to bear one another's burdens, as Winthrop wrote, or do we make each individual responsible for his or her own fate? These questions have confronted us at each turn in our history. Now, more than ever, they challenge us to find an answer to: "Who are we? And which direction do we wish to go in?" Ω

[William H. Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History at Duke University, and the former president of the Organization of American Historians. His most recent book is The Rise and Fall of the American Century: The United States from 1890 to 2008 (2008). Chafe attended Harvard University and earned his bachelor's degree in History. He received a PhD in history from Columbia University.]

Copyright © 2011 The Seattle Times Company

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