Monday, May 16, 2011

Canonizing America's History?

Thank you for your patience as we've waited for Blogspot/Blogger's technical issued to get cleared up!

There was a comment posted on last Wednesday's essay, but it and my subsequent reply were deleted.  I think we're back to normal now, though... or, at least, as normal as I get.  ;-)

So, without any further ado:  today's essay!

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And evangelicals still wonder why I'm so skeptical about the "faith" of our Founding Fathers.

With the drumbeat of conservatives who preach a sanctimonious Christology of America's political heritage growing ever louder, imagine my surprise, stumbling across further proof that our our historical leaders may have been relatively moral, but probably not orthodox Christians.

It seems the self-avowed Deist, Benjamin Franklin, wanted to incorporate an official prayer into the daily proceedings governing the 1787 Constitutional Convention, but was met with stiff resistance by other national leaders of his day. Basically, according to a note in the Library of Congress regarding Franklin's proposal to start each day of the convention in prayer, "the Convention...thought Prayers unnecessary."

So Franklin's idea for prayer didn't really catch on with the bunch of guys modern right-wingers claim to have been so spiritual.

Interestingly enough, part of Franklin's speech that day seems to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Franklin warned that if they didn't request God's guidance, "We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest."

Sounds more like 2011 than 1787, doesn't it?  Particularly since this morning, we hit our nation's debt ceiling, and nobody inside the Washington Beltway seems too anxious about it.

Pressing the Issue of the Press

Which brings me to a second point. We all know how acrimonious politics are these days. A lot of the discord has arisen because today, for better or worse, we have the technology to share information and opinions with the entire country. We also have a press machine - with both conservative and liberal biases - that sticks its nose into everything. Nothing is off-limits, and stories are spun and counter-spun in sensationalistic ways to attract attention, generate advertising revenue, and pretend to convey relevance.

The pace at which 21st-Century information overload swamps our senses with all that's wrong in our country makes it seem as though these present-day problems are bringing the United States to the brink of collapse. And maybe we are.

But how might our present-day mess compare with the good old days during the founding of our country?

Back when we didn't have TV networks, bloggers, and talk radio to document all of the foibles, controversies, immorality, deceit, duplicitousness, and ineptitude which suddenly seem unprecedented today.

For example, consider what I mentioned above when discussing Franklin's prayer idea.  Neo-conservatives tend to wax nostalgic these days over what they perceive as having been some sort of humble theocracy back in country's olden days. Making slogans like “one nation under God” some sort of template by which the Washingtons, Franklins, and Jeffersons of our past intended future Americans to subjugate citizens with other belief systems. Perverting the deific properties of our nation’s documents of incorporation to emphasize the Biblical semantics by which our government today should function. And accusing academics - who’ve acknowledged the frailties, inconsistencies, and outright fallibilities of America’s historic icons - of revisionist propaganda, while perpetrating their own romanticized revisions of what motivated people to establish our great country.

If we knew as much about the events of 1776 and our first Constitutional Convention as we know about today’s power politics, would we be as certain of the righteous intentions of our early government as we are the damnable incompetence of our current legislators? Being the skeptical cynic I am, I wonder how much of what we know of modern government is simply born through the light of incessant media coverage that simply didn’t exist 230 years ago.

Reputations Sometimes Age Well

Granted, starting a brand-new government practically from scratch, incorporating some relatively unproven political ideals on the fly, and stitching it all together among a patchwork of geographically and culturally disparate colonies, remains a stunning sociopolitical feat in the history of civilization.  A pivotal achievement no matter how you look at it, wouldn't you agree?  I can't envision anybody in office today as being capable of dreaming up and implementing what our Founding Fathers did.  And they succeeded back before all of the technological marvels today we think we can't live without!

Yes, they did have the press, and Franklin himself made a small fortune running printing presses and printing periodicals.  The first genuine mass-market newsletter, however, didn't evolve until 1830, in Boston.  And newspapers with what we would consider to be more comprehensive news coverage didn't arrive until the turn of the 20th Century.  Before the First World War, hardly any news organization had a budget for comprehensive news coverage like today's media conglomerates boast.  Which meant that although major stories may have gotten coverage, those who reported them were at the mercy of limited avenues of sources and corroborative agents.  Which meant that the whole truth and nothing but the truth may not always have been what the public was led to believe.

After all, anybody can tell you anything, but unless you can cross-check and verify sources, you're still only getting one side of a story.  Wouldn't it be much easier to run a government when the public has less access to complete truth?  Of course, even today, some conspiracists at the opposite ends of the political spectrum are convinced we're not being told the whole truth about anything.  But we have a much broader perspective of world events today than even our Founding Fathers had.

Not that acknowledging this truth makes the problems we have today easier to solve.  But perhaps it helps to shed some light on why America's early years seem comparatively righteous. 

I'm not saying that today's politicians are really saints;  just that yesteryear's politicians probably weren't either.
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