Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Another Round on Self-Evident Truths

At Power Line, friend (and nemesis!) Steve Hayward replies to my suggestion that he reads rather too much into President Obama's second inaugural by using rather too little of it. Steve originally used just a few words from this line of that speech—
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” 
Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. 
—to suggest that Obama's belief system is (ahem) less than fully American. "May be self-evident" suggests residual disbelief in the proposition. I suggest the fuller passage indicates the president's unmitigated acceptance of said proposition.

Steve replies:
No sensible person disputes that we work out our ideas in space and time with great difficulty, but Obama’s use of “may” is extremely telling, like the academics I meet who unfailingly say “Lincoln was right—for his time.”  What about our time, today?  What about Lincoln’s view that the self-evident truths of the Declaration were true everywhere and always, as Jefferson put it?  I’d bet a lot of money that Obama does not believe that.  Does Joel really believe differently about Obama’s deepest philosophical views?  Why would Obama believe differently? 
Since my original critique of Steve's post was founded on the idea that getting inside the president's head—any president—is a fool's errand, I'm going to try to decline speculation about "Obama's deepest philosophical views." I don't know what they are; I can only know what he says and what he does.

But as it happens, I think it's rather easy to see what's going on here. To get at it, we have to talk a little bit about race. The president is a black man, you may have noticed; it's easy to see why the words he used in the speech may be full of what seem, to Steve, to be qualifiers.

Even without being black, I can agree with this idea: That all humans are created equal; that they are endowed with unalienable rights, among them the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (My agnosticism prevents me from attributing these rights to a creator of any sort, but I can nonetheless agree that these attributes are fundamental to humanity as I understand it.)

The problem here is "self-evident." Are these propositions self-evidently true or not? To me, the answer is an easy "no." I feel like the weight of history bears me out much farther than the rhetoric of the Founders on this point.

"All men are created equal?" True. But self-evident? When nobody bothered to articulate this principle quite this way until the late 18th century? Meaning pretty much all of humanity missed it over the preceeding couple of millennia? No.

"All men are created equal?" True. But self-evident? Not when the author could look out his mansion windows and see slaves toiling in his fields.

"All men are created equal?" True. But self-evident? The same president who affirmed that proposition at Gettysburg earlier told voters, "Iam not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races."

"All men are created equal?" True. But self-evident? Not to Strom Thurmond, or Jesse Helms, or David Duke, or (let's include Democrats here, for equal time) or Robert Byrd or Richard Russell or anybody else you'd like to name.

We haven't even talked about women yet. Or Jews. Or the Chinese. Or Hispanics. Or gays.

Truth? Yes. Self-evident? If those words mean what I take them to mean—that the truth is blindingly, gobsmackingly, manifestly obvious to all who dare gaze upon it, such that there is no contesting the claim—then "self-evident" is an obviously hollow description of the the rights outlined in the Declaration of Independence. 

The president—son of an African man and a caucasian woman, born before the Civil Rights Act—has, I think, a better sense othan many of us how many lives were wasted and lost because those truths, while true, were not immediately self-evident to the supposed heirs of the men who originally spoke and wrote of them. 

True? Yes. Self-evident? No. The difference is important, because if the "self-evident" part is true, then so much of American history ... didn't happen. Or maybe it didn't need to happen, because eventually the warm bath of enlightenment would've washed over us all. But as I said elsewhere recently: History doesn't just happen to us. It's something that we, all of us, make together with our millions of accumulated choices. 

I am uncertain what difference it matters that not only must the principles of the Declaration be true, they must also be "self-evident." To me, it's important only that the former condition exists. I haven't quite discerned from Steve's writing why the second condition must also exist, but I sense that it has something to do with faith, a reliance on forces unseen to knit this all together. For me, I am grateful that the words of the Declaration are true—and that generations of liberal-minded Americans have struggled and worked hard to make those truths manifest.

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