What Is a Country For?
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
Many of the folks I know are getting ready to play serious defense in 2017, and they’re not wrong. Before we take up our three-point stance on the national line of scrimmage, however, maybe we should ask ourselves not only what we’re fighting against, but what we’re fighting for. What kind of United States of America do we actually want? Maybe, in fact, we could start by asking: What is a country for? What should a country do? Why do people establish countries in the first place?
There is, without question, much that will need defending over the next four years, so much that people fought and died for in the twentieth century, so much that is threatened by the ascendancy of Donald Trump, the white nationalist right, and the Republican Party.
The twentieth century saw the introduction of many significant laws, regulations, and -- yes -- entitlements: benefits to which we have a right by virtue of living in, and in many cases being citizens of, this country.
We could start earlier, but let’s begin with the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. It established the right of workers to collectively negotiate wages and working conditions with their employers and made collective bargaining the official “policy of the United States.”
This policy faces an immediate threat. Identical Republican-sponsored bills in the House and Senate would end the right of unions to require the workers they represent to pay union dues. These bills would, in other words, reproduce at the federal level the so-called right-to-work (more accurately, right-to-starve) laws already in place in more than half the states. If -- or as seems likely, when -- they pass, millions of workers will face the potential loss of the power of collective bargaining and find themselves negotiating with employers as lonely individuals.
Then there was the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which guaranteed a minimum wage and overtime pay to many workers (although not, notably, those laboring in agricultural fields or inside other people’s homes -- workplaces then occupied primarily by African Americans, and later by other people of color as well).
Andrew F. Puzder, Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of labor, opposes the very idea of a minimum wage. This shouldn’t be too surprising, since his current day job is as CEO of the parent company of two fast-food franchise operations, Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.
We could mention other New Deal-era victories under threat: Social Security, unemployment insurance, food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (now known as TANF for Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or more commonly simply as “welfare”), which was created to promote the wellbeing of children in families facing poverty. In the coming Trump years, we can expect predation on all these programs -- from renewed efforts to “privatize” Social Security to further restrictions on welfare. Indeed, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, Trump’s transition team point man on Social Security, is a firm believer in “privatization,” the idea that the federal government should encourage people to gamble on the stock market rather than rely on a guaranteed government pension.
The one entitlement program that will probably survive unscathed is SNAP, because its primary beneficiaries are not the people who use it to buy groceries but the giant agricultural corporations it indirectly subsidizes. It’s no accident that, unlike other entitlement programs, SNAP is administered by the Department of Agriculture.
Then there was the 1937 Housing Act, designed to provide financial support to cities so they could improve the housing stock of poor people, which eventually led to the creation of the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In Ben Carson we are about to have a HUD secretary who, in addition to having announced that he’s not qualified to head a federal agency, doesn’t believe in the very programs HUD exists to support.
And so it goes with the victories of the second half of the twentieth century. In Jeff Sessions, for instance, we have a potential attorney general staunchly opposed to the civil and voting rights won by African Americans (and women of all races, in the case of the 1964 Civil Rights Act). In Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, we’ll have a climate-change denier and fossil-fuel advocate running the Environmental Protection Agency.
Medicare entitles -- there’s that word again -- older people and some with chronic illnesses to federally subsidized healthcare. Its introduction in 1965 ended the once-common newspaper and TV stories about senior citizens eating pet food because they couldn’t afford both medicine and groceries. That program, too, will reportedly be under threat.
There’s more to defend. Take widespread access to birth control, now covered by health insurance under Obamacare. I’m old enough to remember having to pretend I was married to get a doctor to prescribe The Pill, and being grateful for the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that guaranteed me a legal abortion, when a gynecologist told me I couldn’t conceive. (He was wrong.) Then there are the guarantees of civil rights for LGB (if not yet T) people won in the 1990s, culminating in the astonishing 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges granting marriage rights to same-sex couples. All of this could be wiped out with a couple of Trumpian Supreme Court picks.
Nor should we forget that in addition to people’s rights, there are actual people to defend in the brave new world of Trumplandia, or at least to help defend themselves: immigrants, Muslims, African Americans -- especially young black men -- as well as people facing poverty and homelessness.
One potentially unexpected benefit of the coming period: so many of us are likely to be under attack in one way or another that we will recognize the need for broad-based coalitions, working at every level of society and throughout its institutions. Such groups already exist, some more developed than others. I’m thinking, for example, of United for Peace and Justice, which came together to oppose Bush-era wars and domestic policies, the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, a national coalition of community organizations led by people of color, and National People’s Action, another effective coalition of community organizations, to name just three. On the state level, there is the powerful work of the Moral Mondays project, led by the North Carolina NAACP and its president, the Reverend William J. Barber II. In my own backyard, there are the many community groups that make up San Francisco Rising and Oakland Rising.
Such multi-issue organizations can be sources of solidarity for people and groups focused on important single issues, from the Fight for Fifteen (dollars an hour minimum wage) to opposing the bizarrely-named First Amendment Defense Act, which would protect the right of proprietors of public accommodations to refuse service to people whose presence in their establishments violates “a religious belief or moral conviction that: (1) marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or (2) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.”
Defense Matters, But We Need More
As important as such defensive actions will be, we're going to need something beyond a good defense: a coherent reason why all these disparate things are worth defending. We need to be able to say why black lives, women’s lives, workers’ lives, brown and immigrant lives matter in the first place. We need a vision of a society in which not only do all people’s lives matter, but where they all have the possibility of being good lives. We need a picture of what a country is for, so that as we fight, we understand not only the horrors we oppose, but what it is we desire.
Fortunately, we don’t have to start any description of what a good human life consists of from scratch. People have been discussing the subject for at least as long as they’ve left written records, and probably far longer. In the third century BCE, for example, Aristotle proposed that the good life -- happiness -- consists of developing and using both our intellectual and moral capacities to the fullest possible extent across an entire lifetime. The good life meant learning and then practicing wisdom, courage, justice, and generosity -- along with some lesser virtues, like being entertaining at a dinner party.
Aristotle wasn’t an idiot, however. He also knew that people need the basics of survival -- food, clothing, shelter, health, and friendship -- if they are to be happy. Not surprisingly, he had a distinctly limited idea about which human beings could actually achieve such happiness. It boiled down to men of wealth who had the leisure to develop their abilities. His understanding of the good life left a lot of people, including women, slaves, and children, out of the circle of the fully human.
Although it may sound strange to twenty-first-century American ears, Aristotle also thought that the purpose of government was to help people (at least those he thought were capable of it) to live happy lives, in part by making laws that would guide them into developing the capacities crucial to that state.
Who nowadays thinks that happiness is the government’s business? Perhaps more of us should. After all, the Founding Fathers did.
“We Hold These Truths...”
Where should we who seek to defend our country against the advance of what some are now going so far as to call “fascism” enter this conversation about the purpose of government? It might make sense to take a look at a single sentence written by a group of white men, among them slaveholders, who also thought happiness was the government’s business. I’m referring, of course, to the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Its much-quoted second sentence reads in full:
“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, -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Political philosopher Danielle Allen has pointed out that modern versions of the Declaration’s text “update” the original punctuation with a period after “happiness.” But that full stop obscures the whole point of the sentence. Not only do people self-evidently possess “unalienable” rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but the very reason we form governments in the first place is to “secure” those rights. Furthermore, when a government -- rather than protecting life, liberty, and happiness -- “becomes destructive” of them, we have the right to abolish it and put a better one in its place, always keeping in mind that the purpose of any new government should be to “effect” the people’s safety and happiness.
Of course, beginning any conversation with those words from the Declaration raises the obvious question: “Who’s ‘we’?” Can those of us who are women, people of color, descendants of slaves and/or slaveholders, all claim participation in that “we”? Should we want to? Allen, who describes herself as biracial and a feminist, addresses the contradictions inherent in claiming this document for our own in her valuable book Our Declaration. She concludes that we not only can, we must. There is too much at stake for us to cede equality to a white, male minority.
What would it mean to take seriously the idea that people create governments so they can enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? What would the United States look like if that were its purpose?
Let’s start with life. It’s reasonable to think that the Declaration’s authors were following the ideas of another dead white man, John Locke, who believed that people create governments so that they don’t have to spend all their time and energy preventing other people from hurting them, or taking revenge when they’ve been hurt. Instead, people delegate this authority to governments.
But what has the U.S. government done with those delegated powers?
Over the last 15 years of what we still call the “war on terror,” Americans have been told repeatedly that we have to choose between life and liberty, between “security” and freedom. We can’t have both. Do we want to be safe from terrorists? Then we must allow mass collection of our telephone and Internet-use data. And we must create a registry of Muslims living in this country. Do we want to be safe on our streets? Then we must allow federal and state governments to keep 2.2 million people locked up and another 4.5 million on probation or parole. Ours is the largest prison population in the world, in raw numbers and in proportion to our population. Safety on the street, we’re told, also demands an increase in the amount of daily video surveillance Americans experience. And that’s just to start down a long list of the ways our liberties have been curtailed in these years.
At the same time, successive Congresses and administrations have cut the programs that once helped sustain life in this country. Now, with the threatened repeal of Obamacare (and so the potential loss of medical insurance for at least 20 million Americans), the Republicans may literally cut off the lives of people who depend on that program for treatments that help them survive.
The preamble of the Constitution also establishes the importance of life, liberty, and happiness, with slightly different language. In it, “We the people” establish that Constitution for the following purposes:
“to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
Is it possible that our common “defence” is not, in fact, aided by maintaining the world’s most powerful military, garrisoning the planet, and endlessly projecting power across the globe? After all, the United States is protected by an ocean off each coast and friendly countries on our northern and southern borders (although we may not always deal with them as friends should be treated). Certainly, I want my government to defend me from invading armies; on the other hand, I’m not convinced my safety is increased when the United States does the invading.
It’s useful, too, as we think about the purpose of government, to consider the idea of the “general Welfare.” This phrase implies something important: my welfare, my good life, is bound up with yours. The people established the Constitution to promote the welfare of all of us, and not of a tiny, mega-rich minority, which is now running our government. We could do worse than reclaim the importance of the general welfare, with its suggestion that it is the primary business of any decent government to promote our wellbeing.
...And the Pursuit of Happiness
Surely the definition of the good life, of happiness itself, is such a personal thing that it can’t be the subject of legislation or the object of government. Perhaps that’s true, but I’d like to introduce one more thinker here, also white, and, sadly, deceased: the political philosopher Iris Marion Young. In her Justice and the Politics of Difference, she offered a definition of a good human life. We can say, she argued, that a society is more or less a just one depending on the degree to which it satisfies basic physical needs, and equally importantly (as Aristotle also believed), “supports the institutional conditions necessary” for people to participate in self-development. To her, that means “learning and using satisfying and expansive skills,” as well as the expression of “our experience, feelings, and perspective on social life in contexts where others can listen.” But self-development and expression, she says, are not sufficient for a good life. We also need self-determination -- that is, participation in the decisions that affect our lives and how we live them.
We have much to defend, but we also should have a vision to advance. As we fight against a secretary of education who abhors public schools, we should also be fighting for the right of all of us to develop and use those “expansive and satisfying skills” -- from reading and writing to creating and doing -- that make life worth living. In a society with less and less demand for non-robotic workers, education will be more important than ever, not just so people can earn their livings, but also so that their lives are valuable and valued.
As we fight against an administration of generals and billionaires, we should also be fighting for a country where we are free to express ourselves in language, dress, song, and ritual, without fear of finding ourselves on a registry or all our communications in the files of a spy agency. As we fight against a president elected by a minority of voters, we fight for a country in which we can take part in the decisions that affect all aspects of our lives.
For many years I’ve opposed most of what my country stands for in the world. As a result, I often tended to see its founding documents as so many beautiful but meaningless promises spoken in our time to convince us and the world that the coups, invasions, and occupations we engaged in do represent life and liberty.
But what if we were actually to take those words at face value? Not naively, but with the bitter nuance of the black poet Langston Hughes who, recognizing both the promise and the sham, wrote:
“ O, let America be America again --
The land that never has been yet --
And yet must be -- the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine -- the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME --
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.”
Maybe it’s not so strange that, in these dismal times, I find my hope in a dream, now hundreds of years old, of a country dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I guess it’s time to develop those satisfying and expansive skills of thinking, organizing, and acting to bring back that mighty dream again, that dream of a land that never has been yet -- but will be.
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.
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