What is American freedom? What is the United States anyhow? Some say the essence of this country lies within its constitution. Others say our time-honored institutions will provide for all time the security of our freedoms. Still others posit that the more elusive “spirit of democracy” animates and governs government. In my view, nothing so rigid as law, nor so lasting as the office of the president, nor so mercurial as the will-o-the-wisp will-o-the-people can sustain this country. In my view, there is only one thing that accounts for the peaceful coherence and continued stability of the United States: a deep commitment to measure man by the moral value he creates in others.
Consider for a moment the political advantage in the American Revolution. The signers of the Declaration of Independence stood to gain something by separating the colonies from colonial rule. Many of them profited financially, politically. And yet, there is something more in their signatures: the potential for a universal regard for human dignity; the agreement to measure all men equal according to an idealized collection of inalienable rights – rights that were not so much discovered as invented, and then only selectively applied to those of European descent – and, lastly, a commitment to separate themselves from all Tyranny, whether imposed from abroad or cultivated at home. We should not say that the founders of this country took the expedient route. We should not say that they had ulterior motives, even if the initial execution of their ideas was flawed. We must understand that, whatever the outcome has been, there is a kernel of empathy for one’s fellow human being from which this country grew, and continues to grow.
Now, consider the political advantage in distancing ourselves from the rest of the world. There is the appearance of expedience in making our borders more selective. There is a nationalist movement (whether it goes by the name “white nationalism” or is simply an unbridled “Americanism”) that is growing out of civil discontentment, poverty, and partisanism. And this movement seeks to replace the old doctrine – the doctrine of human dignity – with its own. It seeks to reeducate any who have become numb to anything but their own suffering. And it will reeducate them in the image of those who have exploited them: not because the exploited people are so naïve as to have mistaken their oppressor for a friend, but because they realize their wretched neighbor, measured by the criteria of the new doctrine, has nothing to offer, since he is equally impoverished.
Those who support the alt-right, who are really just what the right has always been, moreover those who call themselves right, correctly believe that only the rich and the powerful can give them a share of wealth and power.
And yet, this country was not founded on the idealization of wealth and power; rather, this country was founded on the idealization of the dignity of the human being. From its beginning, this ideal has had in it the potential to grow, to expand to include women, people of different races and ethnicities, and people of so many creeds. There is no such potential concealed in the doctrine of power. The idea that wealth, profit, victory, and “being a winner” will distinguish one from the poor “losers” assumes from the start that all the value in the world is known already. The doctrine is born finished, and those under it borne having in view, though often beyond reach, all they could ever possess.
Certainly, if the point is to win, then the worth of one’s fellow matters little. Whether there is a total increase in the quality of life is irrelevant. If all wealth is relative to having more than one’s neighbor, it might seem as though keeping one’s neighbor poor makes one all the richer. That is, if one can stay at the top of the limited economy of injustices, then one has no interest in dignifying others, or in creating value.
On the other hand, creating value in one’s fellows offers the opportunity to be open to more than is presently being fought over. Rather than take the finite resources of the earth into one’s soul – rather than make oneself in the image of dirt – one might recast oneself in the image of his highest aspirations. Next, one might take up the spirit of the Declaration: to impute unconditionally to everyone what one discovers to be the best in oneself. That is, one might take the fine-print potential of the human soul and actualize it in society writ large. And, since initially, what belonged to only the individual had no value for the others, something new comes about thereby, and the total economy increases in quality.
This is no better characterized than by hospitality – of waiting for one’s neighbor, whenever he or she should arrive, and of being ready to find in this person what one did not expect, and to discover value there in this person where before one had not anticipated it. To live thusly, in giving victuals and opening one’s door, one may find oneself having less – less food, less protection – but, where one expends oneself, nonetheless, here and only here, is there the possibility of replenishment, since only here does one remain open to receive anything at all.
Listen to the Vimcast episodes about this article