Months ago, I put up my last post, on the topic What are we for? In the interim, there have been ample new opportunities to find yet more things to be against. Attacks on access to healthcare. Arrests and deportations of immigrants. Military engagements abroad of questionable value and wisdom. Dramatic reversals of the country’s longstanding commitment to provide for a cleaner and healthier environment. Serious suspicions that the electoral process itself was materially influenced by foreign agents working in concert with people closely connected to Mr. Trump. In an epoch when the shallowness of the consensus around common values has become evident and when there is no longer broadly shared understanding about what may be taken as true, it is no surprise that currents of fear, outrage and despair are running strong. The good news is that many citizens have discovered that a viable and healthy democracy depends on active participation. While the Administration and Congress undertake and contemplate actions which will result in profound and unjustifiable suffering for millions of human beings at home and abroad, hundreds of thousands of people are actively communicating their unwillingness to go along through demonstrations, meetings with elected officials and organizing resistance activities.
At this stage, one might say the body politic has contracted an infectious disease. While the agents of the infection are running rampant, judgment and decision-making are compromised by a fever, and the long-term well being of the body is at risk, the immune system is responding as it should. Antibodies are deploying energetically to combat the illness. Resources are being redirected from routine activities to help combat a clear and present danger to the well-being of the society as a whole and the governmental process by which it does its business. The whole body is affected by the conflict, therefore resistance is sweeping through it.
Consider now, though, what a body restored to health might look like. Indeed, what might an even healthier body look like – one in which all the internal systems and operative functions are healthier than they have ever been. One, where resources are distributed on an as-needed basis and where the ability of all parts to perform optimally to the common good is the standard for healthy living. To get there does not require anything new to be added to the mix. It simply requires a reordering of how things are done and priorities are set. The United States of America is a rare construct among nations, insofar as it was created on the basis of a set of ideas, not as a result of peoples with common customs and common languages happening to settle in their places by fortune or conquest or historical accident. Working off of some of the seminal ideas which shaped the union before it even had a proper name, as a vision a broad mix of citizens could be for, regardless of their present perspectives on current affairs, I would like to propose the following statement of principles:
A Declaration of Interdependence for Our Times
As citizens of the United States of America, we recognize that our lives and well-being are inseparably bound up with the lives of all others, as we seek together to fulfill in our own ways the rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness set forth in the first sentence of our founding document, the Declaration of Independence. We further recognize that we are all united by our shared desire to live meaningful and rewarding lives, regardless of our differences.
We therefore commit to:
- Speak of and treat all people with respect and dignity.
- Conduct ourselves privately and publicly in ways that are caring towards others, whether they are known to us or not.
- Demonstrate in all our conduct towards others appreciation for the gifts they offer, understanding of the circumstances in which they live, and recognition of the challenges and limitations they face.
- Follow these principles in all our interactions and relationships with others, be they citizens, foreigners living among us, or people visiting from other places.
- Take a long view regarding the consequences of all our actions for our children, grandchildren and those who come after, and for the Earth itself and the well-being of all other creatures with whom we share this planet.
These commitments will guide us in our personal conduct, in our work, in our social activities and in our law-giving, public policies and jurisprudence. We will incorporate them in how we rear our children, how we welcome immigrants into our national community, how we provide help to those who are ill, aged or disabled, and how we communicate our values through the media about matters of general interest or concern.
This Declaration rests on two operative assumptions. First, it assumes that citizens have, recognize, and are willing to act on a shared responsibility for the well-being of all other citizens. Hence, the importance of the commitments. Citizens are called upon to make them individually. Implied is a recognition that we are all in one and the same boat. None of us has the option of shoving anyone else off the boat. Short of genocide or orchestrating a mass expulsion of “undesirables,” however defined, this is a plain statement of fact. We cannot wish for others to be gone, blindly ignore the fact they are here, treat them badly or tolerate such treatment, without consequences for our own well-being or that of our descendants. Not at least if we want to uphold the idea that we live in a society we can without hypocrisy call free.
This is a moral imperative, but it is not only a moral imperative. It is a statement rooted in the deep truth that we exist interdependently. From the moment of our conception to the moment of our passing away, our existence is bound up with and dependent on others’. Where and how we live, what we eat, how we are cared for when we are sick or injured, how we are prepared and educated for meaningful and rewarding lives, how we live our lives, how we amuse ourselves, how we seek meaning, how we express ourselves – everything about how we come into the world, spend our time here, and leave it entails interdependence on others. We depend on numbers of others who are known to us, and even more on countless others who are not known to us. And they depend on us likewise.
Secondly, the Declaration assumes that the distinguishing hallmark of a free society, drawing its legitimacy from broad-based citizen support, is that it offers to all equal opportunities to lead meaningful and rewarding lives. The key term here is “equal opportunities.” What constitutes a “meaningful and rewarding life” is not a matter for the society to determine. The aspirations and determination of people themselves are the measure of what brings meaning and rewards worth striving for to their own lives. The critical point is that there is a consensus that it is desirable for all members of a society to have equal opportunities to live meaningful and rewarding lives by their own understandings and to the extent that they are able, within the limits of what is practically and reasonably possible, and without thereby infringing upon others’ abilities to do the same.
A big If is embedded in this second assumption. It is not given that a society must ensure equal opportunities as described above to all of its members. Whether it does so – or strives to do so – depends on the distribution of power and wealth and on whether or not a substantial majority of a society’s members adhere to a value system that upholds equality of opportunity as a social value, one that they will invest time, resources, and energy to realize and sustain. “Government of, by and for the people” is not achievable or sustainable, barring such an ongoing commitment to equality of opportunity by a large enough proportion of the population to make it happen. Nor will it happen, if the distribution of power and wealth is such that “government of, by and for the people” is not on the agenda of those dictating the direction of social development and setting the terms for the conditions of social life, such as in an authoritarian dictatorship, an oligarchy or a self-proclaimed theocracy. In our present circumstances, it is debatable whether those who determine how our national priorities are set and resources allocated consider equality of opportunity an objective worth pursuing. Yet to be seen is whether the citizenry as a whole is willing to accept such disenfranchisement over the long run. The turmoil abroad in the land suggests that large masses of the citizenry are not willing, despite passionate differences about what change will look like and how it will be achieved. Broad adoption of the Declaration would be a signal that there is a popular will to reclaim for all the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness so boldly set forth in 1776.