Why we need to think carefully about what in fact we are declaring independence from.
By Hank Edson
1. A New Declaration is Born:
If you are a frequent reader of my blog, you know that on election night, November 4, 2008, I published my first book, The Declaration of the Democratic Worldview, a sequel to The Declaration of Independence. That night I also posted the preface to my book on my blog. If you’d like a copy of my book, you can get one at: http://democracypress.net. I dedicated my Declaration to Barack Obama and added this thought:
History will honor the architects who advance the quality of humanity
By improving the sophistication of the structures of democracy
My Declaration is a call to renew our democratic vows, a demand that the time has come to upgrade the worldview set forth in The Declaration of Independence. My Declaration argues that the egalitarian worldview that begins with the phrase, “we hold these truths to be self-evident…,” ought to be given a logical foundation. My Declaration makes the claim, in fact, that The Declaration of Independence is a crucial part of the technology of democracy that ought not be allowed to remain in an 18th century condition, but ought to be advanced, instead, as every other technology in our society has, to a much higher level of sophistication.
And then my Declaration delivers the more sophisticated upgrade we have for too long neglected to give The Declaration of Independence. My Declaration sets forth the logical foundations of the principle of human equality and explains why a failure to master these logical foundations leads to the hijacking of the people’s power by authoritarian-leaning political alliances that inevitably consist of the uneasy partnership between economic monopolists, religious fundamentalists and imperialistic militarists.
My Declaration explains that we need a sequel to The Declaration of Independence, a “new” Declaration of Independence, because our failure to master the logical foundations of the egalitarian worldview set forth in The Declaration of Independence is at the heart of the reason why the administration of George W. Bush was able to abuse the people’s political power and the national trust so badly.
A week or two before Christmas, my wife and I decided to send our new president and his family a holiday card. We told him we were proud and grateful for his leadership and were holding him and his family in our prayers. We also enclosed a family photo and a copy of my book.
2. Obama’s Call for a New Declaration:
I don’t know if he and his family got our card or my book, but I’d like to think the energy and thought that went into both somehow reached him and played some part in the formulation of the ideas President Elect Obama expressed yesterday, January 17, 2009, on a train stop on his way to being inaugurated as the next president of our nation.
President-elect Obama began by saying:
We began this train trip in Philadelphia earlier today. It is fitting that we did so - because it was there that our American journey began. It was there that a group of farmers and lawyers, merchants and soldiers, gathered to declare their independence and lay claim to a destiny that they were being denied.
It was a risky thing, meeting as they did in that summer of 1776. There was no guarantee that their fragile experiment would find success. More than once in those early years did the odds seem insurmountable. More than once did the fishermen, laborers, and craftsmen who called themselves an army face the prospect of defeat.
And yet, they were willing to put all they were and all they had on the line - their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor - for a set of ideals that continue to light the world. That we are equal. That our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness come not from our laws, but from our maker. And that a government of, by, and for the people can endure.
Then after reflecting perils faced by our nation in the past and here in the present, Obama called for a new Declaration of Independence, which of course is what The Declaration of the Democratic Worldview is. Obama explained:
And yet while our problems may be new, what is required to overcome them is not. What is required is the same perseverance and idealism that those first patriots displayed. What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives - from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry - an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.
3. What Are We Declaring Independence From?:
Some important questions are raised by Obama’s call for a new Declaration of Independence. In declaring their independence, the founding patriots who risked their lives to create a new nation were taking a stand against something extremely concrete: the British monarchy and empire, the parliament’s protection of the East India Tea Company’s monopoly in the tea trade, taxation without representation in parliament, military oppression in the quartering of soldiers, injustice toward colonists in the legal system, and on and on. There were ideas at stake to be sure, but they were not simply the product of the “small thinking” of the English people. Instead, the hard and unjust facts that inspired colonial revolt reflected a ruling worldview that was not necessarily held by the English people, but that justified the English nobility’s authoritarian oppression of the people of America.
Therefore, the first question we must ask is: what are we in 2009 taking a stand against? Obama says we must take a stand, but he does not identify the concrete oppression, injustice and abuse that “ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry” are being made to serve. The majority of The Declaration of Independence, after all, is dedicated to providing a lengthy indictment of the injustices, crimes and sins committed by the British government. Little is said about King George’s state of mind. As my Declaration makes clear, by contrast, and as most Americans will acknowledge, we can easily produce a lengthy indictment of our own for this current day, if only we will study our recent history.
So long as the abstract qualities of mind identified by Obama remain unattached to a the type of showing of injustice, crime and sin found in The Declaration of Independence, these qualities will only inspire rhetorical shadow boxing, not political revolution.
4. What Is Democracy, If Not An Ideology?:
More importantly, Obama’s new declaration of independence speech raises the question: Do we really mean to declare independence from all ideology? Is it possible to have a politics completely free of ideology? Is democracy not in itself a kind of ideology? Is Obama asking us to sever our relationship with democratic ideology?
These questions are far too important. We must not allow their answers to be avoided through ambiguous word use. Dictionary.com defines ideology as follows:
1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.
2. A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.
Under this definition, I believe The Declaration of Independence contains an ideology when it states:
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 foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Language is hard to pin down, however. One definition of ideology is “theorizing of a visionary or impractical nature.” Now, I ask, were our founding theorists “visionary”? I would say, 100% YES! Were they impractical? Many people thought so at the time, but in fact they succeeded. Therefore, the answer must be, “No.”
This definition of ideology as “visionary” or “impractical” theorizing demonstrates that what one person calls ideology may be the most sacred, beautiful thing humanity has ever produced, while what another calls ideology may be the scourge of foolishness and bigotry.
I think when Obama refers to the need to declare our independence from ideology, he means we must free ourselves from the negative, impractical type, but since he is invoking The Declaration of Independence, which itself contains an ideology, he cannot be referring to the positive “visionary” meaning of ideology.
It is because there is confusion over the meaning of the word, “ideology,” which particularly arises out of the negative connotation the word has come to have for so many, that my book adopts the word “worldview” in referring to the system of ideas upon which our democratic nation, government and society are founded.
Dictionary.com defines worldview as follows:
1. The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world.
2. A collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group.
I don’t think these definitions of “worldview” differ very much from the definitions of “ideology” given above, especially the second definition given for each word. Yet, while president Obama can suggest we declare ourselves independent from ideology, he probably would not claim that we could free ourselves from having a worldview.
I maintain that everybody has a worldview and everybody has an ideology and the two are that to have a worldview is also to have an ideology. And if I am correct, then we have to ask again, what is it President-elect Obama thinks we are standing against when he argues that we need to declare our independence from ideology? What are we really declaring our independence from?
If you read my book, The Declaration of the Democratic Worldview, it will explain that one of the four important understandings that flow from the logical foundations of the principle of human equality is that there is an important distinction between what is called a “content-focused” worldview and what is called a “process-focused worldview.” Within the democratic worldview implied by The Declaration of Independence and made explicit in The Declaration of the Democratic Worldview, process-focused worldviews are right and content-focused worldviews are wrong.
This is as true as to say under The Declaration of Independence, the claim that all men are created equal is right and the claim that some men are superior to others is wrong.
There is a right and wrong in a democratic society because a democratic society is built on a system of ideas, an understanding about the way the world works, a worldview, an ideology. There are worldviews and ideologies that, under a democratic worldview, are inherently wrong and bad for our nation. These we call content-focused.
We should declare our independence from these content-focused ideologies. But in order to effectively declare our independence from content-focused worldviews, we need to understand and be able to embrace a process-focused worldview. In order to do this, we need to understand the logical foundations of the democratic worldview and the principle of human equality from which it arises.
5. We Really Do Need a New Declaration:
Thus, what we really need is a better understanding of the democratic worldview than is provided in the two sentence worldview provided in The Declaration of Independence. The inadequacy of the two-sentence worldview set forth in The Declaration of Independence to address our modern problems with a sophistication reflective of our modern society is the real reason, to quote the President-elect, “what is required is a new Declaration of Independence.”
President-elect Obama is right that we need a new Declaration of Independence. I hope he will read his Christmas mail soon. I sent him a copy of what he is looking for a month ago. In the meantime, I hope you will get your copy at: http://democracypress.net . The time really has come to renew our democratic vows. Spend five hours reading my book and you will gain a clear sense of what it means to have a democratic worldview and how necessary having a clear grasp of the democratic worldview is to protecting the integrity and welfare of our democracy.
Hank Edson is an attorney, author and activist based in San Francisco. His blog, MP3—My Politics and Progressive Perspective, can be found at: http://hankedson.squarespace.com . In addition to The Declaration of the Democratic Worldview, a new book, Radical Equality, is due out this summer.