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The Madness of Yankee Doodle
I’m doing something a little different this week: this's more a poetic than dialectical piece. It doesn’t tell the whole story of the United States - but who can? As I’ve said before, history is fractally deep. This tells part of the story of America, and a very central and very important part.
I'm posting it now in honor of the glorious Second of July.
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"All men are created equal."
Except they obviously, self-evidently, aren't. Some are more intelligent. Some are richer and more powerful. Some are more socially adept. Some are in just the right place to do amazing things if they can just have the right powers.
Plato saw this, recoiling with terror from the abominable notion of equality, crying out against its bloodguilt. For there had been one place, Athens, that had in some ways raised up the mob to equality - and they had voted themselves bread and circuses, sent their army off on disastrous mad dreams, and slain Socrates for his wisdom.
And Plato was read in every city under heaven, and from generation to generation, the blood of Socrates cried out against equality in every school throughout Christendom. All readers - no matter how vehemently they disagreed with everything else Plato said - nodded in agreement with him on this self-evident truth. The crowned heads of Europe, carefully groomed from infancy on to maybe be vaguely competent to rule people, feared nothing less than those maniacs who said obviously unequal people were equal.
But, some said, could not certain people be slightly more equal than they were now? Might there not be others than kings who were almost as high-born and just as educated and virtuous - perhaps the nobility, perhaps the great magnates who were making this argument? Did they not just as much deserve a share in government? Many heard them, and some - such as the kings - objected, but some - such as many nobles - began to agree. People were obviously unequal, but these people might be more equal than was thought.
And as certain magnates were conspiring to bring down a king in the name of their equality, they asked a philosopher to explain why they could do it. His name was John Locke. And he wrote a book with surprising language - saying that all men were created equal!
All Europe would have recoiled from this in shock, for the blood of Socrates - though diluted by the ages - was still dripping onto their minds. But Locke continued, carefully deliniating how this was no longer the case. It was property that had changed things: people could personally take ownership of different parts of the earth once committed to Adam, and some people had taken advantage of that, and now things were unequal, and everyone needed to be fine with that. Yes, he said, all men should join in forming a government - but government's chief duty was to protect property, so only those holding property could have any say in it.
And the conspiracy (or, rather, its successor) won in the Glorious Revolution, and a Bill of Rights was quickly written and forced onto the new King William and Queen Mary, and Europe pursed its lips at this but finally shrugged. Dangerous things had been said, but the axiom of inequality was safe.
But some people paid attention to what had been said.
Suppose all men were equal?
Suppose we actually took Locke at his word?
Without his careful qualifications after the fact?
Not that all of them were blind to people's inequalities - many didn't miss them and thought Locke (and his successors - by now, he had successors writing similar things in other countries) was merely speaking of interesting novelties.
But some did consider what he had to say...
And in the fulness of time, revolution crossed the seas to America, as the men with property there looked at what Locke had said and decided that - even under every one of his qualifications - they at least were equal enough to deserve a share in government. They looked around themselves for a dangerous mob raring to murder Socrates, but saw that there was none to be found! The yoemen were now good virtuous farmers, or listening avidly to the philosophers of the day. So, the men of property in the legislatures called on the philosophers and yoemen and together formed into a Congress and wrote up a declaration of their own.
They quoted Locke: "All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights..."
But where were the restrictions? The qualifications? There were none to be found. Nor were any written into the Declaration or the laws. For Jefferson had undone them all by tearing down every mention of property, the refuge of inequality. Indeed, he had salted the earth behind them by erecting in its place "The Pursuit of Happiness," which every man may engage in, from the richest to the poorest. If (as Locke said) government's purpose was to protect property and therefore only property-holders could partake in it - when property was replaced with the pursuit of happiness, all men who pursue happiness are equally able to participate in government.
Thus Locke's metaphor came true beyond his wildest imaginings: "In the beginning, all the world was America." He meant that in the beginning, there was free land available to everyone just like there was (in his day) in America. But behold, in America was restored, from the beginning of time where Locke had safely shut it away, civil equality.
The crowned heads of Europe stared at America in amazement. Could they actually believe this? Were they actually saying all men really were equal, now, in the present? Could it be anything other than a prank or insanity? Thus the armies of inequality marched into battle taunting the Americans with "Yankee Doodle" - but the Americans threw the song right back at them. Yes, they were saying, we might be crazy and we're definitely turning the world upside-down - but we're determined to carry out this mad experiment in equality!
Locke had theorized that one could pretend government was founded on an idea; America was indeed founded on an ideal. Even in Locke's writings, he admitted government would swiftly be entrusted to a monarch - but no king reigned in America, save the idea. So Adams was run out of town for dreaming of choking off the mob's inalienable right to commit sedition against its betters, and Jackson invited every inhabitant of the frontiers to come put his boots up on the President's chairs, and from generation to generation, America kept pursuing the statements Jefferson had torn out of context and qualifications to their mad and inevitable conclusions. All men are equal - even political enemies, even foreigners drawn to American shores, even slaves, even women, even foreigners still in their seemingly-benighted islands... And yes, because all men are equal, they must be allowed to equally take part in government. They may seem ready to kill Socrates, to tear down Jefferson himself, but still we must trust them even as we tear down tradition and custom to let them step up as equals, for they are created free and equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and all government derives its legitimate powers from their consent.
And Locke is quoted out of context in the words of Jefferson from the deserts of Jerusalem to the jungles of Vietnam, and the triumphant strains of Yankee Doodle's madness float from pole to pole.
So may it be; amen.