Wisdom Wherever You Find It
American history is a series of provisional victories. Jon Meacham
The horrifying specter of a twelve-story building collapsing in the middle of the night on the Florida shoreline feels too much like a metaphor. Let’s always keep in mind the lives lost when we think of that tragedy, first and foremost. But let’s not be paralyzed by our grief to the point that we can’t appreciate why the catastrophe resonates so comprehensively.
An inspection of the infrastructure of our country, underway for many years, but lately with intensity, has revealed the cracks and spalling. I am not talking about bridges and interstate highways. I am talking about this less-than-perfect nation that has been in state of greater and greater flux since the waning days of the last century. That is when a small group of legislators, one of them named for a lizard, changed the functioning of Congress from charting the course of the country to a zero-sum game of achieving and retaining power. Accidentally, they were helped by a terrorist attack in September 2001, and then, in the following twenty years (has it been that long?), by the politics of fear of each other.
It does not matter if the ground has become soft underneath us, or if a heavy object has struck us from above, to those of us used to a reliable structure we call home, it is frightening to think that parts of that structure in which we live have been shaken and fallen away.
It is helpful to remember the wisdom of Jon Meacham, one of the great contemporary champions of the American experiment. There was always a time when America was great, but never a time it couldn’t be greater. Every step forward was, as he put it, a provisional victory. At any moment, the grand gesture could be undone by the small aggressions by citizens unhappy with the change in the status quo they had come to rely upon. The elimination of systemic enslavement did not eliminate the mentality that there was yet some hierarchy of skin color to preserve. The removal of barriers to women voting did not open the ballots along with the ballot boxes. The requirement to make buildings accessible to people of all abilities did not take away the barriers to the jobs within. And so with sexual assault, and harassment, and gun violence, and hateful speech, and crimes both physical and philosophical against people of differing identities.
Even our first freedom – to believe and practice as our hearts inspire – seems to have been weaponized as people in the presumed majority misunderstand the truth that rights are universal protections rather than beneficent tolerations.
When I teach about Judaism, I always start with a conversation about the role of myth – that is, organizing world view – in any society. I begin with the Declaration of Independence, asking my students to identify the first statement of myth in it. Some talk about the self-evident truths, some suggest political bonds, some identify the term “it becomes necessary.” However, I insist that the first statement of myth is “the course of human events.” The notion that there is even such a thing as history is a human construct designed to make sense of what are mostly random events. By establishing causal relationships, we build a structure that is ever more complex and comprehensive.
Our founders looked back in time and geography to Europe, and they imagined a better version transplanted to someone else’s continent. In the process, they imagined something grander than they imagined – a place in which the notion that all were created equal could take root and flourish. Even as they said it, as they committed it to parchment, as they declared a country to rest on it, they violated it. Since then, the people who have felt excluded from that self-evident truth have insisted on victories in a continuing campaign to create a course of human events that make this place better than it ever was. By creating these provisional victories, we quite literally make history, while realizing the vision of our founders that exceeded their original imaginations.
Meacham managed to sum all of that up in eight words that need a little unpacking. But it is an important piece of wisdom to remember. We live in complicated times, dealing with legal and cultural skirmishes that shake our infrastructure, all the more needed in these times of enforced isolation that are coming to an end. But as long as we are willing to engage in the cause of genuine equality, provisional victories will lead to longer-term successes.