Point of view
OUR DECLARATION ECHOES IN BEIJING
Overton Love Turner II
"I do not believe that the Almighty created some men with bits and
saddles on their backs, and created other men all booted and spurred and
ready to ride them."
It was a phenomenon that was unbelievable, but there it was, the first
week in May, on television screens around the world. Thousands of Chinese
liberals, perhaps a million, in Tiananmen Square, petitioning the government
for democratic reforms and a free press.
As I sat watching and listening with focused astonishment, one of the
speakers punctuated some familiar words: "We hold these truths to
be self evident, that all men are created equal "Incredible,"
I exclaimed to my wife, "Thomas Jefferson lives!"
The world was witness to the Central Committee's reply; the world witnessed
the tree of liberty watered again by the blood of freedom's advocates.
For to the minds of the Beijing despotism, "equality" was a
rabid word and liberty a notion that must be crushed.
It was no less radical on July 4, 1776, and we Americans must not forget
who we are. We are the sons and daughters of a radical social mutation,
that men are equal and have inalienable rights. It is, evidently, a notion
that continues to turn the world upside down.
But how many Americans believe this or believe the Declaration of Independence
is still a viable truth? Is not the fact simply that most Americans consider
this document passé?
The rhetoric is commanding, but the substance is quaint. It belongs to
a world that is gone, a world that gave way to a different consciousness,
to a cognizance shaped by urbanization, technology, consumerism, and all
the psychological ramifications this trilogy begets.
This is tragic, because the Declaration of Independence is the foundation
of our national ethos, the philosophy that justified our existence, and
once it is gone there will no longer be an America. Of course there will
be a nation, even a world power, but it will not be America. For America
is that country committed to the truth that all men have been created
But who among us ever thinks about that or lives to make it the reality
of our daily activity? How many could not care less? If you are truly
an American, you have your work cut out. Cynicism downs this proclaiming
document, and if not cynicism, then forgetfulness. Our unknowingness makes
Independence Day a hollow holiday, rather than a hallowed reaffirmation.
I suspect part of the problem is that most of the unknowing are turned
off by abstract concepts, and so this concept that men are equal seems
only that, a concept and not a fact.
The concept also appears to contradict the world we experience every day.
The experience is deceiving, for we are not merely equal in the euphemistic
apologia of "equality before the law," but also equal to the
core of our biological and psychological existence. Equality is not a
right; it is a constitutional condition of the human organism.
It is because we are equal that we can recognize our rights. Equality
is the prime for the nexus in the concluding phrase of the paragraph,
"that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
rights; and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Nothing Is more real; that is why men die for the concept.
Two errors lead to a misunderstanding of this section of the Declaration
of Independence. One is the conception that the section is a logical proposition
and can be judged by logical proofs. But logical proofs do not always
beget truth. A proportion always has a contrary, and neither may relate
to the truth but only to the rules of formal logic.
There are truths based on Intuition and experience that are not amenable
to propositional form. Thomas Jefferson always dismissed the subject by
saying that all he meant was "the common sense of the term."
In the last letter he ever wrote, June 24, 1826, he insisted that "the
mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored
few born booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace
The second error is to reason that men are not equal because they possess
different personal qualities. But equality does not mean that we have
the same abilities. It means that because the other is one like myself,
i.e., equal, we can appreciate our personal differences. Only equals can
effect this self-determination. If we are not equal, then might makes
right, and might always promotes conformity.
Justice Learned Hand writes, "Liberty lies in the hearts of men and
women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save
it." And so it is.
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