Independence Day weekend is a good time for reflection. The style of that rumination needn’t be tedious; after all, hamburgers, beer and s’mores beckon. For me, it’s as simple as re-reading the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. The words can be so familiar that we fail to absorb just how radical these ideas were and remain. It begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident. . .”
Written at a time when our nation was ruled by a heredity king and one in five people were enslaved, the perfection of these words continue to resonate. That world-changing revolution made clear that the principles that tore us from England were few but transcendent. These ideas came directly from the Enlightenment, and its core argument that individual liberty, reason and tolerance formed the basis for civilization. The Declaration repeated five interlocking ideas.
They begin with the idea that each of us have inherent value, which is preserved by rights or protections. These rights are given to us by God, not government. This liberty cannot lawfully be denied as it flows from the simple act of being human, not from religion or ancestry or race. Governments exist to secure these rights. Great Britain failed to do so. For these reasons we broke the bonds with England, and became a new nation.
These ideas remain shockingly radical and inspiring. When asked what sentence could not be translated into Newspeak, George Orwell (a subject of a later, different King George) offered that lone sentence from our Declaration of Independence. These words are repeated today by protestors in Hong Kong, and by those striving to craft a Constitution in Afghanistan. Ironically, those ideas penned by a young Virginian slaveholder remain the most important and liberating political sentence ever written.
Our infant nation and its founders got the words and ideas right in 1776. But we failed, often spectacularly, to match our words with deeds. More than a decade later, as our founders labored with the Constitution, they acknowledged those looming shortcomings as we strived for a “more perfect Union.” They did not view it as perfect in 1788, and we must not think it so today. This column is too short to list our failures to match our national behavior with our ideals. It is sufficient to note that we permitted the enslavement of millions of people who both Enlightenment’s reason and our own Declaration of Independence made clear should be full citizens.
Today there is growing tension over the interpretation of the historical events I describe. Some of this is natural. Scholars seek to emphasize different parts as we learn more and see the world through a more distant lens. Still, I know of no sentient adult who believes our great nation is perfect. Neither do I know of anyone who has offered a better definition of ideal government than that outlined in our founding. For the sake of honesty, we ought to acknowledge both these truths.
No better example exists than that of the 1619 Project, the New York Times critique of American racial progress and institutions in America. This admonishment of the United States is framed around our failure to realize the goals of our founding documents. There are faults with the 1619 Project, but It hardly offers a new vision. The only really radical part of the 1619 Project lies in hearkening back to the as yet unfulfilled words of 1776.
A louder debate surrounds what is called Critical Race Theory. A number of states have passed legislation limiting what portions of this approach can presented in school classrooms. This is fast becoming a touchstone of our culture wars. However, insofar as I can tell, CRT isn’t taught in any Indiana classrooms. Maybe that’s because CRT remains a subject to be taught and challenged in college or graduate school.
Still, there is a body of derivative work of CRT that focuses instruction on the role of racial identity. Though the examples in K-12 are blessedly few, there are documented instances of students being separated by race for instruction. In the worst of these examples, elementary students are then made to admit guilt of systemic racism, or told that they are victims of these systems. It should come as no surprise that these classroom practices likely violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. We don’t need new laws, just effective courts.
As is the purpose of the culture wars, much of this debate diverts us from more important work. We do need to continue to talk and write about race in America. Both the 1619 Project and CRT may be poor vehicles for a constructive discussion. But, if that is so, the burden lies with their critics to summon better ways to confront lingering issues of race. We cannot legislate ideas away, nor restrict access to them. The only effective way to confront a bad idea is with better ones.
The failings I observe with CRT lie in its rejection of the individual. This should not be hard to fight and we need not appeal to the 18th century language of the Enlightenment or our founding documents. We could easily call upon the words of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Jr. or John McWhorter to challenge the racial identitarian precepts of Critical Race Theory.
Still, for the diehard critic of CRT, there’s some risk of reading the work of these authors. In finding that much of CRT is misguided, you may also find parts of it ring true. This would be particularly true if you read Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is July 4th” or listen to Baldwin’s interview with Dick Cavett in 1968. Both will make you uncomfortable, and give you a lingering sense that despite our immense progress, we all have a longer road to travel. Together.
If the 1619 Project and CRT provoke us to find ways to ‘form a more perfect Union,’ we should be grateful for them. In a free nation, discussing even bad ideas has merit. If these ideas are mistaken, we should still thank their authors for sharpening our argument. We should also thank them for providing another opportunity to explain those self-evident ideals upon which our nation was founded, and that we rightly celebrate on this holiday.
Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.