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American Dignity

“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 foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

-Thomas Jefferson, “The Declaration of Independence”, 1776

Thomas Jefferson – philosopher, scholar – knew what the fuck he was talking about. With those words above – “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government . . . on such principles and organizing its powers . . . most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness” – the United States of America dissolved its ties to the British Empire, and became the Greatest Nation on this world. And then of course, we remember that Jefferson was more than a philosopher and a scholar. He was also a slave owner, who – though he wrote many times against the institutions of slavery – never in his life freed a slave, though it is believed he was in love with one of his own.

This duality has been ingrained in the American psyche since its inception. Jefferson was not alone in his slave-holding ways. Most of America’s “Founding Fathers” owned slaves. It’s what rich, powerful white men did at the time. Many of them spoke highly against the institution of slavery, but only a small handful actually did anything about it. And we all know that one’s values are only worth something if one sticks to them when it isn’t convenient.

But America has never come to grips with this basic fact: We have never really paid more than lip service to that notion that these unalienable rights include “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” In fact, that wasn’t even supposed to be in the Declaration of Independence at all. That line originates from a philosopher named John Locke, who argued a hundred years before in his Two Treatises of Government that governments exist to protect the natural rights of “life, liberty and estate” (meaning, the property) of its citizens. It was Jefferson’s (quite American, in retrospect) imaginative leap to change the word “estate” to “happiness” – and not even the right to Happiness, but just the right to try to achieve it.

At least Locke’s original property would have been less hypocritical. After all, what were slaves if not property? For almost a hundred years Americans were entitled to their “property”. And then there was a war fought to show that, no, these people were not property, but rather flesh and blood, brothers and sisters, humans, entitled to their own unalienable Rights, those same rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Americans must come to terms with the fact that we have never really paid more than lip service to the dignity of human life. It’s why we owned slaves until the middle of the 19th century. It’s why we let rich, powerful white men dictate the day to day lives of the rest of the country until the early 20th century. It’s why when minorities began to take their power in the middle of the 20th century, those same rich, powerful white men created laws that would enslave the poor blacks once more.

But it’s not about race. Race, I think, was a convenient scapegoat, as it is easier to write of the biological and moral deficiencies of a “race” than it is of something as ephemeral as a nationality. (Or, decidedly inconvenient, if you’re a person of color.) The truth of the matter is it has always been about one thing, and one thing only: What makes a man the most money?

If slaves had not been necessary to make money in the 18th century, there would have been no American slave trade.

If the white robber barons hadn’t made more money exploiting the working poor, there would have been no need for trade unions.

If there weren’t millions of dollars to be made on the backs of prison labor, there wouldn’t be a War on Drugs.

There is no such as Human Dignity in American society.

And until we come to grips with that, we won’t be able to make a difference.

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