An old radical

In contemporary political discourse, one hears a great deal of bloviating about our nation’s Founders and what they believed.

Much of this is nonsense, uttered by professional gasbags who have never read anything the Founders said – beyond a handful of carefully-selected quotations.  

I’ve always advocated reading the actual thoughts of the Founders – at length and in depth.  And one of the most accessible ways to begin is “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.”

The Autobiography is well over two centuries old, but – being the product of a radically inventive mind and a particularly radical era of human history – it seems a lot more modern than most books written a decade or two ago.

Please note the assumption in the previous paragraph.  As a lifelong student of history, I’ve concluded that certain periods of human history are far more modern than other periods – regardless of chronology.

In other words, simply because we happen to live now, we have no business thinking that all preceding generations were somehow less advanced than we are.

We might have better plumbing, faster transportation, and niftier toys – but we 21st-century Americans are nowhere near as modern-minded as the generation which founded this country.

That’s because most of us have lost the knack of thinking  radically.

The word, radical, comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root.”  (Radix also gives us “radish” – a root vegetable.)  When applied to thinking, radical refers to digging down to the roots – i.e., the origins of institutions or societies.  

Radical thinkers don’t merely look at the superficial aspects of something.  They study its history and evolution.  They ask how things started, and under what circumstances; how things have evolved and changed over time; and how – if conditions or events had been slightly different – long-term outcomes might have differed.

They also ask whether things might have been better, if different choices had been made.

In those relatively rare periods when large numbers of humans have been genuinely modern-minded, people have looked around themselves and asked “Why are things as they are?” And “How might things be different?” And – most important – “Why shouldn’t things be different?”

The Founders were like that.

In less modern-minded periods, like ours, people tend to assume that the way things are is the way they have to be.

Many, like Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, assume that we live “in the best of all possible worlds.”  This is not, of course, to suggest that such people assume there won’t be change – but they assume that whatever change happens will take the form of an extension of present-day trends.  

Consider, for example, a common contemporary – but far from modern – assumption:  Millions of Americans assume that this country is the greatest country in the world.

This assumption is – like so many things in contemporary America – faith-based.  That is to say, it’s not based on evidence, but on closing our eyes and repeating a kind of credo, over and over, until we become “comfortably numb.”

Contemporary faith in the greatness of America has a lot in common with religious faith.  It thrives in defiance of evidence – because it makes its believers feel good.

In point of fact, measured by any rational standard of greatness – other than military capacity – the present-day United States is hardly the greatest country in the world.

It’s doubtful we would even make the playoffs.

Our health system – even with the band-aid of Obamacare – is still an expensive mess.  Our K-12 schools are mediocre.  Our infrastructure is crumbling.  We eat too much – and, largely as a result, die or become terminally unhealthy earlier than  people in other advanced societies.  

There’s a huge, growing gap between our richest 1 percent and the rest of us.  And, as a result, our political system has become so dominated by corporate money and the wealth of the extremely rich that America hardly qualifies as a democracy.

And today’s young people are likely to live less well than their parents – something almost unprecedented in American history.

One of the curious things about living in a non-radical era is that even those who are deeply critical of society have trouble imagining that things could improve.  The same assumption of inevitability – that things are the way they have to be – infects those most unhappy with contemporary America.  They sense that the decline of America into mediocrity, ignorance, obesity, superstition, consumerism, and oligarchy is irreversible.

People who think that way need – perhaps more than anyone – to rediscover the radical perspective.

They might well start by studying history – learning how things got the way they are.  From this, they might begin to appreciate how accidental and transient most present-day evils might be.

There’s no better place to start studying history than with the Founders.  And no better Founder to start with than that merry old radical, Ben Franklin.

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