Patriots of Civil Rights

'60s marchers offer valuable lessons in wake of Sept. 11

February 17, 2002|By Taylor Branch | Taylor Branch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Adapted from a talk given on Tuesday at Washington College in Chestertown.

American ideals and values are like blood vessels in the body. You don't see them very often. Certain crises and events are like cuts in the body. The blood vessels rise to the surface and become crimson. It is then that we understand what is at stake - not just in great periods of history, but in everyday life.

Sept. 11 was like that. It brought values to the surface and banished cynicism, at least for the time being. It obliterated the distance between ordinary citizens and government, between daily lives and historic events. How we respond over time goes to the core of what patriotism is.

Terrorism is a spasm against the speed with which the world is shrinking. American values, as epitomized by Martin Luther King - and by Thomas Jefferson - are at present the only answer being offered to that shrinking world that is being wrenched out of its parochial and, in many cases, its horribly oppressive past.

That is because America is the only country founded on an idea, not a language or territory or tribal identity. Our patriotism is more than wanting people within our boundaries to win and prosper. We began with an intuition of equal citizenship. Our only story is the story of such freedom, and all our history has tested and refined the idea.

To people who devoted themselves to the Civil Rights movement, the American tradition meant literally that every citizen owns a full share in the government, standing right next to the president, taking responsibility for national achievements and shortcomings. It meant that every day was - and is - like a day in the life of a patriot in the American Revolution, because we are still in the midst of that experiment in free government.

In the wake of Sept. 11, one tendency of emotional response was of utter submission to government, to say, "Send in the experts, bombers and spies, and don't tell me anything," almost as though our leader were King George and not George Bush, an elected president.

At the same time, there was a strong sense of identification with the firemen and police officers who ran up those steps of the World Trade Center as representing something peculiarly American. They are heroic because they did their duty as public servants, people like you and me, who could be in our families, or in anybody's family. That response calls to mind the unique nature of American citizenship. That citizen's tradition is what we are defending, not only in how we respond to Sept. 11, but in what we show to the world, and how we try to change that world.

The American form of government rests on two basic ideas that made it unique in history: self-government, and faith in strangers. The notion that people can govern themselves has been preposterous throughout most of recorded history. For 99 percent of people who ever lived, it meant "mobocracy," a government of fools and confusion, with no one in charge. It was a given belief that if common people had power without the external discipline of a king, or the czar's army, or the Communist Party, they would run amok, or lie down and vote themselves permanent pensions as millionaires.

The American Founders proposed that people can be self-governing, both individually and collectively. "All our political experiments," wrote James Madison, "rest upon the capacity of mankind for self-government." This remains a troublesome idea even for some who take democracy for granted.

The other great founding principle, trust in strangers, was embodied in James Madison's argument in the Federalist Papers that to secure a republican form of government without believing in the virtue of the people is "a chimerical idea." Liberty must be secured by faith in strangers. We all believe as a matter of civic faith that our national future could turn on the last wino to stumble into the polls. Florida in 2000 was that close.

Our faith in strangers goes against human tendencies that prevailed through eons of government by kings and sultans and dictators. They rested on faith in authority, with discipline for citizens below. American tradition says instead that we must discipline ourselves and have faith in our fellow citizens. We are a compact of citizens joined to build freedom.

The American Revolution remains a turning point in the history of ideas, not just for politics but also for religion. To some degree, it shifted both systems of thought from the vertical to horizontal. Theology had been based almost entirely on a vertical conception of being, from God to the angels to mankind, and on down to worms, devils, and lesser beings. Similarly, political theory was built on hierarchy and heredity, defining rights and duties on a vertical scale from rulers and liege lords down to commoners.

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