As the 244th annual celebration of the founding of America recedes in time’s rear-view mirror and, going forward, as I still behold the sight of a polarized United (oh, the irony!) States, I find myself continuing to contemplate that oft-recited line of the Declaration of Independence: 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.
In particular, I wonder: What is or what constitutes a self-evident truth?
(I hazard a guess, which is to confess the irony of delineating truth in terms of my personal opinion! Therefore, doubtless, there are other definitions than mine.)
A self-evident truth, from the point of view of epistemology (the nature of knowledge, thus, concerned with the method and manner by which we know what we know), is a statement or proposition of reality that can be grasped by human reason and needs no external verifying proof or demonstration. In a word, a self-evident truth is something anyone and everyone can know.
However, circling back to the Declaration of Independence, it seems or rather it is clear to me that the “self-evident” truths (1) “that all men are created equal” was…is dependent on how and by whom “men” is defined and (2) that “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” were…are dependent on the presence (and the belief in the presence) of a “Creator.”
Therefore, inductively, from this specific example writ large, self-evidence requires (1) the employ of power, that capacity to act, and authority, that accorded right to exercise power and (2) the existence and operation of a belief system.
Therefore, it seems to me, American history has proven, has demonstrated that a truth may be self-evident to all (or, at the least, desired by all), but only those in power, whether or not they believe in a Creator, can access and share the benefits derived from the operation of that truth.
Therefore, I can make a case that either there is no (nor can there be) a self-evident truth or that, based on individuals’ points of view, derived from their reasoned reflections on their experiences of life in the world, there are manifold self-evident truths.
Therefore, in these days of polarized unrest, I can make a case that, depending on one’s perspective, America is the land (meaning the whole of society, its national mores and systems, e.g., law and governance, politics and economics) of equality or inherently racist.
What is self-evident to me is that all Americans do not benefit from the “truths” of “equality” and “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Therefore, as I have written at other times and in other places, America remains an experiment for all and not yet a universal experience of all.
As this is true for me, so I borrow the words of Langston Hughes:
…O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every (one) is free…
© 2020 PRA
13 thoughts on “Self-Evident Observations”
Thank you, Debbie. I appreciate you reading my post.
As we, as a nation, go forward toward Election Day, November 3, I suspect – or, perhaps, more honestly, though sadly stated, I am sure – that the public rhetoric between and among candidates will become more heated and the public (including cyber-) discourse of citizens will become more pointed. Nevertheless, I pray that we all can and will be civil with one another. For at the proverbial end – which is to say also the beginning and the middle – of the day, each of us in entitled to her/his opinion. That is one freedom, despite all the gifts and graces of equality that we all do not share, that each of us can exercise.
Love and peace and, again, my thanks,
So Debbie said what I was going to say, and that’s AMEN…
As an investigator for many years of my career, I always looked for what was self-evident, and sometimes it was clouded by something else which could distort the truth.
For me the truth is most definitely about perspective…. I have friends and coworkers who absolutely believe it’s TRUE that we are all free!!! And of course there is the other side that absolutely believes and can point to hundreds of books about racism and racist incidents throughout the history of this country. Both sides could talk until they are both blue in the face about their TRUTHs. I myself and thrilled you ended with the Langston Hughes words – they work for me.
Your observation, which, of course, as human, I share – “…I have friends and coworkers who absolutely believe it’s TRUE that we are all free!!! And of course there is the other side that absolutely believes and can point to hundreds of books about racism and racist incidents throughout the history of this country. Both sides could talk until they are both blue in the face about their TRUTHs…” – substantiates, I think, the point (if not the argument) that none of us ever has “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” What we, at best, have, I think, is our opinions, which, also at best, I believe, are formed through our reasoned reflection (which includes the insights of history and of others, etc.) on our life’s experiences…
Now, this said, this doesn’t mean that we are not in the quest for truth, which, for these purposes, I’ll define as universally understood and accepted propositions on what constitutes reality. Nevertheless, no matter how steadfast our quest, I do not believe that we and, surely, not I ever arrive at the possession of the truth. For this reason I wish that we humans – and I include myself here – would…could learn to listen as much as we talk, and to listen with as much intensity as we argue our points of view. And, in this, let us learn how to discern in the viewpoints of others elements of truth that we, because we see things as we see them, necessarily, do not possess. For, truth (ha, here’s some truth!) is each of us is the governor of what it is we believe. No one can force any of us to believe something that we do not.
Dear Paul (and Loretta too),
However fraught and tumultuous these days are, I keep being prompted to notice the incredible richness of this time. It feels to me as if American society as a whole has been languishing in a climate-controlled desert (an oxymoron, perhaps?) for at least decades, with much of public life subsumed by corporate-, wealth-, and power-defined questions and concerns – marketing, brand identity and loyalty, consumerism, taxation advantage, stratification, who’s in and who’s out, rabid individualism, competition, glitz, distraction, etc. ad nauseum, but that somehow the pandemic, and the tragic last straw of George Floyd’s murder smashed the carefully maintained and concealed hothouse glass in which our society has been gasping for so long and allowed real air, real oxygen, to come into our public conversation and interaction.
The irony and tragedy is that George Floyd’s (and many others’) last words, “I can’t breathe,” seem to me to echo how so many people have been feeling for such a long time. But, finally, at least some of the people who have been pretty comfortable living in the hothouse have been forced to think and talk about the real things, things that matter, things that have to do with living, not consuming, not buying, not profiting, things that ARE important, not that have been SOLD to us as important. I think you’ve identified some of those real things in your post, Paul, the same ones named by a group of largely problematic white men, as you point out, in the Declaration of Independence: equality, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Even though it came about via tragedy, we are once again thinking about these things, once again knowing that the actual ideas behind what have largely become empty words, are important for the nation’s survival.
I’ve been engaged for the past week or so in an email exchange with Ted’s brother, who has just assumed the president’s chair at a fairly large, private, evangelical university here in the Twin Cities. He is a good man, a devoted Christian, a retired executive from a large multinational corporation, who is truly struggling to come to grips with what he has not understood about the world and about this country for most of his life. He has traveled widely and claims that the most formative experiences of his life were a three-week stint working in townships in South Africa, time spent visiting Indian cities and seeing desperately poor people living in cardboard shacks down the hills from the terraces of mansions owned by the wealthy, and spending time recently in Los Angeles and daily passing by the huge encampments of homeless people there. I remember his being so changed by living for several years in Memphis while he was still a corporate executive. It was his first exposure to open white supremacy and the real history of the struggle for civil rights in the South. He also now numbers, among his beloved seven grandchildren, two Black grandsons, one adopted from Ethiopia and one from Haiti. He recently attended the Minneapolis memorial service for George Floyd, and I know he was deeply touched by that event as well. I tell you all this to preface something from our recent email exchange: that he told me that he does not believe there was ever or still is a “grand scheme” to enshrine inequity/inequality in our American society. I was taken aback by that statement, but not really all that surprised, I suppose. He is a man who tries to assume the best about people and about institutions. Nevertheless, I’m afraid I did judge the statement as arising from some degree of naïveté and felt I had to respond. I share with you my response:
I’m afraid I disagree with you about whether there was/is a grand scheme to create inequity in the U.S. We are fortunate enough to have some noble and beautiful sentiments as the foundation for our constitutional democracy – all men being created equal and being endowed by the Creator with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – but from the very beginning those sentiments were intended by their drafters, most of the founding fathers, to apply only to white, European-descended males, and primarily only to those who owned property; everyone else was and in some cases still is, in some sense, either owned by or subservient to white, European-descended males. The past nearly 250 years of the existence of the country seems to have been, in great part, one long, passionate, arduous, sometimes bloody struggle to have those sentiments and promises apply to all Americans, regardless of skin color, national origin, sex, or gender. I believe that’s what we are engaged in still today in even more visibly desperate ways since the murder of George Floyd, simply the extension of those noble, wonderful sentiments to all of us rather than a select part of us.
I sincerely hope my response is something of a worthy paraphrase of the Langston Hughes’ words you quoted in your post. Not nearly as sonorous or beautiful, but humbly echoing the same profoundly, sadly true, but wonderfully hopeful sentiment. May that hope finally become real.
Thank you, Paul.
With much love,
My dearest Karen, your analysis of present day circumstance(s) – all at once, for me, personal and historical – is an extensive and intensive view of our living landscape. I thank you, foremost, for you and for this insightful offering.
In reading your words, I was reminded immediately of one of my previous posts – “I can’t breathe!” (June 12, 2020) – in which I related that telling call, cry of need, in turn, to Eric Garner and George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, our sisters and brothers afflicted with COVID-19, and Mother Earth.
That you apply this call, this cry to the state of all of us — which, once, unconscious, now, under the veil of a viral pandemic and with the shroud of blindness about racism (I pray) ripped away from our eyes with the latest (let us pray no more, though history tells me…) deaths of black folk hath been made painfully conscious — is a wondrous stroke of perspicacity. Thank you. Thank you.
Moreover, your recount of your engagements with your brother in law, particularly your characteristically critically-eyed and compassionate response, which, for me, is a vignette of what can happen when folk are willing and able to engage across lines of differing perceptions and, potentially, come to a place of mutual understanding (Brava!), grants me hope. Thank you again and again.
And, yes, yours is “a worthy paraphrase” of the Poet Laureate of Harlem. What gives my hope pause is that Langston wrote that poem in 1935. Here we are 85 years later continuing to find painful relevance in his words.
Love with gratitude,
Thank you for your response and your always-cherished affirmation, Paul. The only small beam of light I can offer in response to your rueful observation that we are now 85 years out from Langston Hughes’ crushingly true words is that I perceive that some of us who have been oblivious, by choice or unconsciously, to the meanings carried in our skin color and the taken-for-granted benefits we have claimed and enjoyed because of those meanings, are now willing ourselves to open our eyes and begin to see what we could or would not see before about ourselves. The conversations I am having with white friends are of a different quality today than any conversations I have ever had in the past, and the urgency and determination I am feeling personally to grapple with and dismantle white supremacy and its consequences persuade me that we are beginning a journey toward change that takes place in hearts and minds and not merely in laws, as we saw in the 1960’s and later. Those changes, as vital as they were and are, have been perhaps too mechanical; what I believe and I pray is starting is a deep internal, substantive transformation that has not followed the legislative and judicial mandates. I so hope I am not perceiving wrongly!
Karen and Paul!
WOW!! What a thread this is!! Karen you are a rock star!! Your words to your brother-in-law were simply stunning! I appreciate you so much and as Paul pointed out your words were so compassionate!! We can’t imagine what others are thinking and feeling but I hope your brother-in-law extended to you the same compassion. You and Paul could team up to explain to folks HOW to have these discussions in a civilized way. In agree with Paul, Langston Hughes would be most proud!
Much love to you both!!
My dearest Karen and Loretta, always, and I do mean always, I thank you for your reading, reflecting, and responding to my writings.
And, yes, Karen, I do find hope in that reality that some of us…some of you…some white folk are opening their eyes to historical and present-day racism and the advantages/privileges obtained thereby and, thus, are having different conversations with others. Again, I say, yes, I find hope in this. Thank you.
At the same time, the more I reflect on my history of having conversations about race, the more I realize (or, rather, re-realize) a number of things:
1. Whilst many of my black sisters and brothers have resigned (and I do not use the term pejoratively or judgmentally) from the task of (as we frequently describe it) “teaching white people about race” (for our experiences of doing so have proven, in the main, exhausting and fruitless, i.e., nothing changes), I remain steadfast – through my, now, life’s lens of encountering and engaging “the other” – in being willing and able to have such conversations.
2. These conversations remain exhausting, especially when I encounter and re-encounter, usually early on, if not instantly, (a) white-rebuttal (“What you’re talking about was long ago. I didn’t do any of it”), which denies the present-day reality of racism, (b) white-guilt (“Yes, I know you’re right, but what can I do?”), which, to employ a biblical metaphor, refuses to put the hand to the plow, (c) white-hurt feelings (“You’re negating my efforts, as if they count for nothing, in my daily life to do the right thing”), which, no, I am not doing, but this reaction, for me, denies the reality of the systemic/institutional nature of racism that must be addressed by far, far deeper and greater means than our individual and situational efforts, or (d) white-rejection (“I’m tired of you [or worse, “you people”] judging me/us”), which speaks for itself, I think, in the sense that, yes, all of these engagements are laden with judgment.
3. These conversations often remain (thus, end) on these surface levels. However, when and if folk are willing and able to go deeper, transformative interactions can (though, of course, not always) take place.
I could say/write more. Still, thank you, Karen, for your commentary has raised all this to a surface level of my consciousness. And as you, Loretta, know, that I, now, 5+ years away from St. Mark’s, see more clearly that a great deal of what I have learned about conversations about race, which I detail above, I found to be true in that community. Karen, though I served there nearly 17 years and, in the course of that time, after, at the least, 3-4 rounds of intentional, community-wide work in the areas of race, racism, and racial reconciliation, the parish-culture, for me, was one, largely, of denial or what I have since termed “a punishing paucity of self-awareness.” On the one hand, my remembrances are grievous to me and, on another hand, having moved beyond and apart from, generally speaking, a personally-stultifying, soul-stealing atmosphere, I can release my hurt and anger. However, I also must confess that my sense of relief is no panacea for what I perceive to be a manifestation of the very stubborn system that I – and countless others – seek to dismantle.
Love and a luta continua…
I have read your last comment several times over the past couple of days, because I think it contains so much that I want and need to understand, both on an intellectual and on an emotional and spiritual level. I am grateful that you, despite the exhaustion I know you feel and that I can read between and among your words, still continue to engage, when you should be able to walk away from yet another encounter about race and racial reconciliation. The examples of the responses you have described from white people in response to conversations about race are dismissive, disrespectful, and, at best, unperceptive on a human level; I can well understand your weariness and your dispirited feelings when you recall them. It is remarkable to me that these are the responses you experienced in ministering to your congregation in DC, particularly in the context of attempts to come to grips with racism and healing. I’m so sorry that you, my friend, experienced this. You, as I know you, are one of the last people on earth who would merit such empty responses.
Thank you for continuing, in the “a luta continua” sense of the word, the tiresome, frequently thankless trek you have embarked upon, which I know is grounded in your faith and your service to the One you have chosen and pledged to follow to the end. I hope I can offer an encouraging word, at least from my personal perspective, you are having an effect, an important, huge effect. I am humbly grateful.
My Dearest Karen,
You have my heart of gratitude for the care of your sympathy and understanding and the kindness of your encouragement. Even more, you, in your characteristic thoughtful, insightful depth, have done for me something I oft find difficult to do for myself (even when I seek to will it). That is, distance myself from my feelings of hurt and anger or, in another word, not allowing myself to be absorbed by my negative feelings…
In and from this stance of being apart from myself, indeed, at an arm’s length from my self, I am able to be precisely who I long to be – loving, benevolent, and just, fair to and for and with others (even if they reside in my thoughts). In this, concerning the/my engagement in conversations about race, racism, and racial reconciliation, it is always important, indeed, essential that I accept others where they are, not where I would want them to be. For if…when I do that – desiring that others be as I long for them to be – then, necessarily, I am functioning contrary to (verily, flying in the face of) my life’s work of encountering and engaging “the other” who, by virtue of her/his beingness, does not see the world as I do.
Therefore, my dearest sister, I thank you for assisting me in finding, indeed, rediscovering my best self.
If I have assisted you in rediscovering your best self, I can only think it is because I deeply desire to reflect back to you, as much as I am able to, the self you, without fail, show to me.
With gratitude and love,
My dearest Karen, simply, profoundly, I thank you. Love, Paul