Broken promise

I used to make it a point to write a post for America’s Independence Day. It was an exercise in affirming what it means to me to live in America. I’ve let that go over the past few years for a variety of reasons. I just haven’t been expressing myself in writing so much because discourse itself feels broken in this so-called post-truth era. But I’ve been thinking about it for a few days and I do have something to say, so here I am again.

A few weeks ago there was a Black Lives Matter march in Clifton Park NY. It wasn’t the largest rally and didn’t get a lot of press, but maybe as many as two thousand people in a small majority-white suburb got out to make some noise.

As I followed the route I joined in most of the chants, even those that didn’t align perfectly with my own values.

Slogans and rallying cries shouldn’t be taken at face value. Most are too vague to take literally. They become popular for their pith and euphony, not their subtlety or precision. Defund the police means many things to many people, and is more of a general call to action than a specific policy proposal. Only a few actually propose removing all funding from all law enforcement. Most mean that some funding should be diverted from law enforcement to other forms of crime prevention. Defund the police is popular because it catches the passion and outrage of f**** the police and replaces it with something less vulgar and relatively more constructive

The danger is that opponents of reform will seize on the few who do hold the most extreme and literal usage and hold them up as a Weak Man Argument1 to associate all who want change with that tiny minority, and turn popular opinion against them. The danger is not theoretical; it can be seen on cable news every day. But it’s a danger we have to live with until someone figures out a way to make nuance catchy.

Incidentally, one can tell left-wing chants from right-wing chants by counting the syllables. Trump rallies invariably settle on three-syllable chants whereas the lefties shout compound sentences and complete paragraphs through their bullhorns. Where the right has «build the wall», the left goes with «no justice, no peace». The right repeats in unison, «U-S-A! U-S-A!» and the left almost exclusively uses call-and-response routines, the simplest of which («hands up!»/«don’t shoot!») clocks in at four syllables. One shouldn’t read too much into that, but if we were to we might notice that one group employs a diversity of roles in its expression, while the other draws strength from unity, bundling together into fasces against a common enemy. Don’t think too much about that one.

One of the leaders caught my attention by quoting part of the Declaration of Independence and calling it a lie. I share her disappointment. I understand why one might hear the affirmation «all men are created equal» and think it hypocrisy. Some in America are indeed more equal than others, and thus has it always been. Not just in America, not just in the last five hundred years, but throughout human history some people have lived high while others were low. It doesn’t excuse our continuing to fall short of the ideal, but all of civilization has been a slow, sometimes backsliding, crawl toward justice and fairness. If we haven’t gotten there it’s because the powerful never want to let go of power, just as the powerless hold tight to whatever power they have left.

The ideal still hasn’t been achieved but it is still worth striving for. The man who expressed that ideal didn’t find a way to make it real even in his own life. That’s disappointing, but it doesn’t mean it was a lie to state the ideal. Those words had impact. They were taught to subsequent generations and form the foundation of a better vision of justice. They stand as a challenge to us as we continue to fall short. Do we mean it when we say we want equality, equal protection under the law, and equal opportunities to pursue happiness?

A better way to look at it is as a broken promise. Perhaps an unfulfilled promise, but a promise that must be made good. Calling it a lie means giving up on it, and I’m not willing to do that. A broken promise is a debt that we have to make right.

Perhaps I should take my own advice from earlier in the post, and not put quite so much weight in a provocative statement made while speaking out against injustice. It’s not my job to correct her or tell her she’s wrong. She prompted me to think about it, and I believe that was the job she was trying to do. It’s better to do something about showing that it’s not a lie. Dismissing her words because I don’t quite agree with the way she expressed it, that is its own kind of lie.

  1. The Weak Man Argument is kin to the Straw Man, but instead of using an exaggerated parody of an idea to refute it, a real but unrepresentative fringe is used to attack the more mainstream version. See Getting Duped: How the Media Messes with Your Mind ↩︎