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 

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