Thursday, September 9, 2010

154. Research issues for yourselves

My wife and I recently visited Colonial Williamsburg, traveling back into time to one of the many places where a new nation was born. We enjoyed the reenactments, which included the patriotic tide that eventually swung toward independence. We also enjoyed the old capital building and governor's mansion, which still portrayed reminiscences of English royalty.

One of our favorite speakers was Thomas Jefferson, who eloquently spoke of our constitutional history. He spoke at length about the rights of man, the many immigrants that found asylum in this country, the notion of religious liberty and the controversial topic of slavery.

While listening, I remember thinking how this forty-five minute reenactment provided more constitutional law than three months worth of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Here we were, hearing from the "horse's mouth" the thoughts and arguments of Thomas Jefferson. Gone were the political spin and cherry picking-here he was speaking directly from a compilation of his own writings.

While I was sitting there, I knew what had been bothering me recently-it was encompassed in the simple words, "his own writings." It seems that we've lost our dedication to research for ourselves-to read and discover for ourselves, to decide for ourselves. We've become too dependent on others-those with a partisan perspective, or economic interest, or social agenda. We have a whole political movement based on propaganda and emotion and entertainers.

While I admire the political activism of the Tea Party, as would some of our Founding Fathers, there remains a significant distinction-the Founding Fathers based their passion on intellect. Our Founding Fathers were highly educated and based their political perspectives on philosophy, history and law. They studied and wrote and debated. They were, dare we say, progressives-they had the ability to think forward, to break away from the "traditional" social and political norms of Royal England.

It remains a fact today that many Americans are not well educated in philosophy, history, economics, law or literature. Americans have an opinion about everything, but how much time do we spend reading and studying the writings of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Locke, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin or John Marshall? If not from the source, where do these opinions come from?

Unfortunately, leading the charge and subscribing to the idea that if people hear it often enough they will start to believe it are the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glen Beck and Sean Hannity-the Fox Entertainment group. These opinions are often slanted, spun, cherry-picked, exaggerated and geared to appeal to the emotions of conservatives. Unfortunately, the reception of these opinions is analogous to church goers who think they understand religion without ever reading The Bible and studying other faiths.

As a Newsweek article highlighted, we live in a time when sometimes people simply believe what they want to believe. According to the article, almost 20 percent believe that Obama is a Muslim, 61 percent do not believe in the theory of evolution, 25 percent believe in astrology, 41 percent believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in September 11, barely half knew that Judaism is older than Christianity, 25 percent could not name two Supreme Court justices, 60 percent could not identify the three branches of government, and, finally, get this, 40 percent still believe that the Health Reform Act creates Death Panels.

I know that it is not very politically correct to propose, but this suggests that a good 20-40 percent of the American population is utterly clueless.

It might not be realistic to expect that Americans devote a couple of hours a day to the study of history or philosophy. However, I do think that it is fair to suggest that if you are going to take the time to attend a Tea Party rally with a sign depicting President Obama as the devil, which labels him a socialist or adds a Hitler mustache to his photograph that you know exactly what you are protesting. There are some ideological principles to the Tea Party which I respect-even if the libertarian aspect appears somewhat selfish-but the anger and name calling is quite unbecoming.

When our Thomas Jefferson completed his reenactment, he took questions from the audience. Immediately, an obvious member of the Tea Party stood up and apologized for the state of our country. In his apology, he said that the schools no longer teach the Constitution. While I am not sure that is true (and I bet he meant The Bible), Jefferson's response was classic and typical of the times, he said, "Well, pull out the Constitution and read it, how difficult is that?"

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