July 4, 2017KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthics

Some Thoughts on Independence Day

Lately, for reasons I can’t really name, I’ve been reading about the Enlightenment in an old textbook that’s been lying around for years. It brings back the excitement of college days, reading about this era when people somehow collectively threw off assumptions and prejudices of the past and opened themselves to new ways of thinking and being in the world. Maybe that characterization’s more than a little oversimplified, but I assume you know what I mean. The time was a veritable Who’s Who of genius: Voltaire, La Mettrie, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Condorcet, the names go on and on. Okay, so the list is decidedly white and aggressively male. Nevertheless, there’s the woman whom Jean-Francois Marmontel describes in his Memoirs as one whose gifts were “not those of an ordinary woman,” so that in her salons she could play the room like a well-tuned instrument. I wish I knew her name, which doesn’t show up in the excerpt that my old textbook includes. Inevitably, some details get left out of the narrative.

 

Because it’s Independence Day, I’m also thinking about the US as a great and ongoing Enlightenment experiment when people collectively drew up the documents to create a “more perfect union.” Again, the characterization is a little oversimplified, but you know what I mean. A lot of brilliant and courageous people were involved in this great experiment, some of them women such as Abigail Adams, who wrote to her husband often to make sure he included women in his considerations, both before and during his time as the nation’s second president—she spent most of her energies at home raising the children and keeping the farm running. She doesn’t always get the credit she deserves, but what women have?

She played her part in the accomplishment of this nation, which is rather grand, even if our history has been somewhat soiled in the working; there’s the whole genocide (of Native Americans) thing and the whole deal of kidnapping (Africans) into slavery. As a friend of mine told me years ago, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. But then, a country isn’t an omelet, and ours has broken more than eggs; it’s broken plenty of bodies, hearts, spirits, and cultures too.

 

As I write these reflections, I’m listening to an NPR program about what it means to be a person of color in this great nation, which isn’t always such a great experience. As a white male, I find that I need these reminders often; for one of my privileges is a kind of forgetfulness that, as comforting as it might be, none of us can really afford to indulge, not if we really want to work toward that more perfect union that we’re supposed to be about. After our recent presidential election, many of my friends and students expressed to me how unsafe they felt. I was plenty angry myself, but it struck me that I really was not feeling unsafe. It was a powerful reminder that our politics and struggles are not merely things happening “out there,” but also things that we carry in our bodies, a truth that Ta-Nehisi Coates makes urgently palpable in his Between the World and Me. If my own white privilege is something that I carry in my body, as I know it is, then I must remember that working toward a truly social justice requires more than good intentions, it requires the kind of spiritual work that makes me face and remember things that I often instinctively avoid, and it requires the kind of physical engagement that means experiencing some of the discomfort, even if only a tiny fraction of the discomfort, that my fellow human beings feel deep in their bodies every day. Enlightenment means more than seeing clearly; it means engaging with all our bodies in the work of liberation.