GLIMPSES: Of rights, responsibilities & 21st century challenges

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Author’s note: The following three premises are essential to this column.

1) None of us see the past or present with absolute clarity.

2) Each of us has the capacity for glimpses of informed insight that draw from and reflect our personal values.

3) Cordial, forthright exchange of those insights enhances our mutual well being.

As a United States citizen, I have the right to hold an opinion that you may consider stupid. You, of course, have the right to declare that opinion stupid, and both of us must live with whatever unpleasantries follow. Sadly, one looking at our own turbulent times might assume that preoccupation with “my opinion” to be all that we Americans know about our founder’s lofty intentions.

This would surprise and disappoint them. The First Amendment’s commitment to freedom of expression, rightfully treasured by Americans today, was an afterthought to their original document. The latter’s preamble states six goals, including a more perfect union, protection from outside threats and domestic unrest, and an array of lofty societal aspirations including promotion of the general welfare.

While the founders were far more diverse than popular images suggest, the 39 men who signed the completed Constitution shared an emphasis that these goals must be balanced — a sure sign they were products of the Enlightenment.

We should also recognize that they were privileged, propertied males, who considered humility a proper check on their elevated status. For all their vision, they could not foresee that many common folk might attain sufficient property or foresight to become full citizens.

Only humble, rational, responsible property owners could be the “virtuous citizens” — so essential to their republican experiment.

Of course, over the ensuing 200-plus years, our definition of “we the people” has broadened in multiple ways. While the mixed overall record of our “democracy” may validate some of the founders’ fears about “regular folk,” a return to their limited view of citizenship is unimaginable.

With such a large and diverse electorate, opinions some deem “stupid” have flourished — with predictable results. The advent of mass communication, first radio and television and now the cyber revolution, accelerated Americans’ tendency toward strong opinions. Witness the call-in portion of any talk radio show, letters to the editor in any newspaper, or the latest round of “Vol Calls.”

The rejection of reason and hubris evident in much of this discourse would surely confound the founders.

At the risk of leading readers to declare me “stupid,” let’s apply the founders’ emphases on balance and an informed, humble citizenry to two controversial contemporary issues: the status of our national health-care system and the global climate.

However one responds to those issues, we must recognize another hallmark of modernity: the emergence of expertise. The founders would (accurately!) predict that experts, too, may be guilty of hubris.

But, I suggest, the disdain for informed discussion and denial of expert opinion that some of their “democratic” heirs display in response to the two issues today would disturb them even more.

For purposes of continuing this discussion, let me suggest that both issues are “too real” to ignore. Our American health-care insurance system emerged sporadically from unusual circumstances of World War II.

While it met our needs for some time, its inefficiencies make it economically unsustainable, and its failure to adequately provide care for a large number of our fellow citizens is disturbing.

Whether Obamacare is a proper response to these shortcomings is debatable — but not that the problem demands responsible attention.

For me at least, global climate concerns are similar. With 97 percent of climate scientists in agreement that burning fossil fuels is a major contributor to dangerous climatic extremes, the debate should turn to American energy policy. As with health care, that debate hinges on multiple concerns: environmental, economic, geo-political and moral. While we may disagree vehemently over these matters, ignoring them is not an option for an informed, responsible citizenry.

In both cases, acknowledgment of the problem is merely a first step. The hard part — debating diverse opinions, weighing short-term costs vs. long-term benefits, and considering potential unintended consequences — is a debate we must have.

Should we reach even modest consensus, the really hard part — trusting one another enough to take reasonable risks — begins. This is the essence of governing.

While the founders shared a suspicion of concentrated governmental power with many Americans who followed them, the limits that they wove into the Constitution were intended to impede, not prevent, governance.

Thanks in part to the Constitution’s vague language, the system evolved in fits and starts in response to history’s most persistent theme: change.

Ours is hardly the first generation of Americans to confuse “playing politics” with governing and to prefer procrastination to action, but time and again our balanced system of government allowed for creative, constructive conflict to advance the founders’ goals.

Indeed, even as our government has expanded in size, so has personal freedom and self-expression for an ever broader citizenry.

Utilizing that legacy, many decry the expansion of government, and some readers will consider the views expressed here “stupid.” They and I are fully within our rights in defending our views.

But, should our present paralysis persist, future generations will surely deem all of us irresponsible … maybe even stupid!


Mark Banker is a teacher-historian. Since 1987, he and his wife, Kathy, have lived on a remnant of his family’s farm just south of Kingston, and he has taught at the Webb School of Knoxville. Banker has published works on American religious history, the American Southwest and Appalachian history. His most recent book is “Appalachians All: East Tennesseans & the Elusive History of an American Region” (University of Tennessee Press, 2010). You may contact him at mtbanker44@gmail.com.