The American Spirit, Lost and Found

Thomas Adcock


Devotees of “original intent” behind the words of our Founding Fathers are often those who conflate American liberalism with socialism. While they regard the Constitution and the Federalist Papers as holy writ, they tend to ignore the spirit of collective optimism contained in the final and inherently liberal sentence of the Declaration of Independence.


On July 4, 1776, quill pens in hand, John Hancock and 55 comrades proclaimed the core intent of the United States of America in putting their names to an elegant document ending with a defiant notion of communal society, an idea that shook the world: 


And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.


Back then, such daring social compact existed nowhere else but in 13 rustic colonies willing to take up arms against the oppression of King George III. Even today, the spirit of John Hancock and his gang of aristocrats——whose cohorts included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John and Samuel Adams: optimists all who risked their lives and property as signatories to revolution——is rare.


Regrettably, that optimistic spirit——that spirit that drives all American progress——has been at historic odds with an uncharitable impulse among the American people: a selfishness that paradoxically afflicts both the afflicters and the afflicted, as we see in this election season.


Outlandish wealth and tax policy are much at issue this year——in particular, tax rates assessed against the wealthy: Mitt Romney’s 13.9 percent bite in 2010 for instance, versus more than double that which Uncle Sam removes from the average Joe’s pocket. Some would say that such a schism was hardly the original intent of John Hancock, et al. And yet, the divide is co-championed by the usual suspects and a low-information proletariat, as revealed by Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.


At the moment, it is difficult to maintain a positive view with respect to America’s future, for we seem mired in yet another dreadful Gilded Age. (Take note of the peculiarly optimistic ring we Americans apply to injurious epochs.)


In his syndicated newspaper column of June 10, 2012, Columbia University’s Joseph E. Stiglitz wrote of alarming dystopia, “America has the highest level of inequality of any of the advanced countries, and its gap with the rest has been widening.”


Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, continued, “In the ‘recovery’ of 2009-10, the top one percent of U.S. income earners captured 93 percent of the income growth. Other inequality indicators——like wealth, health, and life expectancy——are as bad or worse. The clear trend is one of concentration of income and wealth at the top, the hollowing out of the middle, and increasing poverty at the bottom.”


Matt Taibbi, the profane chronicler of Wall Street oligarchs for Rolling Stone magazine who is unlikely to be recognized for politesse by the Nobel Committee, speaks of misdirected anger and jealousy on the part of American proles.


Establishment Democrats who would defend such riffraff are accused by the Republican super-PAC set of fomenting “class warfare,” a disingenuous locution that has not so much divided the rich from you and me——as divided you and me from you and me.


“We have met the enemy,” observed the cartoon character Pogo in 1971, “and he is us.” Or as Taibbi explained in February of this year, “It’s not envy of the rich. That’s not what good peasants do. It’s envy of the poor slob next to you, the one you closely resemble; who has the extra nickel you don’t.”


Stiglitz and Taibbi reflect the reasoning of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941), who came of age during a previously gluttonous period of corporate greed, commencing with northern victory in the Civil War and ending with the collapse of Wall Street during the “panic” of the 1890s. From this, Brandeis drew a lesson in need of remedial study and review: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”



In the wake of the Gilded Age of 19th Century came the Progressive Era of the early 20th, personified by Republican President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858-1919), who famously destroyed corporate monopolies, reformed banking laws, and promulgated the “Square Deal” to increase equitable standing on the union side of labor relations.


Following yet another in the long line of Wall Street crimes and grubby shenanigans, Teddy’s cousin, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, carried progressivism forward by way of “New Deal” creations such as Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Glass-Steagall bank reform act.


The Roosevelts’ bipartisan accomplishments were attacked from the start, and have been attacked ever since, by the participants of organized selfishness, headquartered in——where else?——Wall Street. Consequently, and over time, banking and labor laws were greatly eroded. Case in point: At the behest of President Bill Clinton and fellow Democrats under corporate subsidy, Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999——thus removing strictures against the very kind of Wall Street speculation that caused the stock market crash of 1929, and in 2007 ushered in the Great Recession from which many will not recover.  


Nonetheless, there are voices of uplift in the land that hark back to the Declaration of Independence, and its spirit of defiance -- voices that speak truth to arrogance and corrupted power. These are the voices to revive our occasionally flagging American spirit, a spirit birthed in audacious rebellion against the mightiest political, economic and military empire extant in July of 1776.



Two centuries and three decades later, in 2006, the historian and activist Howard Zinn wrote, in the rebellious fashion of our Founding Fathers, “The struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the overwhelming power of those who have the guns and money, and who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, patience.”


To which the British comedian Ricky Gervais would add: the jaunty spirit of his American cousins. In a clever video for the website Open Culture, Gervais compared us to his countrymen: “Americans are slightly smarter, they’ve got better teeth, they have more ambition, they’re slightly broader, and they’re more optimistic. Americans are told they can become the next president of the United States, and they can.”


We should rely on these things noted and admired by both Zinn and Gervais as markers along a path of departure from a national malaise that grips so many. We may depend as well on the hypocrisy of those who militate against all things progressive and Rooseveltian (Franklin or Teddy), for sooner or later the stink of hypocrisy ripens, forcing us to clear the air. (Fair warning, tea baggers!)


Rank hypocrisy is the realm of Ayn Rand (1905-1982), progenitor of a “moral philosophy” that celebrates laissez-faire self-enrichment while excoriating poor and middle-class “parasites,” “looters” and “moochers” who collect any manner of public welfare benefits——or even earned government entitlements.


Her “objectivist” essays and schlock novels——The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged and the ilk——are required reading for staffers employed by Congressman Paul Ryan, the newly anointed running mate of G.O.P. presidential candidate Mitt Romney and author of a House budget bill that would abolish Social Security and Medicare as we have known these programs. (It so happens that Ayn Rand collected both Social Security and Medicare——slyly, by way of her marriage license, as Mrs. Frank O’Connor.)


With his Independence Day essay for, Professor Marty Kaplan of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California prescribed an antidote to despairing of the hypocrisy and peasantry and plutocracy nowadays: evidence of a spirit beating in the hearts of the young that promises a refreshingly old American worldview.


First, Kaplan defined the rot: “For a while now, my mood about America’s prospects have been grim. Big money has swamped our politics. Power has been concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Extremism has been mainstreamed. Fact-based reality has increasingly little bearing on public discourse. Institutions like education, the media and self-governance have grown sclerotic, pernicious and dysfunctional. Faced with looming catastrophes like climate change, we’re——oh, hell, there I go again, talking myself out onto a ledge.”


Then, Kaplan recounted a handful of the hundreds of impressive young men and women he had recently met. “In an ironic age, idealism is scarce; in a new Gilded Age, it’s fragile,” Kaplan’s essay concluded. “But it’s the muscular idealism abounding in a new American generation that got me down from my ledge.”


Author Bio:

Thomas Adcock, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, is a New York-based journalist and novelist.

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