From the very beginning of recorded history through the modern day, humans have experienced radical fluctuations in our political systems, our personal ideologies, our liberties, and the way we live our lives. We have embraced the idea of change as a species, and writers and thinkers throughout the course of history have reflected this obsession. Heraclitus of Ephesus, one of the earliest ancient philosophers, saw the reality of change as universal in nature and among mankind; his idea that the only constant in life is change has echoed through the millennia that have elapsed since he lived. One of the trademark opaque phrases of Heraclitus that illuminates this idea states that “All things come into being through opposition and all are in flux like a river”; this image of the river is useful in understanding change and our human perception of it. For as much as we can see the change that is occurring through the flow of the river, we also perceive the river as unchanging so long as it remains flowing and within its banks. This perception of change reflects a deeper reality in human affairs, as we often recycle or rediscover older ideas or paradigms and see them as novel inventions of our own time. Our language and idioms have reflected this for quite some time; the phrase ‘everything old is new again’ is common in English-speaking societies, but the feeling it expresses is universal. The French use – in their stereotypically pessimistic and existential manner – the idiom ‘plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose’, which translates roughly as ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. This phrase captures a key sentiment in humanity which has been repeated through history – that of the fact that constant change generally does not truly reverse the basic order of things or change human nature. This is true for historical change in ideologies and political systems as much as it is for anything else; the only constant, which remains the same throughout time, is that things are always in a state of flux and humans tend to repeat older ideas or cycles in newly updated ways. If this is true, we should expect human societies to always be in a state of change and conflict; yet some theorists throughout history have taken an opposite approach, claiming that history itself has an endpoint or goal. Historians and thinkers who fall into this teleological camp – from Augustine and Bossuet to Hegel and Marx – vary wildly in their ideas about history, but all agree that history is progressing towards a specific end. Still, few of these thinkers saw their own time as representing the ‘end of history’, only predicting that it would come at some point in the future. For most of the human past, the idea that history had ‘ended’ would have seemed ridiculous, especially given the inexorable reality of change and the often-drastic upheavals that surrounded it. But apparently unique historical circumstances only a few decades ago led many to embrace this old philosophy anew and claim that their era was indeed the realization of the ‘end of history’.
Two-hundred and forty-four years ago today, fifty-six brave men took their lives in their own hands and signed their names to a document almost unprecedented in human history. The Declaration of Independence is a profound statement of Enlightenment principles and has guided the progress and development of human rights and liberal constitutionalism in this nation and across the world. Our nation, and the men who founded it, did not always live up to the lofty principles espoused in our founding documents; chattel slavery, forcible relocation of Native American tribes, Jim Crow, and Japanese internment all are examples of horrendous episodes in which we fell short of those ideals. But to abrogate them entirely because of past hypocrisy or failure is a fool’s errand. In 2020 America (despite all of its flaws), we can say what we wish without fear of government action, worship (or not worship) however we please, advocate for our favored policies without concern for our liberty, and defend ourselves to the fullest extent possible. No matter who resides in the White House, who controls the Congress, or who sits on the Supreme Court, our natural rights remain protected from the avarice or evil of those who would wish to deny us them. In no other society on earth does the individual have more control over his own choices in life, personally, politically, and professionally. We live in the most prosperous, liberal, diverse society that has ever existed in human history; it would do us well to remember that and to see ourselves as lottery winners in a broader world full of tyranny, slavery, and oppression. The United States of America has been a shining city on a hill not only because we have grand ideals of freedom and liberty, but because we have worked incredibly hard over myriad generations to fully embrace and fulfill the promises of the founding. Let us as Americans continue that worthy mission and move our great nation even closer to the full flowering of liberty. Happy Independence Day.
Thankfully I didn’t pay for this book, and you shouldn’t either.
Those of you who know me personally may know that I am a voracious reader, especially when it comes to nonfiction. Usually I’m interested in books about history, political philosophy, military, or international affairs, but when I saw a book called White Fragility trending around the internet, sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list, and receiving mass praise, I felt it was important to read it to see what all the fuss is about. I can report back that this is easily one of the most racist, ahistorical, poorly argued, and absurd books I’ve ever read. I cannot believe that this was written in the 21st century given the paternalistic assumptions it makes about those who the author, Robin DiAngelo, considers ‘non-white’. I’ve delved deeply into the official reports and personal writings of British colonial officials in the 19th century for my academic research and I cannot understand how a modern, popular, purportedly ‘antiracist’ book mirrors and exceeds the frankly racist language of those dispatches. There is an incredible array of issues with the book (I could’ve spent ages reading this and pushing back line-by-line), but I’m going to skim the surface so as to touch on the major problems, factual errors, and faulty assumptions which underlay the author’s theory.