As we watch the revolutions and upheavals live on TV it is easy to forget these momentous changes are actually happening and are real. TV is full of staged "reality shows" that succeed or fail based on bringing out the worst of our human nature. Back stabbing, cattiness, cruelty, avarice, lust, mean spiritedness, vulgarity, and just plain nastiness bring in the audiences and ratings.
For the last few weeks TV has brought us true reality with scenes of real courage in the face of the full force of dying regimes. Men on camels wielding clubs charging into crowds of people, tear gas and percussion grenades lobbed into swirls of women and children, police wielding sticks beating anyone within their reach – all the scenes of violence as dictators desperately try to hang onto power.
This is reality TV. I’m writing today from a lovely town in the French Alps, looking out over a postcard scene of the town below and the country side stretching into the distance…so far from the struggles in the streets…yet a flick of a button and the BBC brings it all to life. I can’t escape and don’t want to.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. Margaret Meade was absolutely correct. This blog usually focuses on the U.S. revolutionary generation and the framers of the Constitution. When I first found this quote, I thought about it in those terms. But today it takes on new meaning.
But we should not forget that thoughtful, committed citizens come in all varieties of human imagination. Just last week, in South Carolina, thoughtful, committed citizens were gathering in period costumes to attend a ball and reenact the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy. These people are serious about maintaining a fanciful view of the old South and the glory of the Cause for their peculiar institution…the obscuring language of the old South for the days of slavery and oppression in the distorted name of self-determination and democracy.
The U.S. founding generation held widely differing views on slavery and its place in a Republic based on the lofty words of the Declaration of Independence. But whether they abhorred it, sanctioned it, practiced it, or thought it would somehow disappear on its own, they enshrined slavery in the Constitution. A few paragraphs in a blog are not enough to explore the topic. The fact remains, even these men whom we admire so much, who had faced down the greatest military power of the day, who had been courageous in the face of superior numbers with superior organization and fire power, who had faced death, these men were not prepared to stop slavery.
The neo-Confederates danced the night away, basking in the reflected glory of a world that never was, a world that was shockingly cruel and dehumanizing to blacks and corrupting to whites. Meanwhile, half a world away, people are standing up to dictators and facing death for a chance to run their own lives in the real world.
The neo-Confederates and their ilk in the political arena yammer about states’ rights, nullification, self-determination, interposition, secession, and the other discredited catch words of a bygone era. Like the dictators who are being forced out and confronted today, the "neos" are appalled and frightened by the rise of something that cannot be repressed in humans forever – the desire to live free.
Democracy is a messy affair. The history of its evolution in the U.S. bears testament to this. Our bloody Civil War in which over 600,000 of us were killed by our fellow citizens and the deadly clashes over civil rights and war in the 60s remind us all too well that thoughtful, committed citizens can have vastly different views of what democracy means.
We have no newsreels to show us the reality of the Boston massacre or Lexington and Concord, the charging of the redoubts at Yorktown, or the actual battles and skirmishes of our Revolution. We have eye witness accounts and grandiose paintings. Today as I watch the BBC I see the actual chaos and brutal reality of these clashes. How many of us would stand up while we were fired on with live ammunition and "rubber" bullets, while being gassed, clubbed, and assaulted?
Luckily our ancestors did it for us. TV gives a little insight into what they actually did. But we must be thoughtful, committed citizens in our own lives whether it’s voting, working for a candidate or fighting for an important cause. All the time, however, we must remember there are other thoughtful, committed citizens who are opposing us. As soon as we forget the humanity of the other side, we slip into a frame of mind that allows us to hate, to oppress, and to commit cruel acts ourselves.
We will not know the outcomes of the uprisings, revolutions, and protests taking place today for many years. If democracy emerges, it will be messy, have its missteps, and setbacks. Here in the U.S. we must treasure our own democracy not fictionalize or sentimentalize it. The neo-Confederates are just one manifestation of the anti-democratic impulses that are also part of our human nature.
In full disclosure, I must share that I rejected membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution and United Daughters of the Confederacy. My grandmothers were mad at me for years. But I could not join organizations dedicated to the distortion of history. Observers of the current protest will be tempted to see things with their own coloration. Only with time will the narrative be clearer. For the time being, we can be thankful for the technology that allows us to communicate and watch as history unfolds before us. We can look for our best selves and strive to be thoughtful, committed citizens.
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©Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, President, Advantage Leadership, Inc.
Read more about the failure of the framers to confront slavery effectively in the constitution in Conventional Wisdom: How Today’s Leader Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers.