A party that promotes ignorance (“Just say no to global warming”) and provides a safe house for bigotry cannot serve the best interests of our country.As we occasionally have hinted, for much of the last year we've been engaged in an extended research project involving the life of a New England man born near the end of the eighteenth century who became an early pioneer on the "Old Northwest" frontier. One of the most striking things about this "first generation American" and his contemporaries is the palpable and sincere commitment they so frequently manifested to the ethos of the "virtuous civic man."
The "virtuous civic man" ideal of those first generation Americans, such as the pioneer we have come to know so well, broadly embraced what many might understand today as "Christian" values. But the first generation Americans were well aware that the ethos of the virtuous civic man did not originate with them, or even with the Founding Fathers. Nor, they well knew, did it start with the Bible.
The ideal is rooted in classical Greece and Rome philosophy, as Joy Connolly's recent book, among many others, establishes. It has been honored throughout much of humanity's history. Indeed, these same values could as easily be said to be at the root of almost every religion and secular humanist movement on Earth since history began. It embraces a set of values that lies at the very foundation of human progress.
Among those values are honesty, selflessness, and dedication to helping the less fortunate, less enlightened, less well-educated, and even the less deserving. The virtuous civic man was the apotheosis of the early American citizen. He acted deliberately, as much as possible, for the common good of others. That ethos also characterized their parents' generation -- the Founding Fathers of our nation, who risked everything for future generations, including their own lives.
The first generation Americans who inaugurated the great Western migration understandably felt impelled by a sense of gratitude and admiration to emulate the Founding Fathers' achievements to the maximum extent of their ability. Accordingly, they invented public financing of the first "internal improvements" -- such as canals, roadways, and postal delivery. They ushered in the Industrial Revolution, formed volunteer militias on the frontier for community protection, agitated for the abolition of slavery, passed laws in many states (including frontier Illinois) requiring that each local community establish homes for the poor and disabled and provide poor residents with publicly-paid for medical care. They invented, then spread across the land, the uniquely American idea of free public education for all, regardless of wealth.
These were just some of the more dramatic achievements in the early years of the Republic. On a local level, that same ethos of the virtuous civic man inspired first generation Americans to initiate an astounding array of social betterment organizations which many of us take for granted today. These ranged from the earliest municipal chambers of commerce to the profusion of "lyceums" (or public lecture and reading programs); and from thousands of local "temperance societies" to free city and county libraries.
If nothing else, the health care reform debate over the last year, as Jonathan Chait wrote recently, has exposed a "philosophical divide" between those (mostly proponents of health care reform) who embrace the ideals of civic virtue expounded by our forefathers and those (mostly opponents) who insist that it's every-man-for-himself. As Chait writes --
“Pay their own way”--that gets to the heart of the [Republican] party’s new vision of health as a consequence of personal morality. “I think a national health care act substitutes for a lack of personal responsibility,” complained Republican Representative Steve King last August. Newt Gingrich gloats that Americans have moved “away from the idea of government-run health care and toward more personal responsibility.”President Obama plainly is conscious of this philosophical divide. Three years ago, he delivered a speech commemorating the Selma voting rights march that squarely addressed the same philosophical divide, albeit using the Biblical parable of Moses and Joshua:
I'm here because somebody marched. I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation; but we've got to remember, now, that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was, despite all that he did, leading a people out of bondage, he didn't cross over the river to see the Promised Land. God told him your job is done. You'll see it. You'll be at the mountain top and you can see what I've promised. What I've promised to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. You will see that I've fulfilled that promise but you won't go there.At the time, Obama was speaking about civil rights and racial equality. But he might just as well have been speaking about the unfinished "internal improvement" of national health care. We're here "because somebody marched." We're here because others who went before "sacrificed" for us. We, too, "stand on the shoulders of giants."
We're going to leave it to the Joshua generation to make sure it happens.
That's what makes the crude "kill the bill" chants of today's Republican party and the vulgar protests of health reform opponents so disquieting. As Bob Herbert writes, they do not serve "the best interests of this country."
Moreover, when they taunt, mock, and throw spare change at a health care reform supporter who is afflicted with Parkinson's Disease -- all the while shouting "no handouts" -- they aren't merely expressing dissent to a single piece of legislation. They are mocking the central ethos that inspired the Founding Fathers and the first generation Americans who created our Republic. They are undermining the very foundations of our Republic.