Sunday, April 13, 2008

Happy Jefferson Day

This photo of me was taken by Matt Baker in Williamsburg, Virginia in 2000.

Happy Jefferson Day everyone!

That's right, on this day in 1743, he was born in Virginia. When I was in elementary school, he was my second favourite president (after Lincoln). I remember reading a book about him and wanted to become an architect someday, just like him (until I learned that there was a lot of math and science involved). He didn't catapult into the favourite president slot until I lived in Virginia and visited Monticello as well as reading several biographies on the great man. He was well-rounded, a true Renaissance Man, a political offspring of the Age of Enlightenment. Our country has gone a long way from his era of great men who were uncomfortable about power to the current president who famously said that he wishes to be a dictator.

It was baffling to me in the 1990s to hear conservative Republicans claim Jefferson as their own. Granted, Jefferson believed in a smaller government. That has been the Republican platform for a long time, but reality betrays the rhetoric. The Republican Party is far from the Jeffersonian ideal. When our nation was founded, Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were about as far apart as you could get politically. The two parties were founded based on this divide. Hamilton (along with John Adams) was part of the Federalist Party, which was the forerunner to today's Republican party. They wanted a strong central government with a powerful Chief Executive. Hamilton, in fact, wanted a "President For Life." You can easily imagine Bush wanting that for himself. The Federalists wanted less accountability to the people and in the Adams Administration, he passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which could be viewed as the USA PATRIOT Act of its day. It was totally un-Constitutional. Thus the election of 1800 was vital for Jefferson to win. Evangelicals of the day were scared of a Jefferson Administration and even warned voters that if he won, he'd ban the Bible. The Evangelicals of today are just as fear-mongering, claiming to voters in West Virginia that if Kerry won in 2004, that he'd ban their Bibles! It's a tactic that unfortunately still wins among an unthinking mass of people.

That's who Jefferson feared. Though he wasn't an atheist, nor a Christian, he was the biggest advocate of a separation of Church and State. Unfortunately, a lot of Evangelical Christians today don't understand the importance of that separation. At least they don't when their religion is influencing the White House. But heaven forbid we get a Catholic or a Mormon president. Then these Evangelicals will thank God for Jefferson's wall of separation. That's the catch, isn't it? If you have the numbers to influence national policy, you're against a wall of separation, but when the president is of a religion you despise, all of a sudden, the wall of separation looks very good. Well, we should be consistent in our support. It should always be there. Religion has no place in government. There's nothing wrong with government neutrality in religion. It's a silly demand to have a Ten Commandments posted in every courtroom or school classroom, as though that would make people moral. No, increasing it's presence everywhere will turn it into a joke, into wallpaper that people hardly ever notice. And it also violates two of the commandments not to make a graven image and not to commit idolatry.

Whenever I meet a conservative Republican who claims Jefferson as one of their forebears, I ask them why they think so. Jefferson was a radical. He believed that we needed a revolution every twenty years or so, just to keep our government fresh (the tree of liberty must be renewed with the blood of tyrants, he had said). Conservatives are afraid of revolution. By their nature, they want the status quo. Look at how they defend the current administration and always look backwards to the Reagan years as the ideal (never to a better future, because they see any change as "unpatriotic"). It has been the Democrats who have revolutionized our country time and again...with FDR to lead us out of the Great Depression; with an inspirational JFK and his New Frontier to put man on the moon; with RFK's plan to end the war in Vietnam and address the issue of poverty; with Carter for focusing on Human Rights issues; with Clinton to bring more people out of poverty and into the middle class; with Gore and his environmental vision that is just now becoming more and more talked about in businesses starting to see green in a new light; and with the historic choice between a black man or a woman to lead our country out of the darkness of the Bush years. There's nothing revolutionary about conservative politics.

One of Jefferson's biggest ideas concerned the creation of a meritocracy, in which those who have virtue and talent would rise to the top in society. He, like other Founding Fathers, had seen degenerative effect of children and grandchildren of kings rule. It's always a diminishing value because there's nothing meritorious about the happenstance of birth into wealth and privilege. Many trustfund babies don't accomplish much because everything has been given to them and they live a life behind rose-colored glasses. True worth comes from testing of one's mettle through the experiences of life, where one's talents can be developed. After reading about Jefferson in various biographies, it's easy to know what he'd think of the current president. It wouldn't come as a shock to think of Bush as the worst president our country could've chosen in any election. Just to listen to him speak, you know he isn't a bright or curious person. He even said when he ran that he never had a desire to be president. He is the true "trust fund baby" who has come to haunt us all with his gross incompetence. He is the opposite of what a meritocracy would produce.

No, we don't have a meritocracy. We have a neo-conservative's wet dream of a government. In their belief system, they aren't accountable to the people because they believe a distorted view of Plato's ideal of rule by the Philosopher Kings. That those who study politics (even a politics by Machiavelli) have the right to rule and that the use of lies in service of their goals is justified because the people are ignorant and thus don't deserve to know the true motives of our rulers.

So, given that, how can any Republican think that they represent the true legacy of Jefferson? They don't. Just because Jefferson advocated for less government doesn't legitimize the Republican ideal of less government. Jefferson wanted less government because he believed that the Federalist ideal of a big government which ignored the will of the people and had the power to wage war, increase taxes, and accumulate wealth among a small elite that continues to rule is exactly the kind of government he was against. In the Jeffersonian ideal, Obama and Clinton are the true meritocrats in this election. Both candidates have risen to the top based on their own accomplishments, intellect, and even a bit of luck (in the case of Obama winning a primary in a multi-candidate field back in 2004). And if we end up with either of them as president, the legacy of Jefferson will come back into vogue. It will revolutionize our country in ways we haven't seen in decades.

Hope you'll learn more about this great president as you observe this great day.

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