Ten years ago yesterday, General Colin Powell delivered compelling evidence to the United Nations about Saddam Hussein’s WMD program. This damning testimony officially brought public sentiment about a war with Iraq to a rolling boil. General Powell’s masterfully-presented thesis about Iraq turns out to have been based on discredited information. Iraq also had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, but those are just details! Regardless of the effect Powell’s presentation had on the international community, the decision had already been made to go after Saddam. His stranglehold on the region was imperiling American access to Persian oil supplies. It’s no surprise that Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Bill Kristol and a motley crew of neocons went looking for an Iraqi connection to the World Trade Center attacks before the dust had even settled. Spoiler Alert! There wasn’t a connection to be found, but nomatter for the Cheneyman. This was a guy who didn’t even win the fucking election and was somehow living in the White House, so you think he was going to let “facts” get in the way of who the United States retaliated against? Hell no…like a boss.
General Powell’s former Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson was on Democracy Now! this morning. He has turned quite apologetic about his task of preparing Powell’s UN presentation, calling it the “biggest mistake of my life” or something like that. It’s charming and disgustingly self-effacing all at once. I applaud him for having the nerve to back pedal and even apologize for his role in drumbeating our ongoing war with Iraq. That’s more than 99% of Bush’s former staffers are willing to do, but it really makes you wonder all over again what could have been if the Supreme Court went 5-4 the other way in Bush v. Gore. We will never know.
Keep this in mind next time you hear some loudmouthed talking head extolling the virtues of preemptive war with Iran because, you know, they’re developing weapons of mass destruction…
“We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, yadda yadda yadda, Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven, yadda yadda yadda.” Constitution!!!
Or something like that…
It’s a beautifully written document, which in its very first proclamation establishes the power of we. We the people. In a constitutional republic such as ours, we are supposed to be in control of our collective destiny. Those “yaddas” —which make up the core of our founding documents and still serve as our social and economic rudder—are obviously rooted in their contextual history. On the other hand, we the people are timeless and irrefutable. We are beautiful and unique and completely indefinable by a piece of parchment. We are powerful beyond measure. So why does it seem as if we’ve begun acting against our self-interest? Why are we so willing to cede our right to unite, to create a more broadly inclusive civilization?
Given the choice, I’d assume most of us would like a more civilized life over a less civilized one. As Seth Godin masterfully point out, the higher choice of a more enlightened life requires a focus on the whole system rather than on the individual. He confronts the difficulties associated with harnessing the power of we:
There are always shortcuts available. Sometimes it seems like we should spend less money taking care of others, less time producing beauty, less effort doing the right thing–so we can have more stuff. Sometimes we’re encouraged that every man should look out for himself, and that selfishness is at the heart of a productive culture. In the short run, it’s tempting indeed to trade in a part of civilized humanity to get a little more for ourselves at the end of the day. And it doesn’t work.
This focus on the individual, which is so widely celebrated in the cult of celebrity, is deeply troubling since none of us actually exist in a vacuum. We live on this Earth together. We breathe the same air and drink the same water. I don’t know about you, but this election cycle is killing me. It has taken the narrative of “Blue vs. Red” and “my ideas vs. your ideas” to a whole new level. We are locked in a polarity where one set of ideas must be validated and the other rejected, even though the details largely overlap and the ostensible macro-goal is exactly the same: a more perfect union for we the people and a better society for our children and grandchildren.
Our beautiful democracy has recoiled into gridlock, unable to systemically cope with a situation where nobody will consider others’ opinions as unique, possible, and valid from their perspective. We’re more polarized than ever at a time when we should be leaning into our collective strength in order to effectively confront the challenges of our generation.
Perhaps worst of all, our polarized infighting about mostly rhetorical differences of opinion is completely distracting us from the uncivilized inequality seeping from the pores of our stressed society. We’ve become unable to dispense the level of compassion and care that is required to heal enormous social injustices perpetrated by the real beneficiaries of our individually focused culture. Some of our laws incentivize gluttonous behavior, while other laws effectively institutionalize self-interested squabbling.
Let’s not get lost in context and miss the big picture. Those yaddas are important, but we must never forget whom they are designed to serve. If the finer points of our current operating manual no longer equip us pursue a more civilized world, it’s time for some new yaddas. We the people must never underestimate our own power to evolve.
Last week I wrote about Thomas Jefferson and his prophetic suggestion to James Madison that tenants of intergenerational justice be included in the Bill of Rights. I painted Jefferson with broad strokes of wisdom and a strong sense of responsibility for future generations. Lest you think I’m only giving you a one-dimensional portrait of the man, check out this incredible article by Smithsonian Magazine on The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson.
Of all the Founders, Jefferson was one of the most outspoken critics of slavery. In his original draft of the Declaration Jefferson went as far as decrying it as an “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” But something happened to Jefferson between the 1780s and the 1790s. He backtracked criticisms of slavery while he quietly continued to employ a small army of slaves at his palace on the mountaintop, Monticello.
History is full of paradoxes and Jefferson is no exception. An idealist? An opportunist? A hypocrite? Is it fair to observe the man’s great contributions to history while ignoring his potentially discrediting personal shortcomings?
Read the article from Smithsonian for a rich cross examination of one of the most important figures in United States history.
In September of 1789, shortly before the first Congress of the several States was convened, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison from Paris. It was the last letter in a years-long correspondence with Madison concerning the Bill of Rights, which was to be proposed at that first Congress. In that final dispatch Jefferson raised an issue that the burgeoning American government had yet to consider:
The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government.
Jefferson seems baffled. To his knowledge this critical intergenerational issue had not been addressed in the founding documents.
As insightful as this first passage may have been, Jefferson’s letter is more well-known for the next rumination, the one where he prophetically acknowledges, “I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident, that the earth belongs usufruct to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” To the modern man, this seems only a casual observation; of course dead people have no powers or rights over the earth… they’re dead. But 18th century wig-wearing men talked funny. It is Jefferson’s careful choice of words that reveals his apparent ability to time travel.
On the surface, Jefferson focuses the attention of his letter on generational debt and land transference. He’s urging Madison to consider how the new States want to deal with moral issues associated with an older generation contracting large debts, and then leaving the settlement of that debt to the next generation. However, his use of the word “usufruct” exposes a much broader sentiment about stewardship and intergenerational justice.
In the historical context, as well as the modern one, “usufruct”, which I had to look up, refers to “the right to make all the use and profit of a thing that can be made without injuring the substance of the thing itself.” It appears that Jefferson and his contemporaries had a well-established philosophy of intergenerational responsibility, the likes of which are completely absent from our national discourse at present. Just to be clear, Jefferson is writing to James Madison—the principle author of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights—to impress upon him the importance of preserving future generations’ opportunities by actively advocating for them. The timing of his letter suggests that Jefferson was urging Mr. Madison to enter such a license into the impending Bill of Rights. Of course, no such Article was explicitly included in the Bill of Rights or any subsequent amendment to the Constitution.
The fundamental question is this: Does the living crop of humans on our one shared Earth have a moral obligation to consider the well being of the next crop? The founders of our great Nation believed that we do and long before Europeans set up shop in the New World, native cultures understood the importance of considering future generations when making current decisions. The now-ubiquitous Great Binding Law of the Iroquois Nation required their people to work for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future. Ask yourself this, what kind of world do you want to leave for your children and grandchildren? I’m a newly married man, so for me this question has shifted from abstraction to reality. I want my children to have the opportunity to leave a better world for their children, my grandchildren. That’s what this website is about.
What if everyone (myself included) considered how their actions affect future generations? I take every element of our industrialized society for granted because it’s all I’ve ever known. I grew up in this world of plenty, where everything I could possibly need or want was readily available and cheap. I’ve been indoctrinated with the paradigm of infinite economic and material growth since the day I was born. But when my children are born they will be coming into a different reality, a reality I will explore through this public forum of self-expression.
I’m just like you. I want my life to keep coasting on the tailwinds of all the modern comforts I’ve enjoyed until now. However I can no longer fully participate in our consumption culture without feeling that I’m contracting a large debt and leaving it to my children to pay down.
Thomas Jefferson sought to officially establish our collective responsibility to leave the Earth, not just habitable, but in prosperous condition for future generations. Can you imagine what kind of world we would be living in had his sentiments been given legislative teeth? Towards the end of his letter to James Madison, Jefferson makes another critical point, “On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.” He correctly observes that governing documents and indeed the societies that they govern are subject to the current milieu, not some past version of reality. Our context is changing and we would do well to change with it.