The Long, Slow, Painful Decline…
“WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation…” Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence 1776.
There was a time in American public discourse when words of eloquence and principle were the norm; when our political and spiritual leaders, intelligent, well-read, and grounded in philosophical astuteness were undeterred in their speech, and with words painted a vision for the nation. They are words from the minds of men (and women) percolating with intellect and wisdom and speak to a mastery of the English language seldom heard, spoken, or written in these modern times. From the quills of these great orators dripped words, phrases, principles, and ideas which launched a nation that would arguably become one of the greatest mankind had ever envisioned. Their words nurtured by lofty ideas with notable philosophical underpinnings, sprang forth with impassioned vigor, giving birth to speeches that moved the human spirit, and captured the imagination. They were (and are) words that inspired, that motivated, that warmed to such a degree, that men and women would die to see their edict carried to fruition.
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”…Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863
Fast forward to the here and now and wonder in the age of the sound bite and “Axis of Evil” speeches, where have all our great political leaders gone? Where are the great intellectuals and orators of our age? Our politicians today remind one not of the inspired brilliance and vision that fashioned a nation of principles, and ideas that fueled the imagination of the world, but of insipid, naughty, elementary school children vying for a piece of turf on the playground. Their words do not inspire, they do not motivate, they do not move the soul or swell the heart; they in short leave me wanting and waiting for greatness.
Nothing illustrates this shortcoming more than the recent one year anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, which felled the World Trade Center. The nation’s political leaders so void of intellectual capital and inspired vision, so mired by the quicksand of modern American politics with it’s increasingly shallow center, could not produce one original or memorable speech for the day; NY Governor George Pataki recited the Gettysburg Address, while NJ Governor Jim McGreevey recited from the Declaration of Independence! As for Mr. Bush, well, no memorable words left his sneering lips that day.
We elected a President whose words tumble from a mouth fed by a befuddled brain, which doesn’t reason, a soul which has no vision, and a heart devoid of meaningful passion. We accept, and in some cases, celebrate the limitations of our Accidental President, while the world looks on in wonder at this sad spectacle we have spawned. How could a nation that bequeathed to the world wondrous institutions of higher learning such as DePaul, UIC, Northwestern, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Grambling and MIT, long suffer the unfocused ramblings of a dullard? How could a society which crafted the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, documents hailed around the globe as enlightened, visionary, and worthy of emulation, suffer long the indignity of a body politic whose intellectual discourse is little above adolescent squabbling.
“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”…Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From A Birmingham Jail, 1963
It is said that a nation receives the leadership it deserves. Is that true in our case? Have we started the long slow road to intellectual, moral and ideological decline that has marked the passing of so many great human civilizations? Does our current state of public intellectual malaise signal the closing curtain on the grand experiment that is American (flavored) democracy? Will this nation with its government so ineptly led; this nation founded on the principle of governance of the people, by the people, and for the people, perish from this earth, because the principles that form the foundation of its society, its government, its very way of live, no longer have an inspired voice in its public, private and political discourse? When did idealism and praiseworthy intellect, eloquent prose, and impassioned speech, become character flaws in a nation founded by men who wore all in unapologetically abundance?