the conversation begins—thomas jefferson & us

Thomas Jefferson portrait

“Every human being must be viewed according to what it is good for. For none of us, no, not one is perfect. And were we to love none who had imperfections, this world would be a desert for our love.” —Thomas Jefferson

Like many good things it started with a casual chat in a cafe. Conor and I both felt troubled by the state of the world, how it will affect the futures of our children and, for that matter, all children, and the ways in which so much of the public dialogue feels dumbed-down and irrelevant to the deeper issues at play. If democracy depends upon an informed and engaged citizenry, then we must relearn how to inform one another through open dialogue and debate. And so we decided to host a political conversation amongst people from a wide range of political leanings. And then we invited the entire town!

Ground rules

One rule: personal attacks are not allowed. People may argue over issues, but not insult one another.

Beyond this, we encourage people to focus on issues rather than politicians or political parties. The cult of personality is a powerful force in American politics—attack someone’s favorite politician, and the dialogue gets stuck there. Drill into the facts and you find that the majority of politicians are serving the interests of a very narrow sector of the population; but it’s hard to get past people’s prejudices and the powerful influence of marketing on their political allegiances. Politics have become a kind of spectator sport, and our group’s goal, as Conor put it, is to get out of the stands and into the game.

Finally, we thought a potluck might be a good idea. “Bring a dish and an idea.” It might be easier to empathize with someone from the opposite end of the political spectrum, after you’ve munched on their delicious dish of homegrown kale.

Thomas Jefferson and Us

Ken Burns’ documentary on Jefferson seemed like a good place to start. No matter what your political leanings are, as Gore Vidal put it, “You have to have Jefferson on your side.” Jefferson’s language in the Declaration of Independence and elsewhere provided inspiration for peoples rebelling against tyranny not only here in America, but all around the world.

And yet Jefferson is a shadowy, contradictory figure with glaring gaps between his idealism and actions. Most famously, the eloquent spokesperson for freedom held hundreds of slaves and refused to ever free them, even after many of his neighbors and peers (for example, George Washington) freed theirs. Burns explores this and other complexities in Jefferson’s life and character with empathy, while at the same time refusing to let him off the hook.

Jefferson addressed the injustices of slavery with striking candor:

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions—the most unremitting despotism on the one part and degrading submissions on the other. Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

And later he admits:

“The man must be a prodigy whose manners and morals are not corrupted by this institution.”

Perhaps Jefferson’s greatest gift to us, apart from his hard work to secure the separation of church and state, was his recognition of his own corruption and, consequently, his determination to commit to language safeguards that helped move humanity a little closer toward equal rights for all.

We’re all tyrants now

If humanity survives the rough spot that lies ahead of us for the next two or three decades, this era will likely be looked back upon as one of similar contradictions. Few Americans manage to live outside the current economic and political system that makes tyrants of us all. Some could care less—they feel fully entitled to consume whatever the earth has to offer, regardless of the consequences for the planet or future generations. Others remain consciously or unconsciously ignorant of their impact. But even those of us who wrestle with the ethical and environmental impacts of our standard of living often find ourselves caught in a Jeffersonian web of contradictions veering towards downright hypocrisy. We are concerned about climate change, but we take a jet for a weekend vacation even though air travel is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. We deplore the idea of human exploitation, yet purchase chocolate harvested by child slaves in West Africa. Every time we turn on the ignition of our car or truck (whether for our pleasure or basic livelihood), we support an industry that produces morally indefensible wars throughout the globe and the toxic pollution that increasingly threatens life all around us. We believe we should pay our taxes even though 48% of tax revenue funds military operations that most Americans don’t support. It’s all too much to contemplate, and so we don’t. We turn on the TV or computer for distraction, ignoring the fact that our entire homes are mostly powered by electricity produced by coal burning plants. Indeed, this very blog post requires coal to write on my end and coal to read on yours.

I call this contemporary state of being “caught in the goo.” It’s a sticky web that demands great attention and effort if we hope to extricate ourselves from it. Perhaps one reason we’re not more adamant about bringing the Wall Street thugs to justice is that on some level we recognize that we are complicit in the crimes of our destructive economic system.

Back to the conversation

Muddling through all this goo is a tall order, but perhaps we will make progress by coming together and grappling with these issues together. Collective problems must be addressed collectively. Working together to understand the nature of the dilemmas we face will eventually suggest a constructive path. And there’s something satisfying about seeing diverse members of a community come together and share food and ideas. At this first meeting, I was impressed by how much common ground we all appear to share. Folks expressed dismay at the way the media exacerbates antagonisms between various political factions, and the fact that so much of politics now seems more like marketing than substantive problem solving.

My hope is that we can all gain a clearer picture of the global economic context in which we all struggle and then drill down to what we can do as individuals and as a community to get on a saner path. A tall order? It’s way too soon to know, but I can think of worse ways to spend a Wednesday evening!