Too often sharing the news feels like being a messenger of madness. Every day, foundational democratic institutions suffer sustained assault while a corrupt, extremist right-wing tyranny over Ohio politics and policy reigns.
As important as it is to chronicle the “first draft of history” by finding the facts and holding power to account, the American cultural zeitgeist demands more.
It demands a constructive vision for what we could do with these precious tools of our constitutional republic were we to cast off the self-destructive, man-made shackles of amoral self-interest, hate, and division holding us down.
The American Republic is an Enlightenment-era tribute to democratic self-governance, though it should always be remembered, as Molly Ivins said, that “it is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America.”
That’s what the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments did. That’s what the 19th Amendment did. That’s what child labor laws, worker rights, women’s rights, desegregation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and equal marriage rights all sought to help accomplish.
Liberty is not just the freedom to serve oneself and do whatever one likes: It’s the freedom of everyone in a society to exist and coexist with dignity, to fully participate in self-governance, to be protected equally under the law, to not be an indentured servant to industrialists working families to the bone, to have the same legal rights and opportunities afforded to everyone else.
That is the central theme of what democratic self-governance is supposed to achieve: the people’s interests in the form of representative governance.
In many cases — through the relentless striving and spilt blood of the common people and a handful of principled, conscientious leaders — we’ve taken great strides.
But America has always made progress despite a menacing weight threatening to pull it under water every high tide, much of the country gasping to breathe free.
This is the weight of our collective primitive past manifesting a dark impulse in some to suppress and subjugate others — to deny them their free and dignified existence — in order that these certain bad actors may empower and enrich themselves.
Imagine if we as a culture could find the wherewithal to move beyond them, to move beyond their small-minded, petty politics of hate and division, to move beyond their playground of schoolyard taunts, malicious lies, and fear-hawking.
Imagine if we left them to fester in the filth of their own making, as we went on and did That Great American Thing and boldly built an extraordinary civilization for the 21st Century, befitting of our better angels: our intelligence, ingenuity, diversity, egalitarianism, productivity, persistence, and pride in our neighborhoods and communities.
Already, humankind has accomplished so many dazzling things.
In one year, faster than ever in human history, we faced down a devastating pestilence and created safe and effective vaccines for mass distribution. Smallpox lasted centuries before finally being felled by vaccination.
In the past 30 years, the internet and digital technology have utterly transformed our world, allowing near-instantaneous mass communication and sharing of information on a global scale. We may take it for granted each and every day, but that doesn’t make this fundamental shift in the entire nature of our lives and societies any less astounding.
We can fly. Thanks to two brothers from Dayton, humankind has mastered the air, and we are able to circumnavigate the entire globe via airplane in less than 48 hours. Crossing the Alps for an ancient Roman legion used to take the better part of a year.
Earlier this year, we sent our largest, most advanced and most powerful telescope ever — the James Webb — 1 million miles away from Earth to peer into deep space and the long history of the universe. It may even be able to detect alien agriculture.
We’ve changed the course of science by unraveling the human genome. We’ve unimaginably expanded our lifespans with advances in medicine and medical technology from antibiotics and antivirals to organ transplants and magnetic resonance imaging.
We’ve deconstructed biological processes, the elements, and relativity, and have begun, ever so slowly, to wrap our minds around the astonishing implications of quantum theory.
We’ve uncovered and broadly reconstructed the deep history of the the stars, the Sun, the planets, the Earth, and ourselves — humankind — including our most ancient civilizations and societies, as well as our primitive ancestors long before them.
In short, we’ve accomplished too much to allow ourselves to be continually dragged back by the primal forces of fear, instructing us to erect barricades around our minds, take up arms against one another and go off into hand-to-hand combat with our fellow citizens over bathrooms and pronouns.
We are better than this. We are so much better than this.
Or perhaps I should say, we can be so much better than this.
We have the potential, and we have the tools.
Our fundamental systems of governance — if we not only solemnly preserve their existence, but assiduously improve them to maximize actual benefit for all the people — are more than sufficient to build a crowning civilization of the 21st Century.
We must cleanse the toxins in the bloodstream of our body politic, and move toward a vision of something equitable, just, verdant, sustainable, and prosperous for all of us, free from the yoke of tyrannical self-interest foisted on us by the few.
This is not a question of any one specific policy, but of the zeitgeist; of American culture.
Every generation must face the fundamental decision between the ever-present forces of contempt, hatred, division, paranoia, self-interest, lies and duplicity, and the forces of shared destiny, mutual interest, common purpose, cooperation, tolerance, dignity, humility, ethical morality, and community.
We can’t afford to be apathetic.
We have to care, and make so many decisions big and small every day, every week, every month, every year, to do our part and do our best with it, to educate ourselves responsibly, to care about truth and honesty, and to act ethically with compassion, in our family lives, in our relationships, in our business and community decisions, and in our politics.
We have a choice between fear and love.
The weight dragging us down, or the light beckoning us toward ever-greater heights.
It’s our choice. It’s up to us.
We have to choose wisely.
Dave DeWitt is the editor-in-chief of the Ohio Capital Journal, which first published this essay.