Following the news these days is beyond discouraging. In no particular order:
- Police stand by while children are murdered in a classroom.
- The CDC seems to change its guidance on boosters and masks every week.
- School performance is sinking and we can’t find teachers.
- Vladimir Putin is still getting away with murder, and we beg dictators to pump more oil.
- The internet brings us information and connection, and hackers.
- Famous entertainers can’t live decently, talk about it in public, and sue each other; their elders bribe colleges to admit their kids.
- Radical right wing populists defy the Constitution.
- Radical left wing academics suppress speech.
- Parents can’t find baby formula and somehow no one saw the crunch coming.
- Racial violence continues, as do racialized political contests.
- The Federal Reserve is trying simultaneously to prevent recession and stop inflation, and we worry it will lose on both fronts. Congress and President feel powerless to help.
- According to the New York Times, “Voters Say They Want Gun Control. Their Votes Say Something Different.”
- China still looms over our economy, over Taiwan, and over the world order; North Korea still tests missies and nukes; India doesn’t condemn Putin.
- The Supreme Court is politicized and now a draft opinion has been leaded for the first time ever.
Our view of life is shaped by these and other problems, and nobody does anything about any of it. We expect rhetoric only. In the few cases where practices or policies are devised, they are weak, or if viable, then poorly executed. In the rarer case where responses take reasonable shape, we expect someone to screw it up eventually, just when we need things done right.
S. S. McClure, in the preface to his magazine’s January 1903 issue, recited a similar list of confounding problems and failing institutions. To help us, he wrote, “There is no one left; none but all of us.”.
It seems apparent that our institutions have become inward looking and ultimately untrustworthy. As a new norm with too few exceptions, their people, the ones who haven’t quit, only answer to their own interests. That’s how it feels anyway.
So, as in 1903, we are left with “all of us.” How can we pull answers out of this elusive entity when we can’t say who it is?
There is one point of identity, in the universe, that all Americans carry. The nation conceived itself in a creed, rejecting its inhabitants’ prior ties and identifying themselves as a new “People,” identified only as “we” who hold certain “Truths.” There is no other “all of us” than the body of fellow truth holders.
If all of us are going to pull answers out of the swirling dysfunctions of the age, we have to start by pulling together on that point, our faith in the tenets of the Declaration of Independence. And we have to defer to its spare and abstract terms as common ground – before we hijack its words for particular interests or political slogans. “Unalienable rights” confer no claim to a particular job nor license to disrupt a Constitutional process. For all of us to accomplish anything, we have to acknowledge the differences we have, recognizing that all the rest of us base their interests on the same ground.
Such a bedrock will be very hard for anyone to find; in fact it will take all of us deciding to look for it. Only from there will we ever get around to grappling, for real, with the complex, contentious, confusing and profound problems of the day. But we can start by remembering that this idea, this definition of all of us, has existed and endured for almost a quarter of a millennium. Others have brought it through other comprehensive crises. Now we, 330 million of us, are on the clock..