As we go to press, it’s been a hard month. The deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa,
Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens are shocking and awful. Charles Kinsey. More police. And, of course, we’ve had the tragic events of Nice,
France. And the events surrounding the coup in Turkey. And another shooting of police in Baton Rouge. Munich. Japan. I’m heart-broken, as I imagine most people
are by these events.
People much more thoughtful and much more considerate than me have already said much. Others will say more.
We have problems. But there hasn’t been an age when there haven’t been problems. More than 100 years ago the U.S.A. had an
anarchist shoot a president dead at a Fair.
It is the rule that we think the past of our childhood was somehow a magic time. And it was for us, since we were
grown-ups mostly took care of us. But it was not a magic time for the grown-ups. Grown-ups are forced to deal with grown-up problems like paying the bills, facing long
odds, mourning those who die. The Boomers made a fetish of the 1950s when they were kids. The Gen X’ers do the same of the 1970s and 1980s.
As a country the U.S.A is at loose ends. In the aftermath of Brexit, we could say that of other locations as well. But I’m
not British, and it’s not appropriate for me to comment further. So our moments today are centered on the peculiar situation of America.
After the shooting happened in Charleston, I wrote that I wanted to take the guns away from people who are crazy and want to commit hate
crimes. Replace the situation with asking a drunk person to give up their car keys, and no one would have blinked at the clichÃ©. But suggesting that someone should
be asked to give up their gun was taken as a genuine threat. I lost friends by writing that. That was a bridge too far for some folks.
My range of friends includes people who think that President Obama is a neo-dictator, planning to institute martial and Sharia law -- and
friends who think that Bernie Sanders was a little too centrist for them. And many folks in-between.
A lot of folks say we should “pay attention” and “listen to each other,” and we need to “come together”
as a people. These calls for unity and empathy are appropriate and an example of most people’s genuine kindness.
I’m afraid none of that’s going to happen. I have taught Interpersonal Communication on the university level. One of
the great fallacies of nice and good Communication specialists is the belief that if
we could only get people together to talk, we could solve all our problems. It is true that it is better to talk through problems than to shoot at each other. It is also true that we would be well served to try more talking and less violence. But, sad to say, it is also true that some people have real disagreements that won’t be ended simply through talk. This fact is proved by the need for divorce. Some problems can’t be reconciled by couples – even by good people.
If we realize that we won’t find unity of purpose in the aftermath of genuinely terrible events, then what are we to do about the
other challenges that present themselves? What is to be done about problems ranging from economic inequities to global climate change?
So, what next?
Where is hope to reside if we find ourselves in an imperfect world with division at every turn?
It is at this moment that we see the desire for the “strong man” to come into our sphere and solve our problems for
us. When problems seem too large and too intractable, and there’s too much slowness in dealing with injustice; the desire for strength is understandable. And as
Abraham Maslow noted, safety is a basic need.
The process by which a free people give up their freedom for something else is not hard to imagine.
John Adams knew about this.
Tom Jefferson believed in the virtue of “the people.” As a “tribune” of the people, the aristocratic Jefferson
contemplated the wisdom of the people as a slave-holder. Jefferson, having unclaimed children with Sally, relied on the virtuous people.
John Adams, the Puritan, did not. Adams had lived with Franklin in Paris. He knew any person could be lured to do all sorts of
things. Further, Adams the Puritan knew that there were going to be conflicts. So, how should a society deal with them?
I am a Christian person, so it occurred to me to look at an analogy familiar to me from the writings of St. Paul. Paul’s concept of
the covenant between God and the tribes of Israel is that the covenant pre-dates Torah. In retrospect, this argument is amazing for a Pharisaic lawyer. The basic contract
pre-dates the Law. For Paul, the covenant goes back to Abraham and Abraham’s faith.
I don’t know what would have happened if the Spanish had colonized more of what is now the USA. But they didn’t.
The Puritans in the north came to the New World so that no one would tell them how to worship. They wanted to tell YOU how YOU should live,
but don’t tell THEM how THEY should live. This basic fact is also true of the English Catholics who came over and the Quakers and my German fore-bears. They all wanted to
get away from people who wanted to force them and tell them how to worship. And the Irish and Scots in the south were the same – get away from people who wanted to control
A basic tenet of American life is this: no one can tell ME how to worship or live, but let me tell YOU how YOU should live. Telling
others how to live is more American than apple pie, because the people who came to the original colonies shared – mostly – this foundational percept.
This basic perspective has been bred into the American bone. It comes out in the flesh of our public life.
This is our most basic liberty. This pre-dates the Constitution. Don’t tell me how to live, but let me tell you how you ought to live.
This basic idea is America’s foundational freedom.
Freedom is a slippery question. Freedom only means something relative to the question, free to do what?
Other political philosophers have answered that question in many ways. Rousseau, Marx, Locke, Lenin – take your pick.
the things that appears genuinely to puzzle Americans is that people in other countries look at freedom differently than we do. I think a fundamental difference between
the U.S.A. and folks in other places is the liberty we want to protect is the liberty to do as we please and tell others how they should live.
While John Adams didn’t articulate this basic American attitude in precisely this way, he was largely cognizant of its outcome.
John Adams wrote that since we don’t have aristocrats or a dedicated nobility or a crown, we’ll have endless desire amongst
folks for distinction. And to gain distinction folks will want to gain power. And to apply control over others, folks would need power to do so.
To preserve this basic liberty, we set up structures that purposely frustrates power. The whole machinery is to prevent the
concentration of power in any one person – or even the majority.
Even more important, from Adams’ view, was not simply that the structure was in place – but that the structure did not depend on
virtue for fuel. Set up a machine that doesn’t rely up on the virtue of the mechanics. The mechanics can be idiots. The mechanics can be cunning. The mechanics can
be anything, but the system frustrates the accumulation of power that would end the people’s liberty.
“Hard times makes people retreat to their corners.” I’ve heard this more than once. I don’t think
it’s true. Hard times actually draw people together to survive.
But more than that, our constitutional structure with its design to frustrate monopolization of power necessitated political parties and
their binary structure.
People in other lands have always wondered why the U.S.A. doesn’t tolerate third parties well. It’s largely due to the
reason that despite the talk of Democrats and Republicans – our party structures I mostly about who is in power and who isn’t.
The election of 1800 was terrible in the rhetoric used by both sides. But this is the natural result of people working to create
distinctions. Once the election was won, once Mr. Jefferson was in power; he was able to say, “We are all Federalists – we are all Democrats.” He
adjusted some of the Adams’ policy, but kept much.
Jefferson preached popular will and that we could be virtuous and come together and live in harmony.
Adams recognized that virtuous people don’t need government or politics. Since none are perfect, so we need structures to keep someone
– a would-be dictator or a mob from concentrating power. It’s a system that’s easier to stop than to go. The whole point of the system is to frustrate.
So we have a legitimate question, how do we deal with frustration as a people?
People on the left are frustrated. People on the right are frustrated. Groups dealing with this issue and that issue are all frustrated.
I’m sorry for the upset, but we should learn that the price of our Liberty is Frustrationion.
I want this policy. That person wants the opposite. Someone is going to be frustrated. And even if something is worked out in compromise,
the compromise – almost by definition -- will be frustrating.
How do we as a people deal with the frustration that derives as the natural and appropriate consequence of our structure?
I don’t have a direct answer to that question. I’m not that bright.
The second thing I want to mention is how we deal with each other as a people.
We are not that far distant from our early Neolithic ancestors. In some ways we still speak the same language and have the same
ideas. The English prefixes “pente” and “pan” (as in pentagon and Pan-American, respectively) come from the same root. When we look at our
hand, we see our whole hand – and that whole hand has five digits.
Likewise how do we look at tribe?
The whole reason we have “barbarians” is that people who ain’t us sound like they’re saying “bar bar bar bar
bar.” So people who speak differently than us become “barbarians.”
How do we associate ourselves with our family and tribal relationships?
Our oldest tribal associations appear to be tied to near geography, not nation. For example, today we speak easily of ancient
Greece. The actual ancient Greeks likely wouldn’t have done so. It appears they would have been more inclined to think of themselves as Athenians or Spartans or
Corinthians. Nationalism, in a modern sense, is actually quite modern.
I strongly suspect that a large knife in the heart of small town America is not simply the death of the family farm (although that’s
part of it). I think a large part of the problem is the end of “I live here too” by people who actually own the enterprise of that community. For
example, Mr. Maytag and his family actually lived in Newton, Iowa in the same town with the workers. If Mr. Maytag wanted a good life for himself and his family, it became
incumbent upon him to make certain the schools worked and there was culture and good parks, etc. “I live here too.”
A surprising development of the last four decades is not the rise in income equity in America, but that owners of enterprise don’t
tend to live in the same town as the enterprise anymore. There are exceptions, but the mill owners left and the mills closed in thousands of mill towns. The WalMart
manager is a good person. And that person gets paid a good living, but the WalMart manager is a different category of person than the owner.
Now that we live in the digital age, one wonders what effect that will have on this question of where we live and how we show allegiance to
When I was a kid in Iowa in the 1960s, people didn’t just leap on a plane and travel to New York City. That kind of travel
is far less a rarity than it once was. I figure that such travel will only accelerate.
How do we figure our tribal inclusion?
When I was a touring actor, I would visit a church pretty much anywhere we landed. One of the things I really dislike is going to a
church and being asked to stand up or wear a special tag so that we can welcome “visitors.” I’m sorry. I’m not a visitor. As I understand it, my baptism
makes every single church in the world “home.” Again, referring to Paul, how often does one hand say to another, “Say, let’s recognize the left foot as a
visitor.” The foot isn’t a visitor. Every part of the body is always “at home.”
For every American, being anywhere in America should be “at home.”
The whole country is our country as Americans. Some folks haven't always thought of this. For example, Robert E. Lee stayed with
Virginia -- his “country” -- during the Civil War.
I propose that our whole country is all our country. And that’s not what’s happening.
Do you get shot in your home? Do you get harassed in your home? How would you feel about being harassed in your home?
“Land of the free and home of the brave.”
The whole country is home for every American. Let me quickly note that I’m not talking about our private property, I’m talking
about the country and its blessings. Part of what we need to do as a people is to insure that every American is at home in this country. Some people don’t feel at home.
Some people are told they don’t count (or count less) in their own country – for no particular reason.
The frustration that those people feel is not the natural result of Liberty. This frustration is the frustration of people who are made to
feel that they are treated as a visitor in their own
home. And not as a welcome visitor at that.
To those who say that all of that is in the past, I remind folks, that if you join a family, you become heir to the wealth of the family.
But also you become heir to the debts. As a country we owe awesome debts to some our own. The American family treated some parts of the family very poorly. Family troubles
don’t heal overnight. It takes years and generations. We know this.
Right now we're in a time of great disruption. What separates us is who we choose to think of as our tribe. In America, the central
areas of the country seem strange to the people on the coasts, I think. People from big cities and suburbs seem strange to people in small towns.
People want to gain power from that disruption. With the great migrations of people into the country and within the country, how do we
define our tribe in the digital age? People outside the tribe have always been challenging, going back to pre-historical times. How do you define your tribe? Where are the
tribal boundaries? This is another question to which I don't have an answer. We might spin off into tribes that fear each other too much. I hope not. And I don't expect
In the end, we’re less divided than we think. The general shock and outrage at genuinely shocking and outrageous acts is a good sign.
It means that our large compass as a people has some of the same direction on it. The small stuff --that’s detail. Don’t like the president or this or that
candidate? That’s the birthright of every American going back to Mr. Washington.
This month’s piece hasn’t much to do with theatre or art, other than the fact that we’re people who live in a world and
need to tell stories in that world.
Don’t tell me how to live, but let me tell you how you should live. We Americans tend to believe in that, I think.
Well, I just did, I guess.
[Ideas about John Adams’ political thought were inspired by John Patrick Diggins’ book on John Adams for the “American
Presidents” series, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., editor.]