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Monday, October 19, 2015

Our Great Unfinished Business

As civilizations become more inter-connected through the amazing technologies of the early 21st century, the third great crisis in our nation’s history celebrates a significant birthday.  The great crisis of wealth disparity as a result of unequal access to the field of opportunity --- first identified by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 --- is now unfortunately more than 100-years-old!

For the ordinary citizen, the American Dream is at risk like at no other time in American history.  In response, many ordinary citizens are reaching for the pull chord and the alarm bell to stop the train.  Many others, however, believe that such matters lie in the natural order of things --- as a necessary byproduct of an every man for himself mentality of Social Darwinism --- and that everything will work itself out in the end.

The sympathies of President Obama appear to rest in part with the former group.  On August 28, 2013 the president gave a speech on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s march on Washington.  Almost five years into his presidential term, he reminded the ordinary citizen that his eye remains on the ball, as he strives to mold America to a purpose he boldly envisions:

In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination --- the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the march, for the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice -- not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?

This idea that --- that one’s liberty is linked to one’s livelihood, that the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security -- this idea was not new.
Dr. King explained that the goals of African-Americans were identical to working people of all races: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures -- conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.

What King was describing has been the dream of every American. It’s what’s lured for centuries new arrivals to our shores. And it’s along this second dimension of economic opportunity, the chance through honest toil to advance one’s station in life, that the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short.

The president continued:

... the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many ... . To win that battle, to answer that call -- this remains our great unfinished business.

Why does our great unfinished business hearken back the name of Benjamin Franklin?  When he returned home after participating in the secret deliberations to draft the US Constitution, Franklin was said to have had an inquisitive exchange with a Philadelphia woman:

“What have you made for us, Dr. Franklin?” the woman had wanted to know.

“A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” was his infamous reply.
Franklin understood that democracy was not forever assured --- that active, informed citizenship would be required not only to keep but also to help it evolve.  As the jurist Louis Brandeis once observed, We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.

The challenge of ordinary citizenship, then, is to promote progressive ideas towards the improvement of our democratic ideal, regardless of the politics, regardless of the political party.  That means solving the crisis of achieving meaningful equality of opportunity for all citizens --- and completing our nation's great unfinished business --- once and for all.

-Michael D’Angelo