Before I go to sleep each night, like a lot of folks, I read until I drift off. Most nights, that means I only get a few pages in before I have to close the book. On nights of insomnia, I read a little more. Nonetheless, the reading is slow, so anytime I go off on a reading project (e.g., "I will read all the books I can find about bare knuckle boxing"), it's a long, slow road. So, that brings me to my latest project which may well go on the rest of my life--I'm reading a "good" biography of each of the U.S. Presidents in order. While the very idea would have made me shudder with shame in the past (books about men, and all white men), I've almost decided--as I turn the corner into Thomas Jefferson--that this project should be required of all citizens (well, maybe it should be required that they all read bios of the early founders).
Here's what I'm thinking: After going through Joseph Ellis' His Excellency: George Washington, David McCullough's John Adams, and beginning Merrill Peterson's Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography, I'm fascinated by something that may well seem so trite, so clear, that I hesitate to bring it up. One of the lessons people often tell me they learn from reading such bios is that "Things never change." For example, the mudslinging and politicking, the name calling, the lying, the scandals of today are nothing new. We see it all there in the founding of the republic, in the attempts to gain higher office. And while one could quibble about differences, I suppose that is one lesson we could learn from history. But that, in my mind, is a rather dull lesson. What's more important to me is what has changed.
What is breath-taking to me is just how darned aware these guys were that they were indeed inventing something, inventing-through-enactment, new ways of living together, new forms of government, new understandings of individualism. Indeed, they were aware that things could be otherwise, and that every public action, every law, every word might well impact not only the shape of the nation, but the ways individual citizens understand themselves and their roles in the republic. Again, while this might sound trite, what strikes me is how little that seems to be a part of our discourse now. We make policy decisions, yes, and there are all types of claims about people and their "responsibilities," but does our civic discourse show any evidence that it understands that this is stuff we invent and reaffirm, not simply enforce. I don't think so, but I do think we'd be far better off were we to force our politicians--left and right--not just to enact policies we prefer but to understand that what we were, what we are, and what we will be, are all up to our own invention and enactment.