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“Our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor”

August 3rd, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

hitchbot2

I know there are a lot more tragic and pressing things happening in the world than the vandalizing of an experimental robot, but I find myself shaking my head at the fate of Hitchbot. I don’t know a lot about the story other than that the robot was an experiment “to see if robots could trust humans.” The robot was not able to move on its own and relied on the help of strangers to move from place to place. It was apparently able to travel across Europe and Canada but met its demise at the hands of brutes in the United States.

We Americans have always had a sense that we are morally superior to everyone else. Americans have prided themselves on their “mission” to bring liberation and enlightenment wherever we go. There have been times in our history when Americans really were the ultimate force for good. World War II is probably the best example, in which Americans sacrificed much to liberate millions from brutal oppression.

But for all that we would like to think of that example as the norm, I fear it is more likely the exception. America’s history is not the triumphant march of liberty and enlightenment we would like it to be. We can debate whether the United States today really does approach in reality what it believes in its idealism, we can argue whether Americans have prospered by the actions of the United States overall, but we cannot deny that every so-called advance in American power and prosperity has been accompanied by blood and destruction. This can be seen from the first invasion of the Americas by the Spanish, the near genocide of Native American peoples beginning with the British and continued with gusto by the independent Americans, the rape of the landscape, the destruction of the environment. And in the matter of foreign affairs, we who once claimed to be liberators now operate flying machines that deliver remote controlled death, not to liberate foreigners, but to “keep us free.” Really?

In a much criticized speech tying the Civil Rights movement to opposition to the war in Vietnam delivered a year to the day before his assassination, Rev. King noted this about America’s liberating role:

They [the Vietnamese people] must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1954—in 1945 rather—after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony….

For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam. Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of their reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization….

The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.

So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only noncommunist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.[1]

Strange liberators indeed. I’m not saying there’s nothing good about the United States. I’m not really saying that the United States has not made positive contributions to human-kind. But I am saying that Americans have a real knack for denying the destruction in their wake. The proverbial elephant in the living room. Elephant? What elephant? As much as it pains me to say it, I think that the judgment of history will be that America is a sick and violent society.

Why? Liberals say it’s because we’re too conservative. Conservatives say we’re too liberal. Christians say it’s because we’ve lost sight of the gospel, Muslims say we’re infidels, and atheists say we’re blinded by religious nonsense. There’s a lot of finger pointing going on. And probably there is some basis of truth in all of these assessments. But the root of the problem is much more fundamental.

As a history professor I would have to teach you this about the founding of America. The American Revolution began as a defense of property from taxation without consent by the property owners, who, then as today, made up a minority of the population. By the end of the Revolution the meaning of the war had become something much larger in the minds of many: liberty, the way that we understand liberty today. Freedom to live your life without interference from the government. These were the ideals that inspired the world in an age of revolutions, from France to Chile. But in America the Revolution has always meant both: property rights, and liberty. Eventually we became unable to separate the two. Rights became property. And the right to own property is sacred.

Unfortunately, rights are slippery things. Our Constitution spells out the rights of the national government, the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, spells out the rights of the people and the states. But the Constitution was the product of painful compromise. In order to secure its ratification some things had to be left unstated. Different understandings of the things that were unstated then became and continue to be the basis for sometimes violent disagreement. Did the writers of the Constitution imagine a “right” to abortion? A “right” to gay marriage? A “right” to private ownership of a firearm that has no other purpose than to kill human beings? We all agree that our rights are sacred, but we cannot agree on what those rights are.

And for all that we think we must defend, the question that is left out of our deliberation is what responsibility do we have to our neighbors? We defend our rights as a spoiled toddler selfishly defends the toy he wishes to claim, regardless of whether it is his or not, regardless of who will lose as he gains.

I don’t think it would be fair to say that those who created this nation with two pieces of paper: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, could have imagined the pluralistic society the United States has become. We need creative thinking to apply the intent of men who lived in a much smaller and less diverse world to the challenges of the twenty-first century. We can disagree over what they intended and what they might do now.

But we can follow their lead in this. At the bottom of the document the founders sent to King George telling him they would no longer suffer his rule, those who decided to conduct the war that would result made a solemn oath: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” [emphasis mine]

“We mutually pledge to each other.” These men had serious disagreements about the course they were embarking upon, but in the spirit of the admonition of Benjamin Franklin (“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately”) they pledged to support each other against the greater foe.

Today that greater foe is not the British Army but our own sense of entitlement. Rights are not property. One is not entitled to a “right” if it infringes on the rights of others. Those who banded together to wage revolution recognized that our rights are contingent upon everyone else’s rights. We cannot care only for ourselves and leave others to fend for themselves. And we cannot view each other as enemies, their rights as an inconvenience or a threat.

So now we return to the robot. In a society that was not so centered on self and personal rights, the common response to a defenseless robot would be something other than violent destruction, don’t you think?

[1] Martin Luther King, “A Time to Break Silence: Beyond Vietnam” (sermon, Riverside Church, New York, NY, April 4, 1967), accessed August 3, 2015, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/.

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