As Princeton University professor Jonathan Israel documents with enormous detail in his latest tome, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution and Human Rights, 1750-1790 (Oxford University Press, 2011), among the tremendous list of structural injustices that were built into the world of the 18th century against which the American revolution was fought was “imprisonment for debt.”
Israel’s is a tremendously helpful work that cuts through all the ideological flack of today’s right wing to get to the actual, demonstrable roots of the American revolution and the ideas that, articulated through the Federalist Papers, shaped the U.S. Constitution.
Most emphatically, America is not a “Christian nation.” It was forged in reaction to a long list of injustices and abuses, fomented and inspired by progressive philosophical and political ideas that were anything but the “status quo” promoted by religious conventions of any Christian type.
The Founding Fathers were “deists” at best, although to differing degrees they deigned from time to time to condescend to popular organized religious constructs.
Israel has written massive contributions to a valid appreciation of the brash, revolutionary ferment of the late 1700s which sought, in the name of reason and political equality, to trample all bastions of the old systems – including their organized religions with their mind-numbing “superstitions” and obedience to arbitrary clerical authority, and other mechanisms of social control holding those old monarchistic orders together.
Fudge-brained right wingers do with the American revolution what they do with the Bible: they “proof text” it to conform with their own modern prejudices and purposes. In so doing, just as they do with the Bible, they ignore the overwhelming evidence that contradicts their tunnel-visioned arguments.
The best antidote to this is the kind of massive dosage of indisputable historical truth that Israel’s efforts provide.
Israel makes a number of new points in his latest work, including the insidious impact of “postmodern” thought on some of the core notions embedded in the American revolution and the founding of our nation. “Anyone believing that truth is universal, and that human rights imply a common code that it is the duty of everyone to defend, cannot avoid taking up the cudgels…against postmodernist philosophy,” he writes.
In its simplest form, this is the same as what President Obama said in his recent speech delivered at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., when he said, “National sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people.”
A higher moral standard applies than one which, under fallacious postmodern thought, says that “cultural relativism” trumps all else. The “cultural relativism” and hostility toward science and reason, seen as tools of power and authority by postmodernists, has at its roots the ageless “divide and conquer” methodology of those who sought to defeat movements for political equality.
This is a new thought in Israel’s latest work. It assails the notion of the “co-existence of different sets of values” which undermines, he says, “basic human rights predicated on the principle of equality.”
Indeed, in the Federalist Papers, the strongest argument for ratification of the U.S. Constitution involved the need to prevent England from picking off the colonies one at a time through “divide and conquer” methods. The same occurred as the rallying cry to “preserve the Union” in the U.S. Civil War. The word, “indivisible,” it can be argued, is the single most important one in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Holding together a nation strong enough to resist and defeat attempts at recolonization by the enemies of democracy and freedom was an indispensible goal of the revolution.
But now, a new form of tyranny is infecting the nation from within. It comes in the insidious notion of “debt slavery,” one of the original ailments that provoked our revolution in the first place.
The GOP’s vote this week not to limit interest rates on student loans is a perfect example. Yes, the GOP’s financier masters are unwilling to lift the crushing burdens of debt obligation on Americans, even from the moment they attain adulthood.
It’s one piece of a bigger, unsavory reality of a recolonization of the American public through indebtedness.