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ALLY IN THE ACADEMY

Life, liberty and happiness for all?

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We end 2019 in a state of high anxiety as we wonder what 2020 will bring politically and how the struggle for social justice will play out this time around. How can things get worse, right? And yet we know they can.

It will take courage and hard work to stay in the fight, and we must. It is a time more than ever to keep the faith.

Recently the New York City Council repealed a ban on conversion therapy after the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit contending that the law “was a textbook violation of free speech and the right of individuals to pursue the lives and identities they want to exercise.”

The group was saying that it is fine for people to pursue the identities they wish to have, as long as they are straight and Christian. Council Speaker Corey Johnson explained that the council decided to repeal the ban rather than having the lawsuit being upheld by the conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Johnson, and New York state senator Brad Holyman, both of whom are gay, believed strongly that the decision was necessary because, as Holyman put it, “the legal climate is less favorable at the federal level for the LGBTQ community.” How quickly the climate changes.

This is but one example of the complex and challenging landscape we will face in 2020. A great majority of Americans say that we support free speech, that we follow the tenets of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. We believe in the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We say we believe in the Constitution’s “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility … and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Well, we are the Posterity.

I’ve been reading Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s latest book, These Truths: A History of the United States. (In my view, it ranks right up there with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980). And yes, I’ve written about that important work in this space before.

Lepore explains that she wrote this book because she believes history “is not merely a form of memory but also a form of investigation to be disputed, like philosophy, its premises questioned, its evidence examined, its arguments countered.”

For example, the statement, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” as Thomas Jefferson put it, “was the language of reason, of enlightenment, of inquiry, of history,” writes Lepore. She sets out to determine just how well we have done in living up to these truths, using the above language to the best of her ability.

From the very beginning, we Americans have argued about what “these truths” mean, and Lepore’s discussion of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution is a concise study of the paradox of our founders writing about freedom and justice for all while at the same time condoning slavery, disenfranchising women and non-propertied white men and so on.

Her book is full of specific anecdotes that make her point. In 1783, while serving in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, James Madison struggled with what to do about a slave he owned named Billey. He eventually sold him to a Pennsylvania Quaker.

Lepore also gives the struggle for LGBTQ rights its due, beginning with her observation that identity politics goes back to the early days of the Republic when black Americans were counted as three-fifths of white Americans. She notes over a century of struggle toward abolition, emancipation, suffrage and civil rights after the Lincoln-Douglas debates, during which Stephen Douglas stated that the U.S. government “was made for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.”

From its beginning then, the citizens of the United States have differed greatly on what “these truths” mean, which brings us back to 2020. It’s our job to fight back at the continuing attempts to reverse the flow of American history, uneven as it has been. We must keep the faith.