Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

August 17, 2010

The American individualist’s old clothes

Filed under: Government,Internet — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:37 am

I need to read it on the computer that’s actually large enough to see properly, but this site “Government is Good” seems to collect some very necessary information. The stable middle- class suburban world most Americans live in was made possible by government. Full stop. Where would any of it be without land laws, highways, schools, sewers, police and fire protection, etc.? ( I know I’m forgetting a bunch of others.) The actual rugged individualists of the American past understood that you wanted the government around. In places like Missouri and Kansas, they murdered each other over who got to have the county seat.

The problem is that Americans insist on thinking of government as something separate from themselves, even though, corrupt and annoying as it may be some,times, it is still a democratic government by for and of themselves

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August 14, 2010

Modern Education’s Influence on Benjamin Franklin

Filed under: Education,Founders — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:11 am

The view from the dental chair last week:

image

Possibly there is a good Lockean idea in there somewhere, but this bit of modern School of Education dogma — learning only occurs through games or craft projects — did not sound like Ben Franklin to me.  He was all about learning by reading about things, as well doing them.  He started one of the world’s great libraries, the old-fashioned kind full of papery things! (The phraseology did not very 18th-century either, like having Franklin mention his learning curve.)  The speedy search feature of the online Franklin Papers revealed nothing close, and apparently even fans of this quotation have some doubts about whether anyone historical actually wrote it. They think maybe it is ancient Chinese proverb, no fooling. Like “Stay thirsty, my friend!” But perhaps I sell the proverbists short.

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August 4, 2010

Mayor Bloomberg and the Flushing of Religious Intolerance

Filed under: Founders,Historic sites,Religion — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:03 pm

As a non-New Yorker, I do not have a very well-formed opinion of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but his recent speech defending the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” contains one of least impeachable arguments I have seen a public figure make in favor of church-state separation under the U.S. Constitution. Rather than positing a general founding secularism that is just inaccurate enough to give Christianists a foothold for their mythologizing, Bloomberg grounded the mosque’ s right to exist firmly on individual rights, especially private property rights:

The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.

This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.

It is hard to see how anyone with real conservative principles could take much issue with that private property argument. Not that I assume most of the criticism has come from principle — fear and fear-mongering are easier on the brain, and get a lot more attention.

Of course, Bloomberg’s speech was not free of historical mythology, especially about New York as the birthplace of religious toleration. (His cited basis for this claim is the locally semi-famous “Flushing Remonstrance” of 1657, in which officials in the titular Queens village begged Director General Peter Stuyvesant to permit a Quaker meeting. In response, Stuyvesant jailed the officials and abolished the town government, so it was not really a big win for religious freedom.) This site’s esteemed co-founder painted early New York as something completely other than an island of peaceful pluralism, and even Bloomberg himself covers the fact that New York did not in fact have religious toleration until after the Revolution: the Catholic Church was not allowed to open its doors until the 1780s.

All of which points up the problem with most claims that the United States was “founded on” any particular modern idea we might choose to advocate. There were multiple moments of founding, and all of those were the product of political processes that participants could and did ascribe many different meanings to. One does not have spend much time reading the founding generation’s constitutional debates and newspaper essays to realize that they never fully agreed themselves what the nation they were founding was being “founded on.”

As a for instance: the principle Bloomberg cites is certainly present in Jefferson’s Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786) and Madison’s first amendment to the Constitution, but many of the Founders (especially those who identified with the Federalist party) continued to believe that government needed to embrace and employ Protestant Christianity. It also seems safe to say that at least some founding lids would have flipped if someone had tried to open a mosque next door to Federal Hall in 1789.  On the other hand, some might not have. The early presidents were all aware that the U.S. would be contact with cultures around the globe, and took occasion to single out Muslims as a group that Americans were not set against, at least in theory. Either way, it is not clear that the Founders and their colonial forebears really have much guidance to offer us. We in this century have to make these decisions for ourselves.

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