Last night I watched part of the show on John Adams now running on HBO. I found particularly affecting Adam’s speech delivered just before the vote confirming the assertion of independence. He was a learned man and able to capture the largeness of the moment. Never before, he argued, in history, had the opportunity arisen for a country to create its own government, one moreover responsive to the will of the people, and while he was aware of the risks involved, such an opportunity he said could not be allowed to pass.
I felt like crying. I was raised to believe in the greatness of America. I don’t know when I began to have my doubts exactly. I know in high school that I had problems with a government that advocated capital punishment and our attitude towards the Reds seemed to me—I don’t know—un-Christian. Still with Kennedy in office and great leaps forward in the area of Civil Rights, I felt the gap between our professed ideals and the actualities of life in American might be closing. I remember when a friend told me in college that 10% of the people controlled 80% of the wealth in this country I just didn’t want to believe it.
And since that time, if I have been critical of the country into which I was born, I have been so, not because I ever felt the ideals espoused by the founding fathers were wrong but because of the failure of the government and the people to live up to them. Sadly, the distance between the promise and the actuality has grown so great that the principles of the country now seem tired maxims, hackneyed phrases, and the stuff of jingoistic patriotism. They have no meaning beyond the use to which they are put for the purposes of politics. With the result that events occurring at this moment—the elections—feel to me as if they might as well be occurring on Mars.
Adam’s little speech caused me to reconnect with that younger and more childlike self that did believe in those ideals as things that might come true. I was hurt at that moment to feel how very far the country has slipped from its initial promise. Still I wonder if it is not better that I felt hurt. I don’t think the young people I work with today would feel hurt. They seem, when I ask them, to feel, to a person, that government is just not to be trusted. And in light of the events of the last thirty years, I understand why they don’t trust, not just on the basis of things they have seen and heard but in response to the prevailing view that government is somehow inherently a bad thing.