Last week, the New York City Council voted to remove the statue of Thomas Jefferson that, since 1915 has stood in Council chambers, a copy of the Declaration of Independence in one hand and a quill pen in the other. It was removed, presumably, because Jefferson owned slaves and acted hypocritically in doing so.
I consider the Council’s move to be entirely appropriate.
Why? Because “it’s a sign of the times.” Nothing so captures the current zeitgeist as the taking down of one of our two greatest presidents, and with him, one of the greatest accomplishments in human history - the Declaration, that landmark on the long road to a better, happier, more peaceful and prosperous humanity. The removal of the Jefferson statue will, I predict, come to symbolize all that’s wrong in today’s American public discourse and politics. It will stand as a shining beacon of what not to do, of how a relatively free and prosperous society can go wrong, devour itself, turn snarling and snapping against its best instincts. A hundred years from now, when people look back in wonder at our willful self-destruction, they’ll recall the takedown of the Declaration and say “Ah, now I understand.”
Consider what the Declaration of Independence has always been. When written, it was the culmination of hundreds of years of political (and ecclesiastical) thought about the nature and source of power. In Western Europe and elsewhere, potentates of all sorts had always been pleased to inform those they governed that their power came directly from God, that to question them, much less take up arms against them, was an affront to the Deity. Power, they said, flowed downward from on high to the king (or pope), to be administered by him and his minions.
The Declaration reversed that flow. We the People are the source of power and, as such, may depose governments that abuse us, limit our freedoms, deny our rights. That brash claim was not new when made, but what it set off – the American Revolution, our intentional putting into practice of those ideas – was. Political power is in our hands, not in those of elites who appoint themselves our betters.
This is the very basis of our national concept. It is what made and makes the United States unique in the history of political endeavor. The democratic notion that everyday people are integral to the operation of a state and the putting into practice of that notion was, in the 18th century, a revolution. The idea that those everyday people’s wants, needs, values, thoughts, etc. were a necessary part of the political whole had never before found such expression as occurred when the colonies separated from England and formed, however haltingly, a nation.
Yes, the practice fell well short of the ideal. Black slaves and women were at first not allowed to take part in the grand experiment. But that was always a defect in the system, not a necessary part. It was, in today’s parlance, “a bug, not a feature.” It needed to be fixed and, over too many decades and with far too much bloodshed, bitterness, suffering and hypocrisy, was. We humans are imperfect beings, our daily interactions and our politics are fraught with selfishness, shortsightedness, stupidity, fear and greed. The system that set in motion the philosophy of the Declaration and its forebears was deeply flawed, but over time, we made it better.
Moreover, a corollary to popular sovereignty is the set of individual rights and liberties embodied in that other great American document, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. After all, how can a people govern themselves without the right to speak and associate freely? How can we do so if we aren’t free in our homes and persons from the government’s police power that ever and ever seeks its own increase? How could we avoid the religious wars that, for centuries, lacerated Europe, without the hard separation of Church and State coupled with the freedom to worship as we please?
Woke ideology opposes all of that. It is sneeringly dismissive of anyone, any idea that so much as questions its cherished beliefs. In the process, it makes common cause with every autocrat, great or small, who ever issued a diktat. Its fundamental precept – that it and it alone sees and embraces Right, sees and opposes Wrong – walks hand-in-hand with the invariable tendency of governments of whatever stripe to arrogate power to themselves. From Silicon Valley that tells us what we can and cannot say and hear to colleges and universities that routinely cancel any but the most orthodox of woke ideas to the federal government that monitors our every communication, regardless of how supposedly private, to the mainstream media that spent four years of yeoman effort to take down a popularly-elected president, the message is abundantly clear: You the People cannot be trusted. Only We the Elite, We the Powerful can decide.
And so it is entirely appropriate that the woke New York City Council should cancel that most vital part of our political philosophy, that it should say by its action that the notion of popular sovereignty is dead, that our betters shall henceforth rule us free from the limitations imposed by our voices, our wants, our needs. God is once again the source of their power and only they can read Her Word.
The removal of Jefferson and his great work from the seat of New York City’s government couldn’t be more eloquent. A more concise statement of elite values, elite intentions could hardly be imagined.