The moral principle of revolutions is to instruct, not to destroy. -Thomas Paine, “First Principles of Government,” 1795.
Thomas Paine’s words, written 217 years ago, capture the core purpose of the Occupy movement.
The movement, at its heart, instructs us to honor one another and to ensure that government policy and our justice system reflect that ethic. It asks us to return to our founding principles.
Wealth, Power and Privilege
Wherever people gather, there will be unequal distributions of wealth, power and privilege. In terms of social policy, people either tend to side with those who already have these advantages, thus perpetuating the imbalance, or they wish to lessen the disparity.
There are many philosophical justifications for favoring the wealthy and powerful. The Gospel of Wealth, Social Darwinism, Manifest Destiny, God’s Will and “trickle-down economics” are but a few of the rationales. All of these philosophies assert the inherent superiority of those who are wealthy, powerful and privileged by appropriating God, Destiny, Darwinism or Capitalism in a profoundly self-serving manner. Support for such beliefs can be found at all levels of American society, not just among those who are wealthy and powerful.
These rationalizations are a sign of pathological narcissism, i.e., the overvaluing of oneself and the undervaluing of others springing from greed, insecurity, fear and the lust for power. This approach to life asserts, “I will take what I want, any way I can and I don’t care about the consequences to others.” It represents the law of the jungle, not the law of a civil, democratic society.
Such philosophies stand in stark contrast to the teachings of many spiritual traditions and the dictates of love, compassion and empathy. They stand in stark contrast to a mature and developed morality, in which the individual is able to see beyond his own self-interests and value the rights and well-being of others.
The American Creed and Universal Human Rights
We can respond to those who insist on the endless accumulation of wealth, power and privilege by returning to our founding principles embodied in the American Creed.
When the founders declared independence, they were strongly influenced by a key concept of the European Enlightenment: the belief that human rights are universal, transcending existing law, and that the law’s purpose ought to be to uphold those rights. Thus, when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he declared:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This sentence transformed the Declaration from a list of grievances against King George III into a famous proclamation of human rights. It has since become known as the American Creed and conveys the core belief and moral value upon which our democracy is based.
The Declaration was one of the most amazing acts in human history, representing a quantum leap to an entirely different way of valuing one another. No country had been founded on such a basis, and the implications reverberated throughout the world.
The American Creed was not a perfect declaration of human rights since it specifies “men” and not “people.” Furthermore, as the young country began to form, it became clear that, for the most part, “men” referred to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. This contradiction between the “universality” of human rights and their actual implementation is one that America has struggled with for 236 years. Nevertheless, flaws notwithstanding, this was the first such declaration of universal human rights. It heralded a radical break from traditional, top-down power structures most familiar to the colonists, i.e., the monarchies that ruled Europe.
This democratic ideal would be more fully realized when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights set up a system of checks and balances so that no one individual or branch of government could become too powerful. They formally reversed the power pyramid, making it clear that elected officials were to be public servants.
The Heart of the Creed: Empathy, Human Rights and Democracy
In order to value human rights, it first is necessary to have empathy, to see other people as human. This may appear obvious to us now, but for Europeans, it was in the 18th century only that people began to be seen as being autonomous, equal human beings. Prior to that time, many kinds of people, such as servants, slaves, children, women and people without property were not regarded as autonomous individuals who employed independent moral judgment.
Empathy is key in recognizing human rights and creating democracy. From a psycho-spiritual perspective, recognizing another person’s humanity and therefore their human rights, is a sign of emotional and spiritual maturity. Society has many ways of ranking people, but the moral value implicit in the Creed, i.e., the self-evident assertion that all people are created equal, tells us that our innate worth transcends any social ranking.
The stirring words of Thomas Merton express the heart of the American Creed:
“If we ever knew who we truly are, there would be no more wars, no more hunger, no more hatred. We would simply bow down and worship one another.”
The Sacred Duty of Democratic Government
A democratic government is defined by its willingness to recognize and act in accord with the unalienable truth that all people are created equal. This is not simply a political arrangement: it is a moral and spiritual commitment.
Thus, it is the sacred duty of any democratic government – as the servant of We, the People – to recognize the inherent worth of every citizen, to treat each person with respect and to use the social conscience intrinsic to the spirit of democracy to act on behalf of the disenfranchised.
In practical terms, it is essential that a democratic government recognize and rectify those circumstances in the political system in which the wealthy and powerful are being given special privileges – and are, therefore, being treated as more worthy.
The Occupy Movement as Moral Revolution
The American Creed represents our “wedding vow” – our pledge to love and to cherish each other. We have strayed from our vow many times, yet it remains the sacred duty of each generation to renew that vow and give it life it in daily and civic engagements.
The Occupy movement arose because, for far too long, the spirit of democracy has been violated on behalf of the wealthy, powerful and privileged. The Occupy movement is a moral revolution and its core moral intent is to reassert true democracy, grounded in empathy and justice for all. By reasserting the American Creed – and modeling its empowering stance – the movement instructs those in power that they are violating the spirit of democracy and calls upon them to begin acting as true public servants.
Democracy literally means “people power.” Democracy is our power to wield. It is power born of our inherent worth and our respect for the dignity of every person and should never be underestimated. As Margaret Mead observed,
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
We, the People, are awakening to recapture the moral stance that represents what is most precious and inspiring about our nation. We are Occupying democracy.
This article is adapted from Alan James Strachan’s and Janet Coster’s book in progress, “America on the Couch: Dreams and Nightmares of Democracy,” www.americaonthecouch.net.