Notes from Away: A Decent Respect
Thursday, November 03, 2016 10:54 AM
I remember riding in the car one summer morning in the early 1960s and my mother pointing over the suburban trees: “See the flag over there? That’s where you’ll start elementary school in the fall.”
Stephen Harder is a resident of Rockport, teaching law for part of each year in China. He recently cast his vote in this election at the Rockport town office. [Several passages above were first published in The Free Press in July 2014.]
It seemed to this American boy as natural as breathing that our teachers should lead us children in combining our disparate voices to pledge allegiance to the flag that stood in the corner of our classroom … “and to the republic for which it stands.”
As a first-grader, I thought the pledge then continued “... one nation, unto God invisible.”
Well, it seems the words we learn by heart when we are young are often misheard or misunderstood or misremembered. So we must relearn them again, sometimes again and again, if we would teach them properly to our children.
It is, after all, a “republic,” that we must try to keep, as Ben Franklin memorably admonished future Americans after signing the Constitution. Indeed Article IV guarantees to every state in the Union, in so many words, “a republican form of government.”
The word “democracy” does not occur in the Declaration of Independence, or anywhere in the Constitution. And except for New England town meetings, which I was lucky to see when young, and the occasional state referendum, we the American people do not directly govern ourselves.
And so, for progress in policy and common action, we have to elect our representatives. And whether we elect them to school board or town office, or to statehouse or Congress, or White House, we have to hope they will show good sense, especially when it really matters, in making decisions that bind us all.
But, if those hopes for good sense are disappointed, there abides with the people an inspiring direct democratic power.
When we gather ourselves in lines this week to vote on Election Day, or when we cast our votes early, rising up across an entire continent in one great electoral body, we have the power to withhold our support from a party, or a person running for president: by voting against them, and for their opponent.
So when each candidate for president asks to be made the leader of the great land of freedom that leads the free world, the power that we Americans have, as a people, on Election Day, to bestow or withhold our support for those candidates, is a very great democratic power indeed.
What should be our frame of mind, our temperament, our spirit, our sense of tradition, when we mark our ballot and exercise that enormous power?
Our love as Americans for our particular country is of a very exceptional kind. It is not just love of landscape and language and way of life. It is a love founded on a democratic spirit and a democratic tradition.
For me, that spirit and that tradition is captured in one of the Four Freedoms paintings by Norman Rockwell, inspired by a Roosevelt speech. The painting shows a common American standing up in a New England town meeting. He is speaking his mind. He looks tall and lanky and self-educated, a bit like Lincoln.
That a common (in the highest sense) American cares enough to do so, to stand up to be counted, that he is not prevented from doing so, and that his townspeople care to listen, even if skeptically, to what he has to say — for me the scene recalls a phrase from the Declaration: “a decent respect to the opinions of Mankind.”
Lincoln, during his first inaugural, looked past the upturned faces of an anxious nation towards a horizon of civil bloodshed and racial animosity, and still he urged: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection.”
On this Election Day, I hope we can hear, at least faintly, as over a distant hill, or as fragments carried on the wind, parts of the songs of pride in country we learned in school: land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride and with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.
And also I hope we can bear “a decent respect” for the views of other Americans: not just those who speak differently, or dress differently, or worship differently, or marry differently, but also for those who vote differently.
It is easy to forget, but our nation’s anthem, sung as it is in sports stadiums, and as it will be at our new president’s inaugural in January, concludes with a poignant question: “Oh, say does…?”
May we, this Election Day, and after, in common with our fellow Americans, immigrants all in the deepest sense, continue to answer our national song’s ever-repeated question, with a brave and free voice:
“Yes, it does. It does still.”