A New Declaration of Liberty

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The Boston Globe

A New Declaration of Liberty

The holidays of July Fourth and July 14th are linked by the philosophical and chronological affinities between the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. That the grand ideals of the French and American revolutions were only partially realized takes nothing away from their importance as milestones on the march toward a better world. But when civic identity was so massively redefined, in shifting allegiance away from the king toward a more impersonal, but not less demanding "nation," what became of the virtue of a larger loyalty?

The 18th-century revolutions sought to get free of the chauvinisms of religion, but what happened when assumptions of divine approbation simply moved from crown (the divine right of kings) to country (God bless America)? As religions explicitly adopted their versions of what Karl Marx called the "names, battle slogans, and costumes" of the national movements (for example, among Catholics, the banners and songs of the Legion of Mary), the secular cult of nationalism implicitly wrapped itself in the self-absolutizing claims of religion ("Gott mit uns").

This mix of the sacred and profane in the nevertheless anticlerical politics of modernity proved combustible across boundaries of numerous countries, with religious energy often fueling conflicts taken to be wholly secular (the Cold War). The liberal democratic ethos has never been as free of an irrational transcendentalism as it has claimed. The achievements of republicanism, launched by the American and French revolutions, must be weighed against the excesses of nationalism that accompanied it.

In an unintended consequence of historic proportions, the humane new way of seeing the state, as belonging to its citizens instead of to its rulers, changed the meaning of war. No longer was combat an enterprise of the elite, carried out by lords and their lieges, but now whole populations of those self-same citizens would be mobilized for war -- and targeted. Alas, this ideological transformation occurred just as technological innovations made mass destruction possible.

Meanwhile, a new primacy of individual over group, implied in declarations of rights and principles of self-determination, meant that parts could assert autonomy in relation to the whole. In another tragically unintended consequence, this absolutizing of ethnic, religious, and tribal identity, even while enabling the realization of a multitude of national dreams, has led to the modern savagery of successive civil wars. One sub nation after another, asserting a right to independence, ennobles murder and suicide.

Independence Day in America and Bastille Day in France came into their own as holidays in the 20th century, but it was then also that the limits of what each celebrates became apparent. That is why the two 18th-century "declarations" were finally followed, in 1948, by a third -- the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That statement, caught in the inevitable self-centeredness of self-determination, as well as in a certain myopic Western presumption about the meaning of "universal," had its limits, too. But like the previous declarations, its chief importance lay in the revolution it was announcing -- this time a revolution not toward nationalism, but away from it. This revolution unfolds slowly.

Because the United Nations came into being simultaneous to the collapse of colonialism, its first generation was marked by an explosive growth in the number of nation states, each arriving with a swaggering assertiveness.

The Cold War guaranteed that the superpowers, too, were more nationalistic than ever. But in fact, the nation states -- small or large -- were not the point of the vision embodied by the United Nations. A global awakening to the new destructiveness of war was the immediate context within which even national leaders recognized that the time had come to mitigate national claims. Since then, war and the threat of war have only increased the urgency of sublimating state sovereignty to something larger. But war is only part of the story now. Eighteenth-century ideas of national grandeur, isolated and "free," contribute, also, to the rolling catastrophe of ecological ruin. Likewise the "free" but amoral market economy that impoverishes the earth's majority. "Human rights" have been hijacked by money and power.

The years 1776, 1789, and 1948, each with its declaration, marked leaps forward in the human project. Ideals of justice and equality were advanced. Structures of politics were invented. The human heart was inspired to accomplish what had been regarded as impossible. Exactly such a leap is needed today. The time has come for a fourth declaration -- for everyone, for real.

James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll is a Boston Globe columnist and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. He is the author, among other works, of House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and, most recently, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age.


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