With the approach of the fall quarter at Eastern Washington University, I am beginning to reflect on the point of all points that I like to make in my introductory US survey course. It goes something like this:
America has given something of great value to the world as the first modern democracy. When Thomas Jefferson wrote, in the Declaration of Independence,
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" -
When he wrote those words, he set forth a superb definition of freedom - one that has influenced individuals and nations in every quarter of the globe.
We have built upon Jefferson's words with the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Women's Suffrage, and the Civil Rights Act.
And we have, in Lincoln's phrase, consecrated the American idea of freedom during the Civil War.
All well and good, I tell my students.
But then, I like to ask, rhetorically, where does this democracy live? What makes is active and vital?
Democracy does not flow with the sap in the trees in our forests; it is not borne on the wind, nor poured down with the rain. Nor is it in the brains of the squirrels scampering across our campus. It is not even embodied in our public buildings in our state capitals and in Washington, D.C. - for these are only edifices of stone.
No democracy, if it exists at all, exists only in our selves, in our brains and in our hearts.
And here is the problem - seldom has the human energy of democracy been so weak in America as during the past couple of years.
During that time we have seen the deplorable spectacle of a pigmy congress passing a law abandoning its own constitutional right to decide on matters of war and peace.
We have also seen those legislators adopt a series of ill-considered laws undermining the Bill of Rights, and seen them tarnish one of the sacred names in our lexicon of liberty, by calling this bill the "Patriot Act."
Additionally, we have witnessed some of the most vacuous and wrong-headed journalism in the history of the free American press.
And we have heard a president lie to the American people in a State of the Union Address.
So where is our great American democracy?
It has fallen on hard times, but it is there in our history, ready to be reborn, as indeed it has been reborn again and again in our past.
Bill Youngs (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a history professor at Eastern Washington University. He has published five books including a new edition of a reader called American Realities, with an essay on Colin Powell. He does a weekly radio commentary for KEWU.