Monday, May 27, 2013

What Matters Most (Pt. I)

On our Memorial Day, we remember those who gave their lives in battle for us. I want to honor their sacrifices, but my perspective differs from the common viewpoint of what it was for which they died.

Yes, it was for our country and flag, and some of the soldiers and sailors may not have gone to war willingly; however, I would argue that our forces have almost always been motivated to act by, and inspired by, something more than merely the concept of national self-interest (at least since the Mexican War of the 1840's).  Self-defense is a valid principle, and it motivated some of our warriors, particularly in the early days of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and, to some extent World War II.  More of our conflicts, though, have had some notion of confronting tyranny, aggression, or suffering.  In our democracy, these ideas have been critical in mounting popular support for war, and when the substance behind these ideas has been seen to fade, so does the war effort.

The Truth We All Should Know, but Rarely Acknowledge
There are so many things about us that, when we examine them closely, do not have the importance we give them, or they are only of temporary significance, or only subjective value.  There is one thing, though, that remains important above all else, and has been so for long, and it is our greatest duty to preserve for the future.  That is the great experiment, the long-running story of human civilization. 

Whether it has been with or without divine inspiration, civilization is something that has been built up, generation by generation, by us.  It can be contrasted with our natural environment, which is something we as a species inherited some time ago, and which we have been very busy changing through our activity.  Both the recognition of this fact, and full appreciation of our natural environment, are relatively modern phenomena.  I would argue that is through overcoming this distinction, recognizing our own ability to preserve and enhance our natural inheritance, that we can achieve one of the key advances of human civilization in the centuries to come.

Mostly, though, it is the great challenge and opportunity of our time to bring some of the great benefits of civilization to those who would enjoy them but cannot yet do so. One aspect of that, largely achieved in the century before last, was the elimination of slavery from human society.  In the 20th century, working people, particularly in what we refer to as the "Western" countries (though they include nations like Japan and Australia), experienced improved standards of living--better health and life expectancy, greater purchasing power and leisure.

The current phase of development has expanded some of these benefits to new, even larger, segments of the global population, in countries like China and India (as well as others like Thailand, Turkey, South Africa, and Brazil).  One challenge to this current progress is a mixed record in some of these countries, and others like them, on whether essential liberties like freedom of speech, press, assembly, rule of law, and democratic self-government can be sustained for these people; another challenge is a pessimistic view which argues that civilization is preserved and advanced by the elite of society and that the expansion of prosperity and freedom for the many is not a necessary condition for our great adventure to survive and develop.

I associate myself with the aspiration for the broader extension of liberty and prosperity, and for a modern society which can learn to preserve the best parts of our natural environment, toward the aim of the best standard of living for the greatest number in a sustainable form.  This is what I mean when I say I am a "progressive".

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