Slowly but surely, Americans have learned to stop thinking. If you do not believe this, walk through any crowded area in your city during the next few days and watch closely as people mill about. The experiment will be especially telling if you go to a place where thought once thrived – the Church or the university. The awe inspiring hope of Puritan John Witherspoon, who believed America was chosen by God to be “a shining city on a hill,” is gone. The optimism of Ronald Reagan, who believed that America had “a rendezvous with destiny,” is lost. The fortitude of George Washington, who said “the Constitution is the guide which I never will abandon,” is softened and overlooked due the fact that many of us have never read or considered the Constitution.
We pride ourselves in our “education.” We take comfort in the “advances” we have made over those who went before us and mock the “backwardness” of our ancestors, even of those white landowners who signed the Declaration of Independence. Ironically, those white landowners of the late 18th century were probably far better educated that we are in the early 21st. For instance, while some of us know how to clean a gun, our Founders knew not only that but also how to make a gun. And while all of us know what cigars and cigarettes are, the Founding Fathers in Virginia and the Carolinas could have taught us how to plant, grow, and harvest tobacco. They could have explained the proper type of barns to construct in order to allow harvested tobacco to cure correctly. Thereafter, they could have explained the different grades of cured tobacco and how combinations of differing grades in cigarettes would provide varying flavors.
This knowledge would not have been esoteric in the Founder’s generations as it is in ours; broad sweeps of the population would have been familiar with it. The amount of knowledge they stored in their minds was simply vast compared to ours.
In his book, “Knowledge and Decisions,” Thomas Sowell illustrates the greater knowledge stores of our ancestors by positing a modern, “civilized man,” suddenly dropped into a jungle: “Although the civilized man might be a well educated individual, working in complex profession…it is doubtful whether his knowledge would be sufficient to merely sustain life in an environment where primitive peoples have lived for untold generations.”
Sowell’s point should cause us to think of the untamed environment into which our forefathers and Founders entered when they came to this continent. Regardless of the professions they had held in Europe, upon arriving here they also demonstrated the additional, priceless knowledge of survival. Moreover, their knowledge was so well rounded that they and we, their posterity, have been able to thrive rather than “merely sustain life.”
In addition to establishing civilization in an untamed land, our Founders understood and dwelt upon the value the freedom. They esteemed it of greater worth than their own lives, as demonstrated by their pledge of their “lives” to its cause in the final sentence of the Declaration of Independence. Thus, although Jefferson thought about indoor plumbing, philosophy, and agriculture, among other things, the output of his pen indicates that he spent far more time considering the beauty of liberty. And Jefferson, a product of the Enlightenment in many ways, knew that the liberty of his posterity depended upon their habits of thought and their ability to think. Therefore he wrote: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the day of day.”
What Jefferson opined with these words was the simple fact that thought, well practiced, is the enemy of tyranny. And the corollary to this is simple: The death of thought is the birth of tyranny. When we refuse to use our minds we are asking someone else to use theirs in place of ours. This is tantamount to asking them to look out for us, or to protect us, or to reign over us. And reign they will.
In “The Conservative Mind,” Russell Kirk touched upon this in describing how despots will arise to control our behavior if we prove incapable of controlling it ourselves. His point was that the less control we exercise over the self from within, the more others will exercise control over us from without. This brings President John Adams famous quote about morality to mind: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In other words, just as our Founders knew that “a free people ought to be an armed people” they also knew that only a moral people could be free. The morality of which Adams wrote requires us to think about our actions, weighing not simply consequences of certain endeavors but foundational questions of right and wrong as well.
Until we decide to think again, we cannot be surprised that millions of Americans will continue to disrespect our military – How can they respect those fighting for a freedom that is not understood? We also cannot allow ourselves to be surprised that America will move closer and closer to a socialist state – A myriad of laws from without will be passed to make up for the loss of control from within. And we cannot be disheartened by the raw ignorance college student’s display concerning our nation’s heritage – Why should they esteem what their parents undervalue?
I have thought of these things again and again as I watch the seeming mindless march of hundreds of thousands of Barrack Obama supporters. Ask any of them what he stands for and the answer is the same – “change.” Ask them what kind of “change” and they will either stare at you with that blank look that betrays the fact that they’ve never thought about it or retort, “Man, it’s his turn; it’s our turn.” The real answer is far simpler – they are not thinking, and that’s why they support Obama; a man who has no respect for our military and a soft spot of socialism.
Recently, in a speech to his adoring fans, Obama said he didn’t look like the other presidents whose faces are on our money. He said this because he is black and they were white. And his goal was to shame John McCain and other Republicans into backing off from their criticism of his policies. But his statement made me think about how correct he was in one way – he is nothing like our Founders. They loved freedom, he hates it. They loved capitalism, he wants a socialist state. They fought Britain to the death; he wants to make the U.S. more European. They loved guns, and viewed them as befitting companions of free people; he opposes concealed carry laws and private gun ownership.
Perhaps in time, more of us will come to the realization that the cessation of thought opens the door for every oppressive demagogue slick enough to step in, and we will reverse the trend. Until then, men like Obama actually have a fighting chance in what would otherwise be a grand slam for McCain. If Obama wins the election, we must remember that through our refusal to think and encourage thought in others we have become our own worst enemy.