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America, We're Better than This

Yesterday I posted about the tragic shooting of Philando Castile in a placid Saint Paul, Minnesota suburb. My son lives where it happened and texted me afterwards.

Then last night we all witnessed the horrible events in Dallas, where five police officers were brutally killed, six more injured, along with two pedestrians. Early reports indicate one of the apprehended suspects was upset about Black Lives Matter and wanted to shoot white police officers.

Dallas police Chief David Brown, front, and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, talk with the media during a news conference Friday. (Eric Gay/AP)

Dallas police Chief David Brown, front, and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, talk with the media during a news conference Friday. (Eric Gay/AP)

Yesterday I heard a pastor in Saint Paul criticizing a reporter from the podium for “commodifying” his people because the reporter was asking for identifying details of an attendee for a story. At a press conference. News flash: the press is your friend, the tiller of democracy.

Blaming each other on the basis of being a cop or a member of the white establishment or an urban black man isn’t going to solve the problem of racism, it’s only going to perpetuate it. That sort of rhetoric only encourages the division. Because it’s not true.

It’s at horrible times like these, when emotions are high and the way forward is not clear, that we need to fall back on our guiding principles, for these are the times we need them the most. In fact, it’s only because our principles have not been well-followed, have not yet been actualized, that the injustice exists that is driving BLM.

So the question has to be about justice. How do we achieve it? Let’s go back to principles. Its our principles, black, white, brown, yellow, red or rainbow, that make us Americans. It’s our principles that unite us. It’s our principles that we need to look to at the very time we least want to. And it’s our principles that get trampled on when emotions rule and injustice reigns.

We just celebrated the 4th of July, the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, just two days before these shootings started. In drafting that Declaration, in making an argument for democracy, Thomas Jefferson sat for 17 days in a hot, stuffy rented room, reaching for the best, fairest principles he could find. He knew if he didn’t convince the wealthy and powerful in European nations to stay out of the revolutionary war with the strength of his words alone, he and the other founders would wind up dead. So he based his argument on principles that we have come to hold dear. They are not perfect, and they have never been perfectly implemented. After all, Jefferson himself owned slaves. But they have led over time to an onward bending of the arc of the moral universe toward justice, toward truly achieving that equality. We are not there yet, but we have made undeniable progress.

In doing this, in making the most powerful argument he could, who do you think Jefferson turned to in crafting those ideas? Whose writings could he rely on to inspire the world in the American battle against tyranny and authoritarianism? He turned to the thinking of what he called his “trinity of three greatest men,” Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke — he turned to scientists — and what he came up with, his background argument for justice, for the self-evident truth underlying the United States that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, boiled down to this: that if any one of us can discover the truth of something for ourselves using the tools of reason and science to establish evidence, then no pope, no king, and no wealthy lord is more entitled to rule us than we are ourselves. Science — evidence — was at the root of the argument for democracy, and for the justice it seeks in the world.

So if you care about racial justice, if you care about economic justice, if you care about social justice, if you care about environmental justice, if you care about health justice, if you care about America, you have to care about Black Lives Matter. But you also have to care about the war on science. You have to care about the war on climate science, or the war on even researching gun violence. We can’t even research it! Because it’s all the same thing: without evidence, without due process, without science, the wealthy and the powerful rule, usually unfairly.

When people feel they are being deprived of justice, when evidence is being ignored, when science is being denied, when due process is not being afforded, when black men or police are being judged and killed not because of the content of their characters but because of how they are perceived regardless of the evidence, then we have strayed too far. Then we have turned away from our core principles, and then there is no real justice except at the dispensation of the most powerful. Then we are in an arms race.

And when people feel there is no real justice, when society is not evidence-based and orderly, as imperfect as that system is, when due process is lost and with it the presumption of innocence, when the people and the police both feel victims of an arms race, when the arc of the moral universe ceases to bend toward justice, that’s when the angriest of us, the most unhinged of us, they who have all-too-easy access to firearms, in their official capacities or their unofficial ones, will fall back on racism, or on one’s uniform, and take matters into their own hands, using the opposite of science, reason, evidence and justice — they will use violence.

So the denial of science and reason we are hearing from some quarters of our political dialogue, from some candidates for federal and state office and from some officeholders, even from some candidates for president, the war on science, the ready assertion of counterfactual claims, the blocking of research to even establish evidence, the assertion of authority and the upholding of such assertions by those in power, when a man can be shot while lying on the ground, and those in power do not rule it as excessive use of force, then we see an erosion in our common bonds, we see an erosion in the sense of our trust in reason, in fairness, in science and evidence and objectivity and the principles of justice that can bind our varied nation together in common cause. We see an erosion in what makes us America.

So I want to remind my fellow Americans, black Americans, white Americans, brown, yellow, red and rainbow Americans, and especially, angry Americans — to take a step back. To apply that anger to the fight for justice, but to do it with justice, to do it with fairness, respect, reason, science, evidence, and nonviolence.

This is America. We’re better than this. Because of our principles. Let’s act like it.

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