What makes us Americans? What rights and principles do we all share?
Thirty years ago, E.D. Hirsch activated civic conversations throughout America with his book Cultural Literacy. He argued that every American should have a grasp of fundamental information about our country. Hirsch listed 5,000 names, facts, phrases, dates and cultural references that he believed represented a reasonable core of knowledge that all Americans should possess.
Today the Aspen Institute Citizenship & American Identity Program is asking Americans to identify what they consider to be the top ten 21st Century cultural touchstones that every American should know in order to be civically and culturally connected. We’ve listed ours below and we wanna know, what are your top 10? Post them at: What Every American Should Know
The BriteHeart Top Ten
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness – This is a famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence that imparts three “unalienable rights” assigned to all people by a higher power. While the meaning of “life’ and “liberty” is unambiguous, the word “happiness” currently refers to a positive state of mind, although in 1776 the word probably had more to do with good health and economic prosperity. In whatever era you choose, these three rights are solid ground upon which to build a long lasting and positive culture.
Separation of Church and State – The thrust of the central part of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution is this paraphrase by Thomas Jefferson of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” What could be more essential in a free society than an individual’s ability to worship or not worship as one sees fit? When religion so often becomes an intrinsic element of a nation’s culture, it is even more critical that the choice to be different is preserved and protected.
Rule of Law – Representing one of the most efficient means of maintaining order, providing reasonable limits to personal freedom and establishing principles that all members of a society are obligated to conform to is the Rule of Law. Presupposed centuries ago by thinkers such as Aristotle, who wrote that “law should govern,” the concept insures that a nation is governed by a system of rules, as opposed to whimsical decisions by individual rulers. In contrast to dictatorship or autocracy, societies governed by the Rule of Law are insured that no one, no matter where they might stand in the hierarchical structure of government, is free to disregard established edicts without penalty.
Freedom of Speech – Fundamental for an effective democracy, freedom of speech guarantees that there will be no limits on public debate and the unrestricted flow of information, ideas and individual expression. Even in times of emergency, a functioning democracy depends on an informed electorate that has access to all of the information it needs in order to insure that the model of a self-governing democracy is preserved. Acknowledging certain limits related to libel, obscenity, national security or intellectual property, a government that attempts to manipulate or constrain the unrestricted circulation of knowledge, ideas or criticism is in direct contrast to the essence of the democratic ideal.
One man, one vote – The principle of universal suffrage and political equality can be summed up in this phrase that encompasses the rights of both women and men. Articulated in John Lewis’s 1963 speech at the March on Washington, the words soon became a catchphrase of the civil rights movement. Giants of the era such as Martin Luther King, Jr and Lewis worked alongside fearless organizers like Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses to make King’s dream of full participatory citizenship for all come true, at least in theory.
Freedom of the Press – Typically, there is tension between government, which seeks to control the flow of information it communicates to the people, and the press, which wants to report as much information about the workings of government as possible. When mutual professional respect is established, a healthy tug-of-war exists between the two institutions about what the public should know and what information is reported to the people. When government representatives lie, distort the facts or withhold the truth, the function of the press to accurately report what is actually happening is crucial. Since a government controlled or repressed press is one of the first steps toward dictatorship, the importance of maintaining a functioning free press cannot be overstated.
Equal Protection – Within the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, the Equal Protection Clause insures that all citizens within a state’s jurisdiction are afforded “equal protection of the laws.” Created as reinforcement for the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which guaranteed that all citizens would hold the rights available to all other citizens, “Equal Justice Under Law” was a major constitutional step forward in protecting the rights of the individual. Famously providing the foundation for the Brown v Board of Education (1954) Supreme Court decision that dismantled systematic racial segregation, Equal Protection is a precious defense for people who might otherwise be subjected to discrimination.
19th Amendment – When 50 of the 99 members of the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to approve the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution on August 18th 1920, the summit of the decades long women’s suffrage movement had been scaled. Forever more, neither states, nor the federal government could deny citizens the right to vote on the basis of sex. In 2016, a monument celebrating Tennessee’s role in supplying the necessary 36th state ratification of the Amendment was presented in Nashville. Suffragists honored in the tribute include Anne Dallas Dudley, Carrie Chapman, Juno Frankie Pierce, Sue Shelton White and Abby Crawford Milton.
Freedom of Assembly – Societies that guarantee Freedom of Assembly have the benefit of a populace that is able to gather, mobilize or rally in support of a cause, idea, person, political party or for the purpose of just getting together. People that possess this invaluable civic right have the comfort of being able to express themselves, within the framework of accepted laws, in whatever fashion they deem fit, for whomever they want to support or criticize and for whatever ideas they support, whether accepted by society at large or not. The creativity unleashed within cultures that protect freedom of assembly cannot be matched by the conformity of speech and action demanded by authoritarian governments, whose people are subject to harsh discipline if they stray from accepted paths.
Participation in our Democracy – There is no better example of the lasting power of every person’s vote than the 2000 presidential election, the closest in our nation’s history, featuring Al Gore and George W. Bush. In the decisive state of Florida, the presidency was decided in Bush’s favor by a total of 537 voters, representing a margin of .009%. Although victorious in the Electoral College, Bush lost the popular vote and was only installed as the winner following a 5-4 decision by the United States Supreme Court in Bush v Gore. One can only imagine how history would have changed if a few more people in Florida had exercised their right to vote.
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photo by Luke Stackpool