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Are You Related To George Washington, Like I Am?

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the comments to my last post, “Are You A Paster, Presentist, Or Futurian?” Some readers proclaimed their temporal orientation with pride. Others shared insights into the idea of differentiating people according to temporal orientation. Still others rejected this idea altogether.

Let me proudly proclaim: I am a Futurian. That is, I am a person who is primarily oriented to the future. Over the next three posts I plan to reflect on my own temporal orientation with the hope of further developing the distinction I introduced last week.

In the final post of this series I will explain why I consider myself a Futurian. In next week’s post I will reflect on the extent to which I am a Presentist. This week I will describe the Paster in me. My goal is to discover something more general about the nexus of temporality, self-understanding, and politics through reflection on my own particular case.

While I have felt a sense of intimacy with many pasts over the course of my life, there is one past period that has gleamed consistently as a Golden Age in my imagination: the American Revolution.

I am not a Revolutionary War buff, per se. Though, the war does interest me. What enthralls me is the “ethical life-world” that emerged in late 18th century America, which was canonized in the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution. Tom Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin – these names still glow for me. Anything written by any of them is inexhaustibly interesting. The letters, newspaper editorials, laws, and pamphlets produced by the Founders are to me a sacred inheritance.

This is not to say that I am unmoved by critics who point with contempt to the many personal foibles of these men, or to their political failures and hypocrisy. The perpetuation of slavery by the founding generation never ceases to disturb me. The common obsession at that time with reputation and honor often strikes me as petty and indeed contemptible.

My particular heroes have shifted as I have learned more about the extent of these factors and others. I was once enamored with Franklin the folksy intellectual and Jefferson the eloquent political sage. Both of these revolutionary “celebrities” have been diminished in my eyes over the years. I’m more taken lately by Washington, who so earnestly strived and succeeded to be virtuous (and who freed his slaves posthumously in his will). And by Madison, who was thoughtful, careful, and curious to the end.          

Note, however, that I have absolutely nothing directly genetic, ethnic, or religious in common with any of the men that I have listed above. The first Americans in my immediate genetic line were Yiddish-speaking Jews who came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe one hundred years after the ratification of the Constitution.

The Paster in me is integrally related to my sense of myself as an American. It contributes to my sense of membership in a society still trying to develop and institutionalize the conception of justice devised by the Founders. 

The American Revolution can only be part of my past because of the way that American-ness works. To be or become an American is to accept that your forefathers (and descendants) are not all (and will not all be) members of your particular sub-cultural group. If you are a 21st century Thai Buddhist American you should nevertheless be able to feel in your gut that you are connected in an important way to the English Deists who were delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Similarly, if you are a Scotts-Irish Evangelical American today you should be able to imagine a glorious American future in which great leaders who are Thai Buddhists, Arab Muslims, or African American members of the United Church of Christ may emerge who exemplify American political ideals.

This is the sense of “we” suggested in President Washington’s words written to the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790: “If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.”

Notice that this is a conditional statement: only if we have wisdom, etc. will we reach our potential. Thus, we are presumably not yet the “great and happy people” that we must strive to become. And our becoming great, happy, and a people bound by common wisdom, depends on our success in establishing moral institutions administered by virtuous government officials [this is how I read “under the just administration of a good government”]. To the extent that these conditions obtain, the many different kinds of Americans will be able to share in the same sense of “we” that bridged the cultural gap between George Washington and the Jews of Newport.

The American Revolution is not the only past that is salient to my self-understanding. I am haunted by the Holocaust as a defining “Age of Horror.” All the more so because German-Jewish intellectual culture before the war is another Golden Age to me: the ethical life-world presented in the philosophy, fiction, and letters of Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Franz Kafka, and so on, is a key touchstone of my personality. I am also occasionally enthralled by the Golden Ages of ancient Greece and Rome, though this is largely a continuation of the chain of tradition that connects me to the American Founders. Interestingly, despite being a proud Jew for all of my life, I have never connected to the ethical life-world of ancient Israel (canonized in the Torah), or that of the Rabbis (canonized in the Talmud), as a Golden Age.                

My own capacity to identify with the American Founders reflects the successful incorporation of Jewish Americans into the broader public narrative of American-ness (especially since World War II). Not all kinds of Americans have yet been welcomed into the mainstream as successfully. There is still much work to be done in order to seal Washington’s hope for a great and happy people into every American’s sense of the past.

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