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William Rivers Pitt: The Example

The Example

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 04 July 2006

For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise.

- Benjamin Franklin

The Fourth of July is upon us again, and with it comes the inevitable vast, rolling river of patriotic self-congratulation from every corner. Soldiers and veterans will be lionized even as they are sacrificed and ignored, flags will fly, and in cities and towns across the nation, the evening skies will be lit with pyrotechnic brilliance.

Today is a cherished spot on the calendar for politicians of every stripe, simply because they can spout platitudes on a day off and not be accounted scoundrels or hypocrites for doing so. Today, they are supposed to do this. Being patriotic on the Fourth of July is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Being a good American on the other 364 days of the year is another matter. There aren't many established definitions for what a "good American" is supposed to say and do ... or, more accurately, there are far too many. Support the President, or not. Support the Iraq occupation, or not. Worship God, or don't. Spin the radio across the AM talk-show dial and you'll find a ready answer to the question of who and what represents a good American every other time a voice comes through the speakers.

It is better, perhaps, to nail down a specific example of a good American on this day. Since this is the Fourth, and since being both of patriotic mien and historical mind is expected, the appropriate example is best plucked from that gathering of revolutionary minds who got this whole thing going 230 years ago. Each can provide a portion of any definition of a good American, but there is one above all who accurately represents the entirety of the ideal.

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston 300 years ago this past January. He is esteemed as perhaps the greatest of our Founding Fathers, and is the only man to have his signature on the three central documents of the republic: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris and the Constitution. His work as a diplomat for the colonies in Paris is regarded as perhaps the most important reason why Britain lost the war, for he was the man who brought France in on our side when the chips were down.

That's the stuff one can read in any civics textbook, and the stuff that is easiest to lionize on this day of all days. The rest of Benjamin Franklin, however, stands as the best possible example of who and what we should all strive to be during the other days of the year.

Above all else, Franklin was a thinker with a voracious intellectual appetite. His work with electricity laid the groundwork for our electron-based modern world. His exploration of his world allowed him to claim credit for a number of remarkable inventions, including the medical catheter, the lightning rod, bifocals and a really neat stove.

He founded the American Philosophical Society to give other inventors and creators a place to discuss their work. He played the violin, harp and guitar. He was an acclaimed writer, was fluent in five languages, and became an abolitionist in a time when the issue of slavery had barely arrived as a matter of national contention. He helped to found the first public library in the nation, and also founded the first volunteer firefighting company.

His parents expected him to pursue a career in the church, but at a young age he became disillusioned with organized religion in general. For the majority of his life, he was an avowed Deist, believing that logic and reason instead of tradition and revelation were the best paths to God. As a Founding Father, he was central to the establishment of a separation between church and state.

He was also singularly quirky, enjoying dalliances with a variety of women even into later age. He enjoyed his drink, and had a sense of humor that was both playful and profound. He was not in any way the starched straight-arrow we tend to think of when we imagine the Founders. He was, to put it plainly, a fun person to have at parties.

The life of the mind, then, and a playful spirit. If Benjamin Franklin had never become involved with the fight for colonial independence, he would still have been an American to admire ... and that may be the rub, for if a man of such intellect had not gotten involved, it is more than possible that "Americans" would not exist.

We live in a world today of narrowing perspective. Extremists in the religions of East and West condemn anything not written in the ancient texts, and politicians who make a living through the sowing of division spend their time attacking any information that does not conform to their political beliefs. We are becoming dumber as a nation on a daily basis as our schools go unfunded and our news outlets offer distraction instead of data. Worse, shunning the life of the mind has become something to admire.

So what is a good American? If Benjamin Franklin is to be the example, then a good American is someone brave enough to risk his life for his beliefs. A good American is an explorer of boundaries, of limits, and of possibilities. A good American seeks ideas not only to confirm his beliefs, but to risk the possibility of discovering information that shakes those beliefs to their foundations. A good American knows when to work, and knows when to have fun, and knows that the one serves and validates the other. A good American is someone who thinks.

Lionizing a Founding Father on the Fourth of July is a simple task, to be sure, but Benjamin Franklin turns this process on its ear. He represents all we can be and all we should be, and likewise represents all we no longer seem to be or care to be today. He is worthy of admiration, which is easy, and worthy of emulation, which is not.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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