America is a Creative Expression

United States Declaration of Independence

Image by miflippo

This past July 4th, NPR posted the Declaration of Independence in a series of 113 consecutive tweets; and in response, a number of supposed Trump supporters took issue with the news organization, having no idea what they were reading, assuming for instance that statements denouncing the tyranny of George III were directed at the president.  And while the taste of such irony-rich schadenfreude may indeed be sweet, it would be fatally naive to think for a moment that only the most eager acolytes of Team Trump are so ignorant about the contents of the nation’s founding document.  After all, Trump’s presidency is merely a variation on a much broader theme of anti-establishment sentiment where we also find an ample supply of citizens splashing about in the kiddie pools of “liberalism,” equally uninformed and equally committed to views that are corrosive to democratic principles.

In fact, according to data collected by the World Values Survey, only about 30% of Americans born after 1980 believe that living in a country that is democratically governed is of paramount importance.  Although an unsettling statistic, it isn’t necessarily a surprising one given that its anecdotal accompaniment can be heard reverberating throughout Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, et al. This anti-democratic trend is one that defies traditional political affiliation; it cannot be ascribed to either liberal or conservative groups; and it is manifest in democratic nations other than the United States. In a paper for The Journal of Democracy, one filled with startling revelations, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, write …

“As party identification has weakened and party membership has declined, citizens have become less willing to stick with establishment parties. Instead, voters increasingly endorse single-issue movements, vote for populist candidates, or support “antisystem” parties that define themselves in opposition to the status quo. Even in some of the richest and most politically stable regions of the world, it seems as though democracy is in a state of serious disrepair.”

Naturally, I blame Twitter.

Medium is message, right?  So, the one antagonist in this NPR Declaration story who interests me—a man highlighted in the coverage by The Washington Post—is the guy who realized his mistake and apologized.  He wrote, “I tweeted a VERY dumb comment. But ask yourselves; if read to the average American, would they know that you were reading the DOI? I do now.”  It is pretty hard to argue with his assumption, especially when the Declaration is being fragmented into 113 pieces at 140 characters each, and then posted on a schitzy social media platform.  I mean let’s face it:  if The Federalist Papers had been distributed in a series tweets, the American Republic would never have come into existence.

The real irony, of course, is lost on this man who apologized, as it probably would be on those eager to mock him.  The same medium, which obliterates context and practically demands mindless reaction, is the exact tool that a guy like Trump uses to manipulate citizens into reactionary behavior all the time.  But in this regard, Trump has merely capitalized on a trend that has been bollixing up our politics for years—and certainly not exclusively among his supporters. The president’s tweets are just the most prominent example of the information age having the opposite effect we were promised 20 years ago.

Given the manner in which social media atomizes and de-contextualizes information, should we be surprised that our politics have become so demonstrably tribal—and so utterly disconnected from the historical record?  Isn’t this what happens when we share common terms (like freedom!) but then destroy a common framework for interpreting those terms through digital remix?  Without meaning to do so, NPR remixed the Declaration, changed its context, and inspired some citizens to interpret individual phrases through their own arrogant, narrow, and absurdly contemporary lenses.  Isn’t that what social media inspires all day long on a thousand and one different subjects?

This seems particularly dangerous in America because ours is a uniquely fragile form of democracy. Fragile because the entire history of the nation begins with nothing but words on paper written a relatively short time ago; and stability depends on a degree of common context for what those words actually mean. Unlike our European forebears, the citizenry of the United States is not linked by any kind of common culture but is instead supposedly bound by a relatively common ideology.

In an 1825 letter to Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson notes that the Declaration of Independence did not articulate original principles but “…was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.”

Jefferson’s explanation reminds me of the principle in copyright law known as the idea/expression dichotomy.  We recognize a difference between an idea (e.g. liberty) and an original expression (e.g. the Declaration) and grant temporary ownership to the latter but not to the former. Ideas are part of the commons and must be built upon and/or expressed in new ways; but original expressions of ideas are distinctive enough to be considered the property of their authors. Not all expressions are particularly compelling, but some are the most valuable of all human achievements.

I don’t mean to imply that the Declaration of Independence is a copyrighted work, but rather to note the significance that the American version of certain universal principles is unique to the country’s story and character. And this uniqueness matters. All creative expression is, of course, subject to interpretation—even to the extent that, at this nation’s founding, one man’s liberty was allowed to include the right to deprive another man of his liberty.  It took almost another century and then a war just to abandon the depraved hypocrisy of slavery—and another century after that just to begin to make policy out of basic compassion and humanity.

America is a creative work.  And like any creative work, it can be interpreted without context; but context makes a considerable difference in both understanding and valuing a work. Reinterpretation is also inevitable and essential. Although the elements of democracy had traveled through centuries, as Jefferson describes, to be present in the minds of the Framers, the precise expressions themselves were highly original at the time. “I confess that in America,” wrote de Tocqueville in 1835, “I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.”

Still, it has taken nearly all of our 2.4 centuries as a nation just to reinterpret the meaning of those first expressions in order to “secure the blessings of liberty” for a plurality of citizens. So, it is certainly disheartening to think that the next generation—the first to inherit the progress of all that struggle—is now supposedly poised to give up on democracy itself.  If this is truly the case, then the reasons are no doubt various; but one possible catalyst is that creative works like the Declaration are not meant to be interpreted through the scattered keyhole views of social media.

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