There may be no more alluring delusion than the idea of a clean slate.
Whether in our personal lives or as a whole people, we stubbornly and all the time cling to the possibility that all our sins and silliness can be wiped away and that, harnessed with the wisdom and experience we now possess, we can simply begin again, in a sort of cosmic Take Two.
Such is the ethos underpinning New Year’s resolutions, weight-loss diets, cross-country moves, career shifts, rehab clinics, second marriages, third marriages, having children and emigrating to a new country.
On a national scale, we think of elections in much the same way. They are our singular opportunity to throw out one set of bums in favor a different set, on the assumption that the mess made by the incumbents can be expunged through the mere opening and closing of a ballot box curtain.
Globally, things really get interesting, as we see attempts by citizens of a country to overthrow and flatten the leadership and, in some cases, the very system of government under which they had heretofore lived.
The Iraq War, as it was described by its practitioners in the Bush administration, was nothing less than a means of shaking up centuries of authoritarian rule in the Middle East and remaking the region more or less from scratch.
And the revolution they used as a blueprint is the one we are celebrating this week.
I began with the word “delusion,” which I strongly suspect this whole “begin again” theory to be, in every one of its forms. Why? Because while circumstances can change, human beings do not.
Embarking upon a new relationship, you can pledge not to repeat the missteps that may have ended the last one—and learning from mistakes is a valuable human trait—but the essence of one’s character does not magically disappear just because you’re sleeping with someone else.
A recovering alcoholic can vow not to touch the evil elixirs ever again, but the demons that lead one to indulge in the first place never completely go away.
The United States military can try its level best to effect pluralism in the Middle East, but all the hatreds between Sunnis and Shiites somehow always find a way to boil right back to the surface.
Clean slates do not exist. They are a fantasy we fashion for ourselves as an E-ZPass lane to happiness. However pure the future might seem, we can never completely escape the past.
Which brings us squarely to the American Revolution.
Of all the inspiring and improbable elements of the rebellion that formally began on July 4, 1776, arguably the most essential—the one that allows the story of American independence to retain its power—is the fact that, in the minds of those who led it, it really was an instance of a brand new country being created from whole cloth. An opportunity to break from centuries of tradition and begin anew, with a constitution and system of government that had never quite existed before.
It was, you could say, the closest any group of people has come to starting the world over again. And surely there is something to be said for the fact that, 238 years later, the United States of America still stands.
And yet the image of a so-called “American Eden” is as much a myth as every other example I’ve cited.
Never mind that key phrases and ideas in the Declaration of Independence were stolen from John Locke. Never mind the horrible things our ancestors did to the Native Americans who had, after all, gotten here first. Never mind the enormous debt the nascent American republic owed to France, itself a hereditary monarchy, without whose support independence could never have been achieved.
Then there’s the small matter of America’s “original sin”—the necessary corollary to the Garden of Eden metaphor—which, all by itself, destroys any pretense of purity in the formation of a new and great nation.
Yet even in the absence of these giant asterisks to the beloved story of our country’s birth, there was always the fact that this new republic would exist in the same time and place as all the old empires, and would have to deal with them sooner or later. Even if we were perfect, we lived in an imperfect world that we could not simply wish away.
What is more, the people who designed this new system were, themselves, products of the old system, and therefore subject to certain values and assumptions that proved more durable than they (and we) might have preferred. The ownership of their fellow human beings was one, but so, too, was the inclination toward petty factionalism, traceable to practically the moment George Washington died, as well as involvement in “entangling alliances” overseas, which our first president so elegantly warned against. (The term itself, often attributed to Washington, was actually coined by Thomas Jefferson.)
None of this is to suggest that, on balance, the American Revolution wasn’t among the finest things ever to occur in the history of life on Earth, nor that the U.S. Constitution is not arguably the greatest user’s manual for how to run a decent country that has ever been written and put into practice.
But there was nothing “clean” about any of this, and I only ask that we take a moment this Independence Day to recognize it.
History is messy, just as life itself is messy. We can always strive to improve—to make ourselves “more perfect”—but we deceive ourselves when we think that the past doesn’t matter and won’t have some influence over the future.
All we can reasonably hope is to do our level best here in the present.