Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, Government, Public Health

An Independence Day for reflection and resilience

July 6, 2018

How are we upholding our founding principles?

Wednesday was Independence Day in the United States, and I found myself – along with many others, I’m sure – wanting to spend some time reflecting about our country. I’ve been thinking about the Declaration of Independence, and what it means in this era.

A reader might ask why a public health dean, who is neither a lawyer nor a legal scholar, is writing about that document. Beyond being dean, I am a citizen of this country and the granddaughter of immigrants. My research training taught me to question, and I’m questioning a lot these days. And, in fact, a lot of what is happening in this country right now is related in some way to public health – immigration, college admissions, abortion, the environment. I could go on and on.

I took my high school civics teacher seriously when he taught us about the duties of citizenship. I came of age in the Kennedy era and earned an undergraduate minor in American Studies. I enjoy reading history, and every July 4th, re-read the Declaration of Independence as a reminder of where we’ve come from, and where we are. As I read this year, I created a mental report card for today’s federal government, in terms of how it meets the criteria established in the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence can’t be separated from its historical context. Men – specifically, men who owned land – were favored in 1776, but still, the Declaration stated the very principles on which this country was founded, starting with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Many of those men in the favored class were slave owners. Still, words matter, and the words that launched our nation describe the rights of “All men.”

It took us too long to give voting and other rights to women and minorities and to correct other injustices. We remain an imperfect society, as humans are imperfect. There had been pain and strife, but we had come a long way.

In the past couple years, it has been shocking to hear government officials demean women, Muslims and people from poorer parts of the world. In the past week, the president acted to undo the Bollinger decision, which had recognized conditions under which race could be considered in college admissions.

The framers of the Declaration wrote that the king has refused his assent to laws. The current administration’s open refusal to enforce certain parts of the Affordable Care Act is tantamount to refusing to assent to laws. The administration also has used policy directives, notably at the EPA, to undermine regulations grounded in evidence. These issues are squarely within the realm of public health. People can’t have “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” without health and safe environments. Both are under attack today.

Another point the framers made was about obstructing laws regarding the naturalization of immigrants.

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose of obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither.

Our current treatment of people fleeing violence and fear and seeking better lives is not within the spirit of the Declaration. From a public health perspective, I am deeply troubled about the short- and long-term consequences on the mental health of children separated from their parents at our southern borders. Our Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health and the American Public Health Association are also troubled. (See their statements here and here.)

A later section of the Declaration denounced the king for interfering with judiciary powers:

He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices.

Similar offenses have played out over the past 532 days through the firing of judges, attempts to undermine the Mueller investigation, and last week, through hints that the administration may have encouraged Justice Kennedy to resign so the president could appoint the next justice before mid-terms. The latter has not been proven.

For cutting off our trade with other parts of the world was another criticism of the king. Our trade with parts of the world could be cut off again due to tariffs now being levied on some foreign goods.

Evaluating our current situation with respect to the Declaration of Independence, we don’t fare so well. I’m not suggesting that the president is a king or that we should overthrow the government. I’ve served in the government and believe in our government and its laws. Rather, I suggest that all of us living in the country, citizen or not, have a responsibility to understand the issues facing us, raise our voices when we see something amiss, engage in our democracy and vote. Never have our voices been more needed. There’s nothing radical about this prescription, but if all voices were raised (civilly), the impact could be thunderous.

What to the slave is the 4th of July?

In 1852, Frederick Douglass gave an amazing speech on the 4th of July, and his words resonate powerfully today. He spoke of the brutality of slavery and its incompatibility with the Declaration of Independence, calling for the end of slavery in one of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever read or heard. He also said that the world has changed, and that no nation can shut itself off from the world.

Here’s an excerpt; I encourage you to read the original.

While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.

Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness.

But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city.

Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents.

Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic, are distinctly heard on the other. The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet.

The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.

The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.