The Atlantic asks a “Big Question”: “What day most changed the course of history?” The responses from assorted academics and creatives are for the most part predictably bad, not to mention small. The last answer, from Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, qualifies in one way as the obviously worst, but in another as the closest to sensible, and her best-worst answer also happens to turn on the same vague notion of legitimacy that I was just criticizing in relation to our friend B-Psycho’s question to me. She relies on the notion for, I think, the same reason BP does: to conceal the real argument she is making, perhaps even from herself.
Slaughter’s answer for most changeful day ever is as follows:
Trite as it may seem, the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, was the first public assertion of human equality as a legitimate rationale for political action. The Declaration would eventually eat away at the formal barriers of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and any other differences that human beings have created to hold some down and raise others up.
Whether or not this answer is or merely seems “trite,” it qualifies or ought to qualify as embarrassingly illiterate despite its obvious good intentions and superficial thoughtfulness. Put simply – it feels almost cruel or anyway impolite to say so – at the time of the Founding a politics of human equality as a rationale for political action, for the founding or reform of states as well as for revolutions and wars against existing states, had been around for more than 2,000 years – if not for much, much longer, but at least for that long on the historical record as a matter of coherently expressed political philosophy. The Founding is in no sense the “first public assertion” of the legitimacy of this rationale. It is, to cite the canonical example, a main theme of Aristotle’s Politics, and it was a theme for Aristotle not because he was prophesying political developments that would have to wait 2,000 years, but because a politics of human equality was already widespread, well-tested, and fairly comprehensively theorized in his time. Historians and theologians will have little difficulty locating the basis of a politics of human equality in other traditions also, including especially the Judaic and Christian monotheism that, along with Greek and Roman political philosophy, rounded out the “liberal” education that the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, as well as their enemies, had very much in common.
Still, Slaughter was trying to think both “big” and “historical,” while the other answers are mainly distinguished by their self-centeredness: The famous astrophysicist speaks up for an astrophysical event, the American feminist for the day American women got the vote, Oliver Stone for an event covered in an episode of his recent premium cable mini-series, the Yale history professor for an important historical moment perhaps unknown to the average undergraduate. Such parochialism must surely constitute a worse sin than a moment of everyday historical illiteracy perhaps ascribable to the informal context rather than Slaughter’s true state of knowledge on a topic well within the purview of a distinguished Professor of Politics and International Affairs. Taken together, the answers may provide a rough outline on the hopeless un-seriousness of American letters ca. 2013, perhaps even an indirect secondary justification for B-Psycho’s radical rejection of the whole thing, but at least for Professor Slaughter the biggest day in history is one that for her best comprehends that whole thing and a belief about its meaning, not just whatever particular magnitudes.
Where I think Slaughter goes wrong is where she resorts to the same evasion that I accused B-Psycho of attempting. Like BP, Slaughter relies on on an offhand, quasi-colloquial, arguably not entirely legitimate use of the word “legitimate,” as a kind of abstract placeholder for unstated beliefs. In her answer, the word seems to be merely a subordinate adjective, but it quietly carries the entire moral burden of her thesis, as the key contribution made by the Founders regarding the egalitarian ideal and the derivative norms she goes on to list. For her, what was illegitimate on July 3, 1776, somehow became legitimate or was now on the path to true legitimacy on July 5, 1776. In that sense, the Declaration was not simply legitimate, but further represented the proposal or affirmation of an alternative source of legitimacy or mode of legitimation: a foundation for law, not an idea merely “legitimate” within some other body of law. In other words, in addition to having been “public[-ly] asserted” as a political “rationale” for generations, the Radical Whig understanding of political equality that inspired Thomas Jefferson and friends represented its own idea of legitimacy, as did the diverse democratisms, aristocratisms, and so on of Aristotle’s time.
American egalitarianism was offered by the Founders not as merely legitimate, but as the fundamental legitimating norm, or what the German legal idealists called a “Grundnorm,” the norm beyond which the law or the legitimator cannot go without falling off the juridical map. To legitimize such a legitimation we have to appeal to a higher concept or super-legitimacy, to the legitimacy that would legitimize mere political-juridical legitimacy: in short, to some species of natural or revealed or absolute law under whatever name or refusal to name. Such a procedure, obscure where not forbidden to the very modern otherwise all-knowing and free-thinking multicultural academic (or anarchist blogger), would have been second nature for the Founders, most of whom, one suspects, if asked to name the most important day in history, might well have focused on events in relation to which the years to 1776 happen to have been counted. One suspects further that many among the Founders’ contemporaries – even the actually rather than merely historically illiterate – might have managed at least that level of insight into their own most foundational assumptions.
What Slaughter wants to say but cannot quite say is that, whether or not Western civilization and its deeply embedded egalitarian ideal might have survived a Mongol victory at Vienna in 1241, or perhaps have arisen in quasi-reptilian form among evolved dinosaurs in the absence of the Yucatán asteroid, the 4th of July can be thought to commemorate a true inflection point in human history as a meaningful history. The American Founding as symbolized by whichever of its most important days may or may not qualify as history’s single most course-altering event, but it still invites comparison, without any hint of vulgar “exceptionalism,” to a small handful of other singular moments – as in the Hegelian world-historical concept, but with point of origin transferred to the New World from the Old: perhaps not as the biggest day in the natural history of one damn thing after another from Big Bang to Heat Death, but as a or the day after which history itself, as human history, must be thought of as truly changed.