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No one likes an ingrate
Showing gratitude for how far we've come is more than just a matter of lighting fireworks and singing "God Bless America"
Technologies are value-neutral. The knife does not know whether it's being used to slice bread to feed the hungry or to stab an innocent bystander. This ambiguity can and often does create conflict as we seek to figure out how new technologies ought to be used, judged, and regulated -- just ask Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and founder of his eponymous prize for peace.
■ Human systems (political, economic, religious, and so on) are less value-neutral than raw technologies, but not completely so. Any form of self-government clearly has a definitional moral advantage over any authoritarian system, merely because human beings have a fundamental right to self-determination. All people possess inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A system that deprives people of the right to decide important matters for themselves is a worse system than one that secures popular sovereignty, period. The "benevolent dictator" model is garbage.
■ But there is room for nuance among systems, depending on the character of the people within them. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, "A vote is like a rifle: Its usefulness depends upon the character of the user."
■ Americans are right to celebrate Independence Day with pride and fanfare. The Declaration of Independence really was a landmark event in human history, and one that should attract the notice and envy of many living today. But it would make us ingrates to think that the work was done in 1776, or to think that it is finished today.
■ What we do to take the system we have to create good in the world is just as important as what the Founders did 245 years ago. To borrow the language of computer programming, we're not exactly in beta mode anymore, but that doesn't mean we're at the final release. Further updates will be required indefinitely.
■ Contemplating that and being comfortable with the incomplete nature of our progress is a vital part of being an American. At its birth, this country still tolerated such glaring wrongs as chattel slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, and the brutal (sometimes outright genocidal) treatment of American Indians. Even at the time when Roosevelt wrote about the "character of the user", he was addressing a population that had yet to ratify the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women's right to vote, and was still decades from the modern civil rights movement. We do better than our predecessors, but we can do better still. Doing better requires thinking first about how America can be good -- not "great" in the sense of power, but "good" in the sense of moral imagination.
■ Paying honest attention to our pursuit of goodness is how best we can show our gratitude for what our forebears did on our behalf. Many generations tolerated exceptional hardships in order to set us in our current place. Many of those hardships were endured by one generation hoping to better their own lot, but even more so to better the lives of their immediate children.
■ But at each step along the way, we have faced choices to make things better in an enduring way, not merely in a material sense, but in the moral one as well. Getting richer and doing more good are not definitionally at odds. The more we can afford to cure our ills, the more history counts on us to do so.
■ In her book, "Democracy", Condoleezza Rice wrote, "The United States has been a north star for those seeking liberty not because it is perfect, but because it was born imperfect and is still struggling with imperfection.". As we celebrate, we also need to look at our choices and challenge ourselves to keep making the ones that make us better -- as in, better people, not just better off. To do any less would show insufficient gratitude for how far we have come -- and no one likes an ingrate.