UNITED STATES--“President Trump threatened Friday morning to end White House press briefings, arguing that ‘it is not possible’ for his staff to speak with ‘perfect accuracy’ to the American public,” reported the Washington Post. I lay in bed, my white and partly damaged iPhone 5 held over my chest as the simultaneous cause for and bandage against such a wound.
We're doing projects in physics this week. With my smartphone clutched like a bloody gaze pack against my collarbone, I think of my physics lab from this week. How—despite the lab packet’s directions—I had failed to successfully wire the circuit without the guidance of our track-star academic standout hybrid group member.
How our country, like that circuit board—circa 1960, baptized into use with stale Kleenex and new graphite each late spring—is a fragile, and complicated, and only intermittently illuminated thing.
How the results we have hitherto experienced in our democratic experiment are not constant, as the pre-programmed table data in our lab suggest, but rather, highlight an anomaly against the gaping range of alternative outcomes that we narrowly, and against exceptional odds, have managed to evade.
It is easy to see America as a new triumphal empire, its cities reincarnations of a fallen Rome. What we often forget is that America, at least in its early stages, was an accident. More a product of its circumstances than the mold for them. What I often forget about America, what we seem often to forget collectively, in a strange cumulous of cultural amnesia, is that America is an infantine country. The Roman Empire lasted 1500 years. England has considered itself a country for more than a thousand.
Our democratic experiment of a nation pales in all comparisons of age. We have marked our foothold in this world with a flag of only 241 years. My mother, too young to have to color her hair or wear glasses other than those-tinted-dark for sun, remembers the patriotic bunting, the seersucker shorts alongside which she marked the Bicentennial. The unfounded assurance we have in our democratic constancy is just that—unfounded.
Whenever we begin to think our experiment cannot be meddled with, we must understand ourselves mistaken. Whenever we interact with alterations to our experiment that threaten to undermine what has been its unlikely, however exceptional success, we must be careful. Donald Trump threatening to dismantle the White House news briefings—the cornerstone of the press’s relationship to the workings of our government for decades—is one of such calls to caution.
Nabokov said it sadly: “You must be careful. There are things that should never be given up.” Obama, in his final speech this past January, amidst his reluctant passing of the presidential baton, said it clearly: “The gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured. It falls to each of us to be . . . . anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy.” Now I say it soberly, remembering my inability to attach alligator clips to wires, wires to batteries. We must be vigilant. Astute.
“Go to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Faneuil Hall or the Old North Church in Boston, the Old Senate Chamber at the State House in Annapolis . . . Whenever one visits a reconstructed colonial American setting . . . one is forcibly reminded of the tentativeness and fragility of the entire American undertaking,” wrote historian Wilfred M. McClay last year in Thinking Minnesota.
And so, be it in Philadelphia or Boston, Annapolis or anywhere else, we must remember. That our country, no sturdier than any other, and younger than most, is not constant. That the government we brandish and impose at will is no stronger than a circuit board, only sporadically illuminated, which we must handle with steady hands.
In the unlikely Revolutionary success from which we have sprung, it is legend that colonists and to-be Americans were ready at a minute’s notice to fight in democracy’s defense. Now, a mere two hundred years later, the threat to our equitable institution is different, but no less real. With the fettering of the press as one of the earmarks of a budding dictatorship, it would serve us well, like those who illuminated the steeple of the North Church, to work our utmost with the wires, the alligator clips, to keep on the bulbs. With this call to caution we, the citizens, the colonists after the colonists, must act.
Responsible, capable, and prepared, we can do no less.