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Happy Fourth, Everyone! Enjoy the fireworks and picnics and parades, and celebrate our shared membership in this great nation of ours!

But let’s keep trying to become the nation we can be, rather than blindly patting ourselves on the back for being the nation we’ve always been. And after we’re done celebrating, let’s also be less smug and more circumspect about who and what we really are, and the room for improvement that really exists.

First, let’s recognize the many ways in which the folks who rebelled against Great Britain 237 years ago (238 would be a more accurate estimate of when they began to rebel with force) were not perfect and were not perfectly in the right. For one thing, they were the propertied class (allied by smugglers who resented Great Britain’s reassertion of the laws whose violation they had long benefited from) who wanted to protect their own property interests against not just claims by Great Britain, but also the claims by slaves, Native Americans and the unpropertied classes in America the interests of which Great Britain was arguably more sensitive to.

From our modern perspective, Great Britain was really more progressive on several issues: They wanted to respect indigenous rights more than the colonists did; they wanted to move toward abolishing slavery while the colonists didn’t; they wanted to respect the newly conquered Canadian’s right to speak their own language and adhere to their own religion while the colonists didn’t (because it divided the Canadians from them).

The Americans had long benefited from the imperial policy of “salutary neglect,” by which they were allowed to benefit from British protection and patronage but did not have to pay taxes in order to allow their economy to grow. It was when America became prosperous enough to contribute to the coffers of the society from which they benefited that the propertied class decided that that was somehow unjust, citing their own particular notion of “representation” as the justification (though “representation” is a far more complex subject than most people recognize).

The War of Independence was also a civil war, with the unpropertied class in the southern hinterland (mostly Scots Irish, the predecessors of Appalachian hillbillies) siding with the British against the propertied class leading the revolution. It was a bloody mess with many atrocities committed on both sides.

The Confederates in the American Civil War that began eighty years after the revolution ended saw their struggle as a continuation of the American Revolution, and they were in many ways correct. They continued to struggle against a more remote central government that was threatening to deny them of their slaves and to impose more unity on them than they desired. It’s an interesting tribute to the power of national mythology that almost no one is bothered by the fact that we assign the labels of “right” and “wrong” in opposite ways to two such similar instances in our history.

I don’t want to oversimplify, just offer a little bit of a corrective challenge to our conventional mythology. There were some legitimate grievances that the rebels were motivated by, and some real overreach by the British. The marginal moral superiority of the British on slavery and indigenous rights was in part due to their remoteness and less immediate interest in the matters of contention. And the outcome of the struggle, years later, culminating in our Constitution, was a truly impressive product with real value to the progress of human history and popular sovereignty. But we should not simply revel in our imaginary perfection; we should also always recognize the realities of our history and our present that are less laudable.

We are deeply saturated in a national mythology, with one large and influential faction considering any critical thought applied to our own self-examination to be anathema. No, that’s not the America I want for my children, or for the rest of humanity, so, yes, let’s keep working at becoming a truly enlightened and humane people.

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The title of this essay may seem naive or idealistic, particularly when written by someone who not only answers in the affirmative, but insists that it’s only a question of how contagious we choose to make them. Wisdom and compassion (or the various instances of them) have been viral throughout human history, as have been their opposites. Our challenge, as conscious beings participating in our history, has always been to facilitate the spread of those memes and “emes” (i.e., cognitions and emotions) in service to wisdom and compassion, and to curtail the spread of those that serve their opposites.

The real question is: Are we capable of altering the balance in a fundamentally transformative way? The confluence of memes and emes in fundamentally transformative ways isn’t some pie-in-the-sky notion, but rather a norm of human history. To take just modern European (and European off-shoot) history, we see a sequence of cumulative thresholds: The Renaissance, The Reformation, The Scientific Revolution, The Enlightenment, The Enlightenment-informed political revolutions, the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, followed by a flow of accelerating consequences of the Industrial Revolution (telegraph, electrification, telephone, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, plastics, cars, planes, nuclear energy and weapons, jet airliners), culminating in what may well eclipse the Industrial Revolution in hindsight (the Information Technology Revolution) and catalyze an even greater acceleration of change.

The most dramatic of these thresholds may appear to be technological, but many were social institutional as well: The Glorious Revolution in England, which put William III and Mary II on the thrown and tipped the scales toward a reversal of the principal-agent relationship between people and government (e.g., the invention of popular sovereignty); the U.S. Constitution, which inherited that political transformation, a body of Enlightenment thought, and an easily conquered new continental nation in which to more fully implement it; and the rise of “the administrative state” during and after The Great Depression.

Obviously, not all of these transformative developments were unambiguously positive: Industrial warfare wreaked horrendous destruction in WWI, which was eclipsed by WWII, which culminated in the only infliction of nuclear weapons on a human population. But equally obviously, they are not on the whole unambiguously negative: Popular sovereignty, the rule of law, an increasingly functional blend of a market economy with administrative oversight to harness that economy more in service to humanity, while all woefully imperfect and incomplete, are admirable achievements nonetheless.

There is also the crucial question of how do we as individuals best articulate our efforts with these grand historical processes and “revolutions,” given that most of them seem to be aggregations of more immediate and less ambitious efforts, rather than grand movements contemplated and executed in any intentionally organized way. “The Industrial Revolution,” for instance, was an accumulation of inventions, and even The American Revolution began as a war of secession in response to specific grievances, the crowning achievement, the U.S. Constitution, not even being a glimmer in the national eye until well after the war was over.

But all of these developments, dubbed “revolutions” in retrospect, were to some extent the result of underlying ideals and disciplines that gained favor and momentum through intentional human efforts and advocacy. The Renaissance involved a growing commitment to “humanism.” The Reformation was, to some extent, a reaction to the oppressive and exploitational Medieval Church, driven by religiously couched yearnings for increased liberty and justice. The Scientific Revolution was a growing commitment to a methodology which increased the robustness and reliability of the human exploration of nature (nor was it a bloodless development, with folks like Galileo enduring The Inquisition for having insisted that a scientific finding, that the Earth revolved around the sun rather than vice versa, was more accurate than the religious dogma it had challenged).

These historical developments and transformations do not occur independently of us, but rather because of us, because of the Thomas Paines who, only recently arrived in America, having failed miserably in all of his previous endeavors, wrote first “Common Sense,” basically starting the colonial conversation in earnest about whether those colonists should secede from the Empire of which they had until recently been proud subjects, and then the poem that gave hope and courage to the demoralized soldiers gathered at Valley Forge. They happen because people create and are inspired by new ideas, new possibilities, new nascent hope and belief that we are capable of something more than what we have yet accomplished.

We need to rally first to that realization, the realization that we can be conscious beings consciously participating in our own shared history, aspiring for more than the passage or defeat of this or that bill currently in Congress or the election of this or that candidate who seems to favor the ideology we prefer. Of course, these urgencies of the moment are anything but trivial, but they do not define the limits of what we can strive to achieve.

We need to divert a little of our passion, a little of our dedication, a little of our aspiration, to the deeper political struggle to promote the memes and emes which best serve our humanity, which lead ever more people to be ever more amenable to the disciplined products of imaginative reason and universal goodwill. I’ve offered my suggestion, in The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, about how we might go about doing so. In the second part of this essay (Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II), I make my appeal to all of you reading this how you can help me spread these particular memes and emes to as many others as possible.