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Lee Wolverton

Lee Wolverton

Turning to history’s pages is a turnoff, as I have been so advised in relative terms by one among my detractors who takes time to share his own ostensible wisdom in response to mine. Remarkably, many of the same people belonging to this group tuck copies of the Constitution in their pockets as an apparent testament to their patriotism.

One wonders, or at least I do, what carriers of that framework and things more lethal make of John Adams, an architect of the Declaration of Independence and the rebellion that formed America. Many among this group are proponents of American exceptionalism, the concept that this country is inherently distinct from others, or, more to their point, that Americans, the right ones, anyway, are simply better than everyone else.

They could not reasonably dispute that, without the Founding Fathers, Adams a leading figure among them, there is no American exceptionalism for, without them, there is no America. This provides a basis for wandering back into damnable history to hear what arguably the best read and most learned among the founders had to say about preserving the American experiment.

Those turned off at this point might freely turn elsewhere. Glean enlightenment or bask in the lack of it from gazing at the blow-drieds on television, or try thumb-twiddling, both activities being intellectually equivalent.

As for those who remain, so said Adams: “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people” are “necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties ... ”

In another instance, he said: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people ...”

Freedom, alas, is not for fools. It is for an informed and knowledgeable people. Otherwise, chaos ensues, and liberty disintegrates.

“Remember,” Adams wrote to Virginia politician John Taylor, “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

This, he feared, would happen here. “[T]here is So much Rascallity, so much Venality and Corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition, such a Rage for Profit and Commerce among all Ranks and Degrees of Men even in America,” he wrote in January 1776, “that I sometimes doubt whether there is public Virtue enough to support a Republic.”

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He carried not the Constitution but these concerns to his grave.

Today, as a new year dawns nearly two centuries after Adams’ passing on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration’s signing, his words to Taylor read like a depiction of events unfolding.

Acquiring the wisdom and knowledge Adams recognized as the moorings of liberty is not a thing done reactively but actively, through contemplation of information diligently gathered not with the intent of affirming views predetermined but to learn, to gain an accurate and full understanding of individual matters at hand and the larger picture of the given moment.

It is serious work for people of serious mind. It also is the responsibility of each of us. American exceptionalism is a myth to the precise extent that we forsake knowledge in favor of reflex, reacting without processing information in hopes of gaining an objective understanding of it.

Engagement to the modern American mind, such as it is, refers generally to social media, a chasm framed by sides bellowing at one another. It has no reference to genuine civic engagement, an activity that begins not with declaring ideological loyalties but with learning, a constant and essential component of any truly free society.

Witness reactions a week ago on social media to the West Virginian of the Year selection by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which is owned by HD Media, publisher of The Herald-Dispatch. Posters on Facebook and Twitter were engaged there, but few read the accompanying content before responding. They mostly railed, rarely hailed and entirely missed the point.

We anticipated this would be the case, because it invariably is the case. People salivate to stimuli on social media the way Pavlov’s dogs did in anticipation of meat, only the mutts made more sense.

Reactions to this offering will be equally predictable. Those who’ve arrived at these words will be few, relative to those who stopped at the headline or shortly thereafter. For those of us who remain, history is not a turnoff but a source of knowledge and understanding, and, in the face of Adams’ laments, a mirror of the present. We shine it in the faces of those who turned aside, but we well know closed minds and closed eyes can’t see.

Lee Wolverton is the vice president of news and executive editor of HD Media. He can be reached at 304-348-4802 or lwolverton@hd

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