Embracing change

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(HOST) The Fourth of July is just ahead, and commentator Allen Gilbert has been thinking about how the founders’ declaration of American independence institutionalized change.

(GILBERT) I’ve been thinking a lot about change: how it happens, and how we adapt to it.

At first “change” might not seem to have much to do with a holiday celebrating national continuity. But in fact we’re a country built on change. Declaring our independence was much more profound than breaking away from another country. We announced to the world a change in the very source of government’s power. Rights were no longer to be granted by a king or the king’s government. Rather, we said that people are born with rights. The people were to be the source of our government’s power.

Once the Revolution was won, the framers needed to agree on how the government would work. That’s what our Constitution, written a dozen years after the Declaration, does. “We the people” state what we want our government to be: the powers it will have, and the way it will function. To make sure that no part of the government develops too much power, the framers established a system of “checks and balances.” The system ensures a certain dynamism that can embrace change.

The framers also built into the Constitution a way for the country to grow – a way for new states to be created and added to the union of existing states. And steps were established to amend the Constitution. These were farsighted actions that would, over time, create vast new changes.

It’s little wonder, then, that America grew to be one of the most dynamic nations in history. That was the plan. But while we humans as a species are adaptable creatures, change is not always easy. In fact, we often resist change.

And that’s what I think we are grappling with in these early years of the 21st century – important changes that range from the speed of communications to the globalization of industry. Roles of men and women have shifted. Lifetime employment and company pensions are becoming a thing of the past. Global warming is real.

As is often true during times of stressful change, religion becomes a haven of comfort for some. Orthodox religions, which by their nature resist change, grow in strength. President Bush has tapped people’s anxiety about change and their desire for an immutable interpretation of who we are and how we came to be. Many consider Bush’s personal conversion to pietistic, evangelical Christianity as the single most important ingredient of his political success. His faith is seen as a guiding beacon. In recent polls, Bush supporters rarely point to specific political actions that he’s taken. Instead, they say that they’re attracted to his values.

But this appeal may wear thin as more Americans recognize the need for leadership that takes a more pragmatic approach to changes that are inexorable and cannot be turned aside.

So on this July 4th, I’m going to be thinking about the changes that the founders set in motion two hundred and thirty years ago. It’s their true legacy. And just as embracing change in 1776 was a challenge, it remains a challenge today.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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