Cousin Bill is “pro-life.” During a barbecue this past weekend, he argued that even the Declaration of Independence supports his view of abortion. Pointing out, to paraphrase Jefferson, that all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “That proves it,” said Bill, “even the founders believed in the right to life.”

I demurred to his interpretation of Jefferson’s phrasing to protect him from embarrassment in front of the family. But the fallacy of Bill’s logic runs deep and suggests he can’t think critically when it comes to putting an argument into context. This is disturbing, not just for Bill, but for our democracy. Our form of government depends on our ability to think critically: to look for premises, to consider inferences and to see relationships between cause and effect. Without these skills we cannot reason, nor reasonably participate in civic debate.

While many of us remember Jefferson’s beautifully written and attention-grabbing opening, the real purpose and content of his document comes later in his text. Read it closely and you will see that the Declaration of Independence announces, not surprisingly, the intention of the colonials to gain their independence from the king. Its central argument goes like this: The king is a tyrant whose actions go against our rights. He has promulgated a series of activities and laws unacceptable to us. (Jefferson lists twenty-seven.) Unless the king changes his behavior, or we have no self-respect, we are forming our own government.

Jefferson’s argument is clear. He conveys a simple message. And in keeping with this clarity, his document reads like a memo. I guess Bill didn’t get the memo. Nor did Jefferson write in support of abortion.

What else did Bill miss? Well, if we accept his logic, we must also accept that any use of the world “life” can be construed as a sign of support for anti-abortion ideals. Remember, for Bill, words come without context. So, how about Life Magazine? Their content celebrates the lives we live; therefore, it must stand against abortion. Life Cereal? The brand stands for healthy eating and by association the value of life. It too must be a sign against abortion. We can even co-opt the traditional Yiddish toast “L’Chaim,” which means “to life.” Who knew millions of people around the world were protesting abortion when clinking glasses before dinner with family or friends!

Without critical thinking we are left susceptible to believing whatever we are told. We become easily malleable fools, as defenseless from the false reasoning of Cousin Bill as that of the billionaire who wants us to buy him a new football stadium or the jeremiads of the U-T editorial page. It is only education that teaches us to think critically; to conduct an informed assessment of what to believe and why; to see through the spin. Critical thinking is essential if we are to maintain the democracy Jefferson and his friends helped birth in 1776.

Bob Stein lives in University City.

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