When America Isn't American
Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence
Do We Truly Desire to be Free?
"We're all living in Amerika
Amerika ist wunderbar
We're all living in Amerika
"Wenn getanzt wird will ich führen
auch wenn ihr euch alleine dreht
Lasst euch ein wenig kontrollieren
Ich zeige euch wie es richtig geht
Wir bilden einen lieben Reigen
Die Freiheit spielt auf allen Geigen
Musik kommt aus dem Weißen Haus
und vor Paris steht Micky Maus"
"We're all living in America
America is wonderful
We're all living in America
"When there's dancing I want to lead
even if you're whirling around alone
Let yourselves be controlled a little
I'll show you how it really goes
We're making a nice round dance
Freedom is playing on all violins
Music is coming out of the White House
and Mickey Mouse is standing in front of Paris")
America's Problem, and America as a Problem
If America has a problem, it isn't with her foundations, it's in the citizens entrusted with the maintenance and application of them. If America has a problem, it lies in people who would be more than happy to have an America that does not live up to the challenge that America, in fact, is - because America is an ideal, something never quite completely made or attained. She is a task to be performed by each generation, she is a hope and a calling, always existing a little in the future.
America is founded on some powerful and even frightening ideas, dangerous ideas. One of them is the idea of freedom. Probably, in all of history, our conviction that freedom is a great value and essential to human life is one of the strangest things a people have ever enshrined in law, culture, and ethics.
The Traditional View of Humans
Strange because unusual - most groups of people and their traditions historically existed to deny individual freedom, limit it, thwart it, deny it exists, define it as license, subordinate it to majority needs or the demands of an aristocracy, oligarchy, or tyranny. Many traditions are founded on the belief that humans, given freedom to choose, will choose wrongly and poorly and so must be guided or forced to make the right choices - in these traditions, most adult humans are not thought capable of using their minds well enough to discover and choose a decent form of life.
Of course, these beliefs rested on a skewed vision of humans that did not take into account that most of us are capable of learning how to reason well or that reason is capable of discovering ethical principles and applying them apart from the dogmatic claims of religions or governments or cultures. The picture of the human being painted by many traditions was based on the fact that the majority of humans were once uneducated, forced to be concerned with little more than daily survival, and were not exposed to anything that might be thought of as classical culture - the traditions and their institutions made an illogical, illegitimate jump from this factual description of the average human to the concept that humans in general were incapable of anything better.
People, in general, were not only seen as in need of leadership - and this notion seems very sensible - but they were in need of caretakers and outright masters, as if they were little more than overgrown mentally defective children. Governments and the organization of societies were once based on this tacit belief about humans... and in many places, this persists.
A New Idea
Yet, the Founders of America had a different vision of what humans were capable of and of what we need. It was a risky proposition, a gamble, a radical departure from historical precedent. It involved shifting the availability of the classical humanist ideal from a carefully selected social elite to the majority of people - eventually, the ideal would expand to include not just white men, but people of all races and both genders, people with a wide variety of beliefs, and presently we are in negotiation to recognize the ideal includes people of a variety of sexual orientations and inclinations.
Old Tom Jefferson wrote the words:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
from The Declaration of Independence
How bizarre an occurrence on the human stage this Declaration was, and all the events and documents that followed it that created The United States of America. This little paragraph contains world of assumptions and beliefs and hopes that we are still unraveling and arguing over - an argument I fear the better positions are losing to worse ones.
For most of us, these are dead words, archaic sounds that have as little to do with us as powdered wigs and embroidered coats and knee britches. How quaint these lines are and these terms - life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. They are nothing to be taken in an overly serious way - American Idol, our paychecks, and our mortgage has more impact on most of our lives than these notions. We rarely think about them even when making decisions that, indirectly, are responses to this single paragraph.
The Founders made a move that was more than simply "bold." It was akin to betting the farm on Black 13 in a game of roulette. Here is what they did: They recognized that, inasmuch as we are all humans, we are all equally human - we are all free as we all have the capacity to reason and choose moral values and take responsibility for our actions; we all have the right to live and the right to determine what to do with our lives without governments and self-appointed "authorities" ordering us about and detaining us and punishing us without just cause; we all have the capacity and need to discover what a good life looks like and how best to live it, to argue this out for ourselves and struggle with the choices with no one imposing a definition on us - we have the right to pursue happiness, though we run a strong risk of failing to discover it or take the actions that will bring it into being.
No more traditions using government to impose answers to any of these questions - the view of humans presented here is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, it is simply hopeful; it says that almost all human beings have a great capacity and a tremendous responsibility in this world, but that the exercise of this capacity and responsibility is largely voluntary and cannot be imposed or required by force and law from a government or authority. The assumption is that humans are capable of being improved and living lives of great worth and admiration - should they choose to do so. Governments exist to guarantee our capacities are not violated or stunted or unduly limited or destroyed outright by our neighbors, by the churches down the street, by governmental representatives, by the people who run businesses and influence power - by no one.
José Ortega y Gasset, Philosopher of Liberal Democracy
Ortega y Gasset's Great Work On Society, Government, and the Individual
Rammstein -- Great Music to Think By
The Trade-Off Between Majority Rule and the Rights of the Individual
In this is a trade-off: The Founders recognized the reality that we are all equally human and must be treated as humans, but they also recognized that no group of people, small or large, should be able to use government to silence others and disallow others from using their rights and explore what a good life might look like. American government and law was to serve all, not simply this group or that; the capacities of government to impose solutions and answers to all sorts of questions was limited, and the capacity of government to impose restrictions on unpopular segments of society was minor.
The American ideal was this: It was to be a place where the Roman Catholic and the Protestant, the Jew and Muslim, the Anglican and Orthodox, the pagan and the atheist and the agnostic, the intellectual and the common person would not only live with a bare tolerance for one another, it was to be a place that all would cooperate and govern themselves without attempting to impose their ideas on others by the misuse of laws. It was a place where we would all have the right to our ideas and opinions, a right to fashion our lives as best as we could, work out our existences and ask the weighty questions required to do so without fear one or another group or coalition of groups would get themselves elected and use the legislative, judicial, or executive branches to interfere with their freedom to live and pursue happiness.
Liberty and Discomfort
Yes, it would be a place we'd argue. Yes, it would be a place we'd be offended by others. Yes, oftentimes it'd be an uncomfortable place - but it would be a place of freedom... and those are the unavoidable consequences of liberty. It would not be paradise or perfection, because no human institution in this world is perfect or utopian, nor should we even aim at such historical monstrosities; but it would be possible, it would be practical, and with enough labor it would give us the opportunity to live as free people on the earth, together, for the small space we are allotted to be here.
It would be a place where we do not attempt to use war and the threat of violence as a tool to influence other nations - we would use negotiation and rational argumentation, we would use economic means of persuasion, and we would resign ourselves that the world is not something we can perfect with armies and death. We would not be the nation Rammstein laments in their song, the nation that uses force and threat to, ironically, impose a false "liberty" on others.
It would be a place where the police would keep the peace and restrain those who are irrational and use violence and lies against others - but not a place where the police are used to enforce "community standards" and peculiar interpretations of morality that cannot be backed up with both rational argumentation and a demonstration that enshrinement in law will further the cause of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all to whom the law applies.
It would be a place where safety is important, but not as important as liberty, which is inherently risky and dangerous. Our government would not spy on us or act against us even in a time of war because the Founders handed us a Constitution and Bill of Rights based on principles such as, "It is better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished." Our fundamental innocence is always to be presumed by government and is to limit it; there must be proof we are guilty of something prior to representatives of the government deciding to treat us as if we are potential criminals and threats to "safety."
A Philosopher Speaks On Liberal Democracy
The Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset had a very clear vision of the ideal I call "American" and desired a version of it for his own nation and for the continent of Europe, though he did not live to see this come to pass - yet it did, eventually. I feel compelled to quote him at length here, as I know of no better voice:
"The political doctrine which has represented the loftiest endeavour towards common life is liberal democracy. It carries to the extreme the determination to have consideration for one's neighbor and is the prototype for "indirect action." Liberalism is that principle of political rights, according to which public authority, in spite of being all-powerful, limits itself and attempts, even at its own expense, to leave room in the State over which it rules for those to live who neither think nor feel as it does, that is to say as do the stronger, the majority. Liberalism... is the supreme form of generosity; it is the right which the majority concedes to minorities and hence is the noblest cry that has ever resounded on this planet. It announces the determination to share existence with the enemy; more than that, with an enemy that is weak. It was incredible that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined, so anti-natural. So it is not to be wondered at that this same humanity should soon appear anxious to get rid of it. It is a discipline too difficult and complex to take firm root on earth." [pg. 76, The Revolt of the Masses]
America, founded as we are on the principles of classical liberalism, is always in danger of being undone or turned into something far more easy. America is a perpetual difficulty when she functions at her best and requires a great deal of labor, requires its leaders to exercise a great deal of restraint, and requires the public to listen to leaders who are disciplined and motivated by something better than power lust and money. Otherwise, we get leaders who are really not leaders at all, but panderers - they promise things to the people government ought not be doing in return for votes and the power to enshrine the will of the majority into law while trampling on the rights of the minority, whether that minority be intellectual, racial, sexual, gendered, or individual.
The de-Americanization of America
We have watched a process of de-Americanization unfold and accelerate for decades, but finally we're witnessing the attainment of a fever pitch with the past 8 years: Civil liberties were and are suppressed in the name of a false "safety"; the Supreme Court is packed with Justices who seem to know more about their churches' teachings about scripture than the legal precedents of The High Court and what the philosophers have shown about interpretation of legal documents.
We have a Congress that moves to make the Executive a de facto monarch (or doesn't oppose the trend adequately), that bails out huge private businesses with tax money while allowing the same businesses to remain in the hands of the irresponsible people who mismanaged them in the first place.
We have government agencies that are spying on American citizens with no real legal grounds for doing so. We are running concentration camps around the world and torturing people in the name of "liberty." We have invaded a country that posed no threat to us and started a war in the name of "peace."
America: More or Less?
We are left with an America that is less of an America than we were handed; and it is certainly an America that is far less than we could make it. But that's the odd thing about liberal democracy - government isn't "someone else" or "someone else's problem." It's ours, as citizens. The government is what it is because of our choices, not because vague historical forces caused it to become that way.
Either we are a risk-taking people, the kind that bet the farm on Black 13 in a game of roulette like the Founders, or we are cautious and fearful and greedy and try to make America a safe proposition, a lazy version of itself that requires no effort aside from following arbitrary rules, marching in single file, following The Leader, and acting just as the majority always dictates.
America was not founded by people who were very big on conformity. It won't last in the hands of people who are.
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