The Obama farewell address: advice from another world?

Posted on May 16, 2017. Filed under: American history, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

At long last we wrap up the close reading of President Obama’s farewell address that we began on January 13! We, like most of the nation, have been waylaid and distracted many times since then by the almost daily, certainly weekly news bulletins from Washington alerting us to almost every conceivable type of crisis or question or misstep arising from the Trump administration.

Five months into that administration, we begin to wonder if it serves any purpose to follow all those bulletins. What good does listening to accounts of our Constitution being violated, our national commitment to making liberty and justice for all a reality being ridiculed and undermined, or our president acting like a king do? What action can we take? Do marches work in the long term? Petitions? Shouting matches at town hall meetings? Jokes on late-night talk shows?

One of those things does work, and it’s nice that it’s the town hall meetings. On this site that so often discusses the Puritans, creators of the American town hall  and town hall meeting, it’s good to be able to join with our last president in his optimistic view of the future by recommending a return to something the Puritans valued deeply: taking right action.

In this case, it’s political action. As those Americans who believe our system of government—that any system, almost any kind of government—is the problem and not the solution, a hindrance at best and a trap at worst, attempt to dismantle it, we have to step up to keep it alive. Participate in local government. Vote, attend town hall meetings, go to candidate information sessions, learn how your government is supposed to work. Keep track of your state government. Write or call the people you elect to get information on how they plan to vote on upcoming legislation. Vote. Get referenda or other popular, grass-roots legislative change engines running if you need to. Do the same for your federal government.

This can be exhausting. Many Puritan men who were full church members and thus entitled to vote and run for political office chose never to become freemen and do so. (Freeman was their term for a full [male] citizen.) They knew how much time it took. Going to meetings after work is tiring. People with families may struggle to do it. Taking time out of the weekend is challenging.

But we were never so desperately in need of our democracy as we are now. So answer the call to right action. Be represented in our representative democracy. Choose the optimism Obama sent as his final message, the message that says if we remain inside our government, if we are its engine, we keep it alive and we keep it honest. Don’t let those Americans who break the government and then say we should throw it out because it’s broken achieve that self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t wait for Democrats to retake the House and Senate; this is just an aggravation of the partisanship that’s killing us. We need to find ways to unite. Cross as many bridges as you can to create unity behind the real American identity, which is ever-expanding justice, liberty, and the common good.

We’ll finish with a quote from John Adams to motivate us:

There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.

Go unite our states.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

Positive change v. negative: closing Obama’s Farewell address

Posted on May 1, 2017. Filed under: American history, Puritans, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

On we go at last with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite our temptation to address the president’s poignant question “why was there a Civil War?”, since Yoni Appelbaum over at the The Atlantic does a fine job addressing that for us.

Our transcript source is now The New York Times, since the Trump Administration removing the transcript from its location at whitehouse.gov/farewell. Along with pages on LGBT rights, climate change, health care, and civil rights.

We left off with President Obama’s comments on attacks on the Enlightenment order that is the foundation of the American way, with him saying there had not been a successful attack by foreign terrorists in the United States in the last eight years.

And although Boston and Orlando and San Bernardino and Fort Hood remind us of how dangerous radicalization can be, our law enforcement agencies are more effective and vigilant than ever. We have taken out tens of thousands of terrorists, including Bin Laden.

The global coalition we’re leading against ISIL has taken out their leaders and taken away about half their territory. ISIL will be destroyed. And no one who threatens America will ever be safe.

And all who serve or have served — it has been the honor of my lifetime to be your commander-in-chief. And we all owe you a deep debt of gratitude.

But, protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when it gives into fear. So just as we as citizens must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.

And that’s why for the past eight years I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties.

—This section starts out as the usual tough-on-crime/terrorism/”threats” section that is in most 21st-century farewell addresses, but then morphs into an attempt by the president to say that military action is not the only patriotic action, and that military action without constitutional underpinnings is as dangerous as any crime/terrorism/threats. But this section falls strangely flat. The quick half-sentence “we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are” is vague and could be used to support more militarization. It’s not clearly stating that military action alone has no moral value; it is judged good or evil by the cause it supports. And the Obama administration did not leave a great legacy when it comes to prisoners at Guantanamo, stopping surveillance of the public, and protecting privacy.

That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans who are just as patriotic as we are.

That’s why we cannot withdraw from big global fights to expand democracy and human rights and women’s rights and LGBT rights.

No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that’s part of defending America. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.

So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight.

Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world — unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.

Which brings me to my final point — our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.

—Here things pick up as the president says that fighting for human rights is “part of defending America.” That’s true. So long as Americans are willing to recognize extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism within the U.S., and not always just in other nations, and to fight it as hard here at home as they do abroad, we are on solid ground. The scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law will shrink if the U.S. only enforces rule of law outside its own borders. That’s what it means to say that no one can defeat America but ourselves—if we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight against injustice in other nations, our credibility is dissolved along with our democracy.

All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.

When voting rates in America are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should be making it easier, not harder, to vote.

When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service. When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.

But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.

Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.

Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law, that’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.

—We heartily second all of the statements made here! When people lose faith in our political system, they stop participating, and begin to elect people they hope will either destroy that system as impossibly corrupt, or reform it through strong-man tactics—bypassing Congress via executive orders and/or pushing oppressive and unconstitutional laws through Congress. But we, the people, have to bring meaning to our government or it will cease to exist. That is the substance of Obama’s next section:

In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken… to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.”

Read Washington’s great address here.

And so we have to preserve this truth with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one.

America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service. So coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen, not just as misguided, but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others.

When we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt. And when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen.

—It’s this kind of optimism that is so desperately essential to democracy. If, over 275 years later we still have to work to improve our democracy, we can see that as a clear sign that it’s hopelessly flawed and we should give up, or we can see it as a clear sign that our democracy has been greatly improved over those 275 years, and can just keep getting better and better. You have to choose the latter—choose optimism—to keep democracy alive.

Citizen. So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.

If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.

If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.

Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir in goodness, that can be a risk. And there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been part of this one and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed. Mine sure has been.

—This is a call to energy and real life that more Americans need to answer.

Over the course of these eight years, I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates and our newest military officers. I have mourned with grieving families searching for answers, and found grace in a Charleston church. I’ve seen our scientists help a paralyzed man regain his sense of touch. I’ve seen Wounded Warriors who at points were given up for dead walk again.

I’ve seen our doctors and volunteers rebuild after earthquakes and stop pandemics in their tracks. I’ve seen the youngest of children remind us through their actions and through their generosity of our obligations to care for refugees or work for peace and, above all, to look out for each other. So that faith that I placed all those years ago, not far from here, in the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change, that faith has been rewarded in ways I could not have possibly imagined.

And I hope your faith has too. Some of you here tonight or watching at home, you were there with us in 2004 and 2008, 2012.

—This list of the good and bad moments ends with an emphasis on the good, and subtly reminds us of the historic step that was electing our first black president.

The rest of the speech is shout-out to the First Lady, the Obama daughters, vice-president Joe Biden, the White House staff, and the vast network of volunteers who worked on his campaigns. And then this:

And that’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.

Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace, you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.

—These are defiantly positive statements to make as Donald Trump prepared to take office. Obama wants to counter the idea that there will no longer be a place in the country for those who did not support Trump, and encourage them to continue to push for the positive change that is the work of improving our democracy by extending and strengthening it, even as proponents of the negative change that is the work of narrowing and destroying our democracy look forward to having the upper hand.

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.

I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.

I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:

Yes, we can.

Yes, we did.

Yes, we can.

Thank you. God bless you. And may God continue to bless the United States of America. Thank you.

Next time: thoughts on how to live Obama’s optimism.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

Trump, protest, and being “fair”

Posted on November 17, 2016. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

In the days since the election, we’ve heard a few consistent messages:

—We need to come together and support Trump because the peaceful transfer of power is crucial to our democracy;

—We need to put aside our differences and unite as a nation;

—We need to acknowledge the other side and not automatically assume that anyone across the political aisle is evil.

The real issue at the heart of these three messages is relativism: there is no absolute, objective truth, like “Trump is bad” or “Democrats are good”. We have to support Trump’s election because accepting him, relative to the chaos that the failure of a peaceful transfer of power would bring, is necessary.We have to give every argument a fair hearing. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

We’d like to challenge this relativism. One senses that many Americans would like to challenge it, feeling that there is something different about this situation, that rejecting Trump is not just petty party politics but a way to take a stand for justice. They are right.

What is our basis for saying this, our objective truth? Well, in this context, there is only one objective truth to turn to. We are Americans. We were educated so that we can understand how our government was framed, how it is supposed to work, and what its goals are—both literal, as in what tasks it is supposed to perform, and more figurative, as in what impact it is meant to have, what kind of nation and people it is meant to create.

Our federal government, as described in the Constitution, was created to balance power between three branches of government. Two of those branches are representative, in that we vote people into their offices. The judiciary is appointed by our representatives. The executive branch handles foreign policy and is the commander-in-chief of our armed forces. The legislatures creates laws. The judiciary reviews laws to be sure they are constitutional, and amends or invalidates laws that are not.

Our Constitution states that the goal of our nation is to offer liberty and justice to all, and to protect citizens’ right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It says that we can only protect those rights for all if we offer them to all (that took a few amendments, to extend those rights to non-whites and women, but it got done). It says, in the Bill of Rights, that we have immense personal liberty to worship as we please, speak and write as we please, and generally do as we please—so long as we do not infringe on someone else’s rights by doing that. It’s a balancing act in which our right to liberty is checked by other’s rights to liberty.

Fulfilling these terms has led our judiciary and Congress to pass laws guaranteeing equality of opportunity; laws that give every American as level a playing field for success as we can, through public education that is mixed and equal, through sexual harassment laws, anti-discrimination laws, and more.

These are the objective truths of American government, our Constitution, and our goals as a nation.

Therefore, these are the standards by which we must measure any U.S. citizen. We judge presidents by them, we judge members of Congress by them, we judge state and local officials by them. We judge news outlets and social organizations by them.

And so we must judge Trump by them. When he says he will punish women who have abortions, when he says natural-born American citizens whose parents are not from the U.S. are biased and unworthy to serve in public office, when he says he doesn’t know if the Ku Klux Klan is a hate group, when he says he engages in sexual assault, when he says he will get rid of governmental organizations like the EPA that keep our air and water safe because they hurt big business—in all these cases, he is violating our principles of government and the goals of the American nation.

When his supporters say, as we heard many say over the past weeks and months, that a vote for Trump is a vote for the “angry white man”, and for white supremacy, they are violating liberty and justice for all. When his supporters say Muslims should not be allowed to live in America, they violate the First Amendment.

And most of all, when his supporters say what they want most is for Trump to destroy the federal government, they are striking at the very heart of our nation.

So there is an objective reason for Americans to oppose Trump. He opposes America.

Peaceful transfer of power is important in a democracy—but we have to put the democracy first. We will peacefully transfer power to Trump, but we will not peacefully give him the power to destroy our democracy once he is in office. If all we preserve of our democracy is transfer of power, we don’t really have anything left.

We do not need to come together and support Trump. We need to come together to do what we can to oppose him when he violates our Constitution and our laws and our heritage, and support him when he does not.

We cannot put aside our differences with those who would destroy the American way of life as expressed in our Constitution and system of law. We have to try to get them to see the error of their ways, not say that their opinions are equally valid.

Anyone who wants to destroy this nation’s system of government  and commitment to liberty and justice for all is, in our opinion, either evil or extremely dangerous. They cannot be allowed to carry out their mission on the basis of “fairness”. This is not a question of which political party you belong to. It’s a question of whether you hold the American commitment to liberty and justice for all dear.

This is the only objective truth we can call upon when discussing politics, the only way that does not degenerate into relativism. It’s the yardstick we must use as we move forward.

 

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 6 so far )

Election Day 2016: Vote for your life

Posted on November 2, 2016. Filed under: Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

We remember the 1992 election, when Bill Clinton ran against the incumbent George Bush, Sr. The election had been full of candidates duking it out throughout the primaries, which is how it used to be in America (unlike today when the winners in Iowa and New Hampshire and the first few southern primaries generally go on to win and the party conventions are pro-forma). Ultra-conservative Pat Buchanan, who had been a senior advisor to Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, and Reagan’s head of White House communications, made a strong run based on urging Americans to turn away from ungodly Democratic social progressivism, and he had a special anti-gay focus. It was Buchanan who introduced the phrase “culture wars” to U.S. politics, claiming that gays and other sinners were trying to destroy wholesome white, Christian American culture. President Bush was losing support because the economy was not doing well, so his campaign took a page from Buchanan’s by deciding to focus on bashing Clinton’s character: he was a Vietnam draft-dodger, he had smoked marijuana, he had an affair.

Clinton went through it all promising Americans a better economy, and to bridge the gap between rich and poor. This promise of equity gave him a fairly solid lead until independent Ross Perot got back into the race (after dropping out for two months) and, in three-way debates between Perot, Bush, and Clinton, Perot eroded a surprising amount of Clinton’s support. As election day drew near, there was more uncertainty about who would win than had been expected over the summer when Clinton seemed sure to become president.

The week before election day 1992, one of the HP remembers a full-page ad that ran in the Village Voice, a New York newspaper well-known for its principled stand on gay rights. The headline was “Vote for Your Life”, and it urged gay voters to vote for Clinton, which would be a vote against the right-wing’s homophobic, racist agenda of the “culture wars”.

It was a very dramatic ad. You can imagine why we think of it today, the week before election day 2016. The culture wars have only intensified and become more high-stakes.

The backlash against equal rights for gay Americans is growing.

There are more Americans than we’d like to think—though clearly fewer than they would like us to believe—who want nothing more than to destroy our system of federal government and live under monarchic rule by one man.

White supremacists and white nationalists, always a feature of American political life, are coming more out of the woodwork to boldly claim they represent mainstream opinion, and endorse the man they think will destroy Washington and allow them to do whatever they want.The KKK openly endorses Trump, who refuses to say he renounces them (claiming he’s never heard of them and therefore can’t judge).

Evangelical Christians who helped destroy Gary Hart’s campaign in 1988 because he had an affair now support a man who boasts about sexually assaulting any woman he finds attractive, and trying to lure many women into sex while he and they were married, all because they believe Trump will stop the gays and Planned Parenthood and women’s libbers and whoever else is attacking traditional Christian marriage and family.

Principles and ideas have been overthrown in favor of blind party loyalty: the only principle for an outspoken segment of Republicans is to destroy the Democrats. Many prominent Republicans in federal government have dropped being “the party of opposition” to become agents of obstruction, committing treason by refusing to perform their duties as members of Congress (including vetting a Supreme Court nominee) until and unless they have the Republican president they want.

Prominent Republican leaders and average Americans alike have said how much they hate and disavow Trump—but they will still vote for him, because they simply cannot vote for a Democrat. When you actively choose to vote for someone whose principles are anathema to you, one of two things is happening: either you’re lying about how much you dislike their principles, or you are committing treason against your country by voting in someone you know will impair or destroy our government.

And while Trump promotes and enables people who hate immigrants, Muslims, blacks, gays, and anyone who isn’t them, there has been a constant refusal by other Americans to call them out on this desecration of our founding principles. We constantly hear people saying “Trump supporters aren’t bad people, they’re just angry.” Angry that they are poor when they should be rich, angry that black people want equal rights, angry that gay people want equal rights, angry that people from other countries (who aren’t their great-grandparents) come to America to live and work, angry that women can still (just barely) get abortions, angry that Democrats exist, angry that they think they are being marginalized.

We have to draw a line: if your anger leads you to support someone whose goal is to destroy our federal government, endorse institutional racism, stop immigration by “undesirables”, put women in their place, and rescind gay rights, you are not a good person. You forfeit that status by your actions. Good people don’t stand for those things.

Good people don’t abandon empathy, common good, and collaboration because they feel slighted.

Good people don’t demand white rights.

Good people don’t call for people in public office to be executed for their misjudgments.

Good people don’t insist that a black president must be a criminal imposter from Africa.

Good people don’t support a man who insists he never said things he is on camera saying.

Good people don’t impatiently dismiss the fact that their candidate claims to have sexually assaulted many women and that those women love it.

Good people don’t support a man who urges them to vote multiple times because “that’s what Democrats do”, then whips people into a frenzy about the threat of voter fraud.

Good people don’t support someone who says he will not accept the results of a federal election if he doesn’t win, and will support his followers if they rebel against the federal government.

If you can support someone who does and claims and demands those things, you are no longer good. We can’t have it both ways. Having a complaint does not mean you are justified in spouting hate speech and attempting to destroy our election process and our government. Having a complaint does not mean you are justified in blaming racial minorities and immigrants and Muslims and women and gays for your problems. Having a complaint does not mean you are justified in voting for someone you say you cannot and do not support personally.

Americans who still support our founding principles of liberty and justice for all cannot call those who don’t “good people.” We just can’t. We undermine our own opposition to hate and lynch-mob mentality and anti-democracy when we do. We make it seem like they are still supporting democracy when they are not.

So fight the good fight. Call people out when they are not good people. Stand by the definition of “good people” as people who promote the common good, respect other people’s rights, support our representative democracy, and believe candidates for president should be subject to the rule of law. Stand up for democracy and representative government. And next week, vote for your life.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

Make America great again–by supporting its federal government

Posted on March 2, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We’re re-running this post from a few years ago to counter the constant message of the Republican presidential campaigners and those of their supporters who get on TV and the radio saying that what makes America great is its people, not its government. Marco Rubio just made this statement a few days ago at a rally.

How the Founders would shudder to hear this. If the American people are great, it’s because of their government, which empowers and ennobles them, gives them national, political, and individual freedom, and relies on the people themselves to participate in the government, by voting and/or serving in public office.

When you have a government like that, you are free, even determined to offer free public education for all, to make sure everyone gets enough food, to sit on juries so your fellow Americans can get justice. Our representative democracy—still so very rare in the world, the first of its kind, and in the minority even in the 21st century—is what gives us our national character, our optimism, our passion for justice, our sense of fair play. We infuse our government with these good things.

When we decide the federal government is the root of all ills, that decision is usually led by  selfish people who don’t want to help their fellow Americans eat or get justice or live in decent housing; they are out for themselves and themselves alone. They call themselves libertarians or rugged individuals, and they claim that they are returning to original American values that made the country great.

These people are voted into office and there they pervert the federal and state governments into criminal systems that oppress the poor and non-white and female. It’s vicious circle: People who hate the government go into it to destroy and pervert it, and then the government actually becomes the root of all evils they said it was. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If America is no longer great, it’s because of these people saying they themselves will make it great again by destroying the government.

But we need to cling to our representative democracy, our principles of liberty and justice for all, taxation with representation that helps people get the things they need. We need to let it keep us generous and fair-minded. A woman on the radio this morning said she voted for Trump because “I just want a change. I want a change.”

Change in and of itself is not positive. You can’t just say I’m fed up and I will throw the baby out with the bathwater. You can’t say “change” when you mean “I want to get my own way all the time and not help anyone else.” You will get a change for the worse, and you might find that it’s a change you don’t end up liking.

Here’s the original post. We’re in it for the long haul to November and beyond.

 

We saw in the last post that Americans live in a unique situation: we enjoy all three types of basic freedom, national, political, and individual. Listing the nations that have offered all three freedoms to all of their citizens is a counting-on-one-hand proposition. Successfully providing and defending all three freedoms is what makes the United States great.

But it also presents some problems. Over the generations, Americans have veered between putting national freedom first and putting individual freedom first. We’re sometimes willing to give up individual freedom to be safe from attack, and sometimes unwilling to perform our duties of national and political freedom in the name of individual freedom. When the U.S. faces attack or threats to its safety, many Americans want to put laws in place curtailing individual freedoms like freedom of speech, religion, and assembly in order to at once weed out troublemakers and create a more homogenous society. Conversely, when the federal government tries to put sweeping legislation into effect, such as government-paid health care or social security or gun control, many Americans loudly protest the move as an infringement of their individual rights.

Individual rights also lead many Americans to neglect their political freedom to participate in government by holding office and/or voting. The feeling that participation in our democracy  is unnecessary, an extra rather than a basic tenet of American citizenship, is pervasive. Resentment of “big government” leads many people not to want to participate in government at all, as if they would be supporting an invasive federal government by voting or running for office, although the way to change the nature of government is to join it or vote in those you wish to have representing your views. The belief that our government is an impediment to individual freedom is sadly prevalent.

Holding all three freedoms in equal esteem is difficult. Many Americans have come to see our individual freedoms as the wellspring from which national freedom is born, and thus individual freedoms are the most important. But these individual freedoms come from our government, from the Constitution, and last only as long as we have our national freedom. Without national freedom, there is no individual freedom, and national freedom only lasts as long as we have political freedom. Giving up our right to vote—for refusing or failing to vote is tantamount to giving up that right—is a dangerous step toward losing national and individual freedom. Once we stop demanding that our government really represent us, our democracy is crippled, and then the nation is open to outside threats. If individual freedoms are seen as separate from or at odds with national and political freedom, then we begin to prioritize our liberty to do whatever we want at the expense of national safety.

Individual freedom is really our freedom to live up to the founding principles of our nation. It’s our freedom to speak and worship and serve our country as we each see fit, and not really the freedom to be lazy and uninvolved and prioritizing our own choices over other people’s choices. It is the freedom to live together as one without having to be the same, not the freedom to push our own ways at the expense of everyone else’s.

Political freedom is our freedom to have a democracy, to be represented accurately in the federal government, and to preserve the individual freedoms we enjoy.

National freedom is the end result of the first two freedoms, because we who value our individual and political freedom will not allow our country to be destroyed by outside forces—or by those Americans who don’t believe in the full triad of freedoms.

Going forward, we’re seeking to bring our three freedoms into balance and remember that each is equally valuable, and each demands our equal time and effort to maintain.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Court decisions are not “democracy”?

Posted on November 13, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

We were listening to the news and heard someone being interviewed say that an issue in their state had been decided by the state Supreme Court, and therefore the issue “was solved by the courts, not by democracy”.

This idea that the judiciary, one of the three branches of our government as described by our Constitution, is somehow not part of our democratic system is a baffling one. We are forced to repost our original rebuttal of this idea, from 2008, here in the continuing effort to fight this misconception:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule–the basis of democracy–ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature–Congress–cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose. See Dispatches from the Culture Wars for an excellent post demonstrating this.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

Were Puritan laws harsh? A look at individual rights

Posted on August 15, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 2 of our series on Puritan law—specifically  the 1641 Body of Liberties created by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Last time we looked at the proto-democratic process by which these laws were created; here we focus on the first section of this body of 100 laws, which covers individual rights. We won’t look at each of the 17 laws in this section, for time’s sake, but pull out the laws that are most indicative of the nature or gist of the Body. If you’d like to read the whole Body of Liberties, and the codes of law that followed it and incorporated it, you can find it in libraries or for sale online under the title The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1660, with the supplements to 1672, containing also the Body of Liberties of 1641.

We should note here that “man” is used pretty consistently, except in the short section devoted to the liberties of women. That section, which we’ll cover later in this series, specifies a woman’s treatment by her husband, disallowing abuse and mandating that a wife be fairly treated in her husband’s will. Otherwise, it’s all about “men” in the Body. This does not mean that the laws that follow did not apply to women. It means two things: “man” was used to mean people; and some of the laws were about men only (such as the laws about military service). Women could be banished and fined just like men, so laws about those things applied equally to both sexes.

(All spelling has been modernized in the following excerpts.)

1. “No man’s life shall be taken away, no man’s honor or good name shall be stained, no man’s person shall be arrested, restrained, banished, dismembered, nor any ways punished, no man shall be deprived of his wife or children, no man’s goods or estate shall be taken away from him, nor any way indemnified under color of law or countenance of authority, unless it be by virtue or equity of some express law of the country warranting the same, established by a General Court and sufficiently published, or in the case of the defect of a law in any particular case by the word of God. And in capital cases, or in cases concerning dismembering or banishment, according to that word to be judged by the General Court.”

—This is the heart of the Body of Liberties; as discussed in part 1 of this series, the whole purpose of creating the Body was to have a set of laws to go by. No one is going to be sentenced to anything unless he has broken an actual law that has been made publicly known. Judgments will not be made according to some magistrate’s whim or personal feelings. People will know what the law is, and what the penalties are for breaking laws. The last part, regarding “the defect of a law in any particular case”, means that if there is some problem for which no law has been written as yet, the magistrates will turn to the Bible for guidance; however, if someone does something that seems to call for capital punishment in the Bible, the General Court will step in and “that word [of God] will be judged”. Here we see that when push comes to shove, human reason ranks above the word of God for the Puritans.

2. “Every person within this Jurisdiction, whether inhabitant or foreigner, shall enjoy the same justice and law that is general for the plantation [the colony], which we constitute and execute one towards another without particularity or delay.”

—One law for all, no one above the law, and an early expression of the idea that justice delayed is justice deferred.

…12. “Every man whether inhabitant or foreigner, free or not free, shall have liberty to come to any public court, council, or town meeting, and either by speech or writing to move any lawful, seasonable, and material question, or to present any necessary motion, complaint, petition, bill, or information, whereof that meeting has proper cognizance, so it be done in convenient time, due order, and respective manner.”

—The law is open to all, no matter their status, and all men have the right to attend public meetings and participate in them, so long as their participation is respectful and the ideas or complaints they have are relevant to the body they’re addressing—that is, if you are in town meeting, you bring up town business and not colony-level business, and vice-versa.

14. “Any conveyance or alienation of land or other estate whatsoever, made by any woman that is married, any child under age, idiot or distracted person, shall be good if it be passed and ratified by the consent of a General Court.”

—While it is distressing to see women, children, and “idiots” lumped together as one category, this law actually states that it is not only men who may buy and sell land or goods (“estate”), and that is crucially important in a colony where land is the chief source of wealth. A woman may do what she sees fit with land she is left by her husband. (Women can also make their own wills, as guaranteed in liberty 11.) Underage children may make decisions about land left to them. The clause on “idiot or distracted persons” likely refers to people who made out wills when they were of sound mind but did not die of sound mind; those wills and the decisions in them will be upheld. All this is contingent on the General Court looking the decisions over and confirming them, but looking through the records of the colony shows that in most cases decisions made by this group were upheld.

We skipped laws in this section that prevent people from being fined for not responding to a court summons if they are incapable of getting to court, outlaw mandatory military service, ensure that no one can be forced to work on a government project, ban estate taxes, keep the government from seizing goods, and give people the right to move out of the colony whenever they like. Basically section 1 limits the power of the colonial government and secures individual liberties, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yes, that line comes from a later document and another time, but we see here in section 1 of the Body of Liberties of Massachusetts early forerunners of those guarantees in our Declaration of Independence.

In section 2, we’ll look at Rights, Rules, and Liberties concerning Judicial Proceedings.

Next time: the longest section

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

What are the freedoms we have as Americans?

Posted on September 28, 2010. Filed under: American history, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Citizens of the United States have been proud of their freedom for many generations. It has become a shorthand—we are admired for our freedom, hated for our freedom, we need to preserve our freedom, fight for our freedom… the list goes on. But, inspired by Dr. Rufus Fears’ interesting lecture on the topic, we thought it would be helpful to provide a clear definition of our “freedom” in the U.S. We’ll start by referencing Dr. Fears’ categories of freedom, then provide our own analysis of how they play out in American society.

As Dr. Fears points out, there are basically three types of freedom: national, individual, and political.

National freedom is the independence of a political state—freedom from occupation or other foreign control.

Political freedom is the right of citizens of a political state to participate in government (through voting or acting as a representative) and to have a fair trial.

Individual freedom is the freedom to do and say what you will so long as you don’t hurt anyone—freedom of speech, assembly, religion, freedom to choose where you live or what job you do or don’t do, freedom to make money and spend it as you please.

Of all these freedoms, national is the oldest and perhaps the most widely accepted. It’s hard to find a country, city-state, or any other unified entity that has not placed self-preservation at the top of its priorities. Historically, it has been the only freedom that is universally honored; that is, while many states still do not grant full individual or political freedoms, it’s hard to find one that does not stand for national freedom. Only completely failed states like Somalia or Sudan cannot and do not provide national freedom to their citizens.

Political freedom is about as ancient as national freedom; just about every society has a “ruling class”, whether it is Iron Age priests, medieval lords, or modern representatives to Congress. Rulers—kings, presidents, etc.—have almost always had political bodies advising them, managing the government, and/or curtailing the ruler’s powers. Extending political freedom beyond the top 2% of the population to the lower 98% of the people—granting real democracy—has been rare in human history. The concept of a fair trial has changed over time, and been infrequently offered.

Individual freedom—the rights Americans are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights—is the least common type of freedom. Very few societies have been willing to let their citizens do whatever they want so long as no one is hurt. Individual freedom is a result of true representative democracy, which has been rare in human history and is still not the type of government offered by most nations of the world. The only way for a tiny minority—sometimes just one person in the form of the ruler—to control millions of other people is to strip them of their right to complain, to move away, to become rich, etc. They must remain completely under the control and at the mercy of the ruler/governing class, whose power is exercised by deciding what is legal and what is not and finding that most things are illegal.

So where do we stand in the United States when it comes to these three freedoms? We are in the unique position of enjoying all three of these freedoms, a situation that is almost unparalleled in human history. The Founders worked unbelievably hard to create a government that was strong enough to protect the state (national freedom), offer fair representation before the law and equal participation in the government (political freedom), and give its citizens complete personal liberty (individual freedom). The latter is especially important; in fact, we as Americans believe national and political freedom cannot really exist without individual freedom.

This is what makes the United States unique and admirable, but it does create some problems, which we’ll get into in the next post.

Next time: The problem with triple freedom

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 4 so far )

The Puritans and their ridiculous beliefs… in 1776

Posted on December 6, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, The Founders | Tags: , , , , |

I’m reading The Puritan Ordeal by Andrew Delbanco, and while the book is focused on the Puritan religious beliefs in the 17th century, one can’t help reading it as a treatise on American political beliefs in the 18th century.

–The Puritans “impute all faults and corruptions, wherewith the world aboundeth, unto the kind of ecclesiastical government established.” And in 1776, all faults and corruptions would be imputed to the kind of political government established.

–“[The Puritans] had a deep desire to believe in human moral capability. …Virtue, like a muscle or a limb, required continual strengthening through exercise.” Just as the Founders believed in the ability of humans to improve themselves and their condition, and believed fervently in the need for regular exercise of democratic virtue.

–“[Some contemporaries of the Puritans felt] they were fanatics who held out the fantastic promise of renovating human nature by effecting institutional change [within the church].” In 1776, it was institutional change in government that offered the ridiculous promise of utterly changing mankind.

In short, the Puritan conviction that the right religious practice could perfect the human soul, end poverty, curtail crime, alter human nature, and change the course of human history, putting it on a teleological path to utopian paradise on Earth, is almost indistinguishable from what the Founding generation believed the right form of government, in this case representative democracy, could do.

It is natural for us today to feel the Puritan reliance on religion was personal and uninformed, while we honor the Founders’ identical beliefs because the Founders transferred the process of perfecting humankind from religion to politics.

But Puritan religion was political, in the sense that the original New England Puritans developed their own social and political structures based on their religion. The small town, unified around one church, representing its people at regular intervals in town meeting, which was adopted across the nation over the course of centuries is the legacy of the Puritans. The New England Puritans also created a chief legislature in Boston (the General Court), to which towns elected representatives.

This social and political structure reflected the Puritan religious belief in the independence of the individual, and the right of people to associate and represent themselves freely, which had been denied them in England.

It is no great leap to see that these religious beliefs in New England morphed slowly into political ones. It’s a quick and easy step to go from Puritan fervor for a religion that upholds individual liberty and self-representation to Founding fervor for a form of government that does the same.

Everything that can be said slightingly about the Puritans’ wacky religious beliefs, then, can be said admiringly about the Founders’ inspiring political beliefs. You just become fully aware of how the lens of religion affects your opinion. Primed to dislike people who were religious fanatics, and who have gained a reputation for intolerance and violence, we find the Puritans’ beliefs that the religious practice they invented could change the very nature of humans to be ridiculous, typical of religious zealots. Primed to admire people who founded this nation and introduced representative democracy to the modern world, we find the Founders’ beliefs that the political system they invented could change the very nature of humans to be thrilling, and self-evident.

I have to believe that thousands of New Englanders living in the Founding period, who came from Puritan stock, inherited their ancestors’ passion for perfectablility, expressing it through politics rather than religion. As we know from our own experience, politics can be a powerful religion.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )

Nothing to fear but fearful politicians

Posted on May 20, 2008. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , |

I was watching a little of the PBS documentary on FDR last night and by chance I saw the part where they talked about his 1936 re-election campaign. In a speech Roosevelt took on what he called “big money,” the businesses that were not only keeping workers on starvation wages but, according to Roosevelt, trying to take over the government.

“No business which depends for existence by paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country,” he said; “big business and big money are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.

“I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match; I would like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.”

It is sadly difficult to think of a politician who would make that speech today. Politicians today seem much more timid, very frightened of angering anyone who has any power. Having the commitment to our founding principles to acknowledge and to welcome the hatred of those who want to alter–or simply ignore–our Constitution for their own profit is rare today.

Today, on the contrary, we are often told that big money/big business is critically important to the growth and maintenance of democracy, and must be allowed to do whatever it wants. FDR had an answer to that, too:

“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.”

FDR’s words are a reminder of how rarely you ever hear a major politician today 1) stating that the defense of our Constitution is her main priority; and 2) that s/he will cling to our founding principles no matter what opposition s/he faces; because 3) anyone who opposes our founding principles is no American, and therefore 4) those who oppose her/him can stuff it.

Actually, you will hear fringe nuts make these statements, but I’m talking about mainstream politicians.

Let’s remember FDR as our current presidential election campaigning goes on, and cast a vote for the person who comes closest to his courage and guts.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

« Previous Entries

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...