Harry Neuwirth writes from Salem, Oregon.
"Civilizations die from suicide, not Murder" --Arnold Toynbee
Consider the difficulty of authoring a declaration of war that had, simultaneously, to inspire the allegiance of non-citizens of a non-nation on foreign shores. We are justifiably proud of our Declaration of Independence but perhaps do not appreciate the audacity of its vision, the difficulties inherent in its adoption, or the importance of preserving its objectives along with those of the Constitution.
The Declaration at the beginning claims for mankind "that they are endowed by their Creator with . . . Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." But it is clear that being endowed with these rights was never enough as history eloquently attests, revealing only anemic glimpses of liberty in the old world along with broad vistas of suppression and discomfort as the visible record of mankind's pursuit of happiness. That any joy appeared at all in the narrative of those lives is testimony to the intrinsic courage and joyousness of mankind. But the loose knit alliance of immigrants on the western shore of the Atlantic needed to embrace this insolent Declaration if they were to be freed of British monarchy to become fully "endowed."
When Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration he wasn't simply expressing the intent of the committee on which he served, nor even that of the second Continental Congress, but was creating a document that must rally his countrymen to rise up and "dissolve the political bands which have connected them" with Great Britain; a document that had to serve as an inspiring declaration asserting that "the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress. . . . publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States . . . are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown . . . "
A careful reading of the second paragraph of the Declaration reveals ambiguities, not the least of which is that it was not only declarative, but persuasive as well. It surely was no secret to the Jefferson's committee that these were not united colonies, but restive sovereignties whose citizens needed to be persuaded, quickly, to unify with their neighbors to legitimize the claims of the Declaration; that the claim of the committee to be functioning "by Authority of the good People of these Colonies" was at best specious; that it was intended to serve as an appeal to the colonists to grant that authority ex post facto; that these colonists occupied an intellectual continuum ranging from totally illiterate to that of the expatriate second sons of England who had inherited a name along with a broad education, carrying the aura of aristocracy with them to this new land; that many, perhaps most, citizens along this narrow stretch of Atlantic coast were loyal to the crown, heartfelt or out of fear of conspiring in treason against the most powerful nation on earth; that there would be no second chance to bring liberty to these virgin shores; that their appeal was to people who knew liberty only in the abstract.
The second paragraph of what was basically a martial declaration begins like a lullaby: "We hold these truths to be self-evident" before it addresses its intended purpose: Separating from England and establishing liberty in America, probably making it the most influential and inspired document of all time. Liberty! The most precious and efficient of all social commodities. We've enjoyed it since 1783, but in the face of ever more powerful constituencies striving for preferential treatment, an imperializing presidency, and a avaricious Congress, we must wonder if we can keep it. Indeed, when asked what the Constitutional Convention had accomplished, Benjamin Franklin replied, "A Republic, if you can keep it": If we can "secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
Generations of pilgrims, pioneers, early settlers persisted in the face of discomfort, poverty, and danger in pursuit of something new; in pursuit of something only dreamed of in "the old country"; in pursuit of liberty.
But what is liberty? What are its elements? Webster's dictionary dwells on the rights that conflate personal and communal liberty as well as dwells on its power to release us from various forms of restraint. Ignoring the shameful accommodation of slavery in our earliest years, our Constitution immunizes good behavior from restraint. But there is little glory in Webster's minimal view of liberty: A restricted view that sees no beauty in self-reliance; no virtue in courage and sacrifice. But is it not true that these last are the heart and the soul of liberty? That I am most free when I am fulfilling the functions of mind and body out of self-inspired hopes and efforts? Is it not equally true that personal responsibility is the practice of liberty? That a responsibility relinquished, however unwittingly, is a reduction in the capital stock of liberty -- my liberty as well as the corporate liberty of America?
Or shall we subscribe to the simple-minded view that liberty is the right to shout blasphemies at those with whom we disagree; to cast an emotional, vacuous vote at election time; to demand a generous wage with full benefits, whatever our talents. We tend -- many of us -- to think of liberty as the means of satisfying our animal desires with minimal effort.
Such selfish views of liberty are contrary to those proclaimed in our Founding documents. James Madison, our fourth president, felt that "Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power." President Madison made this observation long before people began to demand their rights; long before Congress and the courts turned their backs on the General Welfare provisions of the Constitution; long before 1913 when the nation endowed Congress with the power of taxing incomes, the mother's milk of political power. With a power to tax limited only by a responsible electorate, irresponsible "abuses of liberty" impelled a restructuring of America in deference to selfish demands. Constituent demands! Demands to transfer responsibility from one group to another with the intermediation of government. Liberty began to wither when entitlements were born in 1913.
Not only entitlements, but a massive government as well: Access to an enticing new world of bribery by benevolence. Elected federal officials now had the ability to "give things" to their constituents and benefactors: Tax exemptions, federal contracts, retirement benefits, disaster assistance, highways and bridges as they took our responsibilities upon themselves, the personal responsibility that had transformed thirteen vulnerable colonies in a wilderness into a great nation. The government of this great nation became mother/midwife to a massive, bureaucracy administering a bewildering array of intrusions into our lives and liberty, intrusions disguised as benefits -- as we looked on, demanding more and better.
This transformation of the American character has been taking place as we concentrate our efforts on work and leisure. But while responding to those fundamentals we've ignored our responsibilities, perhaps in the mistaken notion that liberty is self-fulfilling, guaranteed by the Constitution. We've become complacent about the incomparable blessings of freedom, becoming ever more passive practitioners of citizenship with each generation.
How did this come to pass? How could we lose focus in a world that provides innumerable examples of the misery and inefficiency of government?
We began to conceive of liberty not only as a birthright, but as an indivisible part of the American polity. As the nation evolved from agrarian, to manufacturing, to the complex, big government society of today, the intellectual demands made upon good citizenship became deeper, more sophisticated, more compelling. Perversely, the popular media, instead of reacting responsibly to that complexity, sought success in shallow, easily digested news. Worse, the blatant bias evident in the early days of the nation became more subtle but more pervasive as the complexity of civilization increased and print media revenues diminished.
Meanwhile the media claim to a right of institutional liberty under the rubric of "Freedom of the Press" grew louder and more strident. An invented artifact, "the media" could not lay claim to rights "endowed by their Creator," but found their privilege in the first of ten afterthoughts called the Bill of Rights. The authors, aware that the Constitution could well fail of adoption without the inclusion of a list of specific rights demanded by influential politicians of the day, appended a bill of ten rights to that document.
Probably in the hope that a free press might serve as a broad-ranging watchdog over the inevitable abusers of political and economic power, the authors included an item in the Bill of Rights that provided for a press with unabridged authority to secure and disseminate information. It hardly needs to be said that such an endowment was not established to enrich the press or to provide it with broad immunity from all laws of the land, but in the expectation that it would provide broad, deep, reliable news, and information as a vital prop of liberty; necessary information that citizens could not accumulate for themselves and that certainly would never be a service of government in a nation "of the people."
Of even greater importance, the editorial insight we welcome on opinion pages was surely never meant to be presented as news or, even more worrisome, to migrate into the curricula of our subsidized journalism schools where it would inevitably homogenize the American media. Recognizing the threat of media prejudice, we should not expect and cannot permit media forces to police themselves, a fox in our henhouse. Neither can we relinquish that responsibility to the overgrown fox of government. "We the people" must accept that burden through the power of the purse, patronizing only those media sources that meet an unprejudiced standard of newsworthiness judged by millions of people expressing their own knowledge and experience. Among the powerful tools of free enterprise is that of sending failures to the showers, and nowhere could that be more important than in the arena of policing entities who have put on the garb of an unabridged press.
That responsibility has become even greater in the 21st century in which media sources now include motion pictures, television, the internet, and whatever else may lurk over the technical horizon, media not within the ken of the authors but which have a power to influence the human mind far beyond that of print. Yet certain elements of their output fall under the First Amendment constraint of not "abridging the freedom . . . of the press." Are we then to assume that there are no restraints on them, no limiting force on the inevitable tendency on their part to refashion America and the world in their own moral and philosophical image?
Again, "We the people" are the restraining element. We are that limiting force -- or should be. The Tenth Amendment speaks loudly to "The powers not delegated . . . are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." What was true in 1791 is equally true today.
In his 1958 valedictory comments to the Radio, Television, and News Directors' Association, the highly respected CBS commentator, Edward R. Murrow, reacting to emerging trends in TV, lamented that:
. . . history will take its revenge . . . if this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse, and insulate . . . [though it] can teach, illuminate, and . . . even inspire.
Fifty years later history is taking that revenge, his prediction having come true, with titillation added to his list of distractions. Americans who depend upon TV for their information on world news, domestic politics, and economic conditions are consistently misinformed and under-informed by programs and personalities who "entertain, amuse, and insulate," but do not "teach, illuminate [or] inspire," and do not deserve our trust or our patronage. We are already sending some of them to the showers.
How could a well-educated citizenry risk its inestimable liberty by self-inflicted means? Could it be because we obligingly spend our youth in public schools at no apparent cost to ourselves, schools that are redefining America in their own image? We spend our youth in the educational embrace of government-trained, government-employed, government-tenured teachers who in turn remit generously (if reluctantly) of their taxpayer-provided dollars to self-serving unions that exist exclusively to promote their own professional status. Today's public schools are beyond reach in their legal citadel, though a thorough search of our Founding documents reveals not a word about "schools," "learning," "teaching," or any other word signifying education other than to "encourage" it -- in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
The public school system that has been the target of severe disapproval for decades is protected by a rising wall of laws and policy barriers, each purporting to rectify yesterdays shortcomings. Yet, though it is hard to imagine any aspect of life more important to liberty than that of choosing the means of educating our children, choice is foreclosed to us by laws put into effect by the most powerful lobby in the nation: of the teacher, for the teacher, by the teacher.
We are a nation of laws, and public education is defended by a justice system doing its duty. But the justice system has not always been the friend of justice -- nor of liberty. In addition to its inherent prejudices, the legal system has long been a toy of presidents and congresses in their game of politicizing the supreme and inferior courts, pushing legal doctrine off of its constitutional foundations toward law by national consensus propelled by powerful special interests groups which include teachers' unions of great skill and power.
Throughout history there has been a tendency in mankind to surrender to the accumulating power of arrogant men who gather other power seekers around them to fortify their success. We used to call them kings, and reserved warm spots for them in history. Liberty on the other hand has found little place in history. Yet liberty should have a prominent place in history because of its rarity.
Establishing America was little short of miraculous. Life in the colonies was hard; cruel! We are aware that many colonists surrendered, returning to the old country for lack of courage. But we are the heirs of courage. America was established by inspired men of exceptional integrity, intelligence, and courage who were intimately familiar with the under-life of the old country. It cannot be said too often or too forcefully: Liberty is rare because it is difficult to establish. It is even more difficult to sustain! You will recall Ben Franklin's comment: "A Republic, if you can keep it." It is difficult to "keep" because of the access of free men to ever greater comfort and convenience provided by others whose growing power lies in responding to requests for comfort and convenience -- which then drains the requesters of the hunger for real liberty in the face of a false liberty of ease.
So even as we lose authority to choose our own method of financing retirement, providing for our own medical needs, the best venue for educating our children, even as billions of dollars financing purely local functions are diverted through Washington D. C. to be given back to us as largesse-at-a-price; even as the elected heirs to American greatness have the audacity to earmark vast sums to their own glory; even then many of us sense no diminution in our liberty. As has been said earlier, so long as we have the right to shout blasphemies at those with whom we disagree; to cast an emotional, vacuous vote, we feel we are pursuing lives of liberty. Freedom of worship, free speech, free assembly: these have become little more than bright lights on the road to a faintly disguised suzerainty where personal responsibility and self-reliance are being extinguished.
The past several decades have seen a profoundly negative change in the character of America as the result of a joint venture between us. Since government will never attempt to reverse the trend, it is up to us: To me and you. Through the power of the ballot box, we need to force those sitting in the state capitals of America to restore original intent and thus to restore our nation to greatness. It will require millions of motivated voters over many election cycles to do it. *
"If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that, too." --W. Somerset Maugham