"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Thursday, March 30, 2006
Building a Culture of Freedom
By Jeff Milchen

At a July 4 event last year, I picked up a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution imprinted with the slogan "Revolution bought us our freedom, but the Constitution let us keep it." At first it seemed like a nice patriotic sentiment, but recent events have awakened me to recognize it as a dangerous falsehood. For without our awareness and vigilant defense of freedoms, the Constitution is no more than discolored paper.

Many citizens have expressed dismay over Americans' failure to counter assaults on our Bill of Rights by John Ashcroft and the Bush administration, but they shouldn't be surprised. Our freedoms have been under bi-partisan encroachment for years with little citizen resistance.

It's easy to blame our recent compliance on reaction to September 11 or sparse media coverage of government critics. Both play a role, but the ease with which Americans have ceded liberty in the name of safety represents a more deeply-rooted problem - a national ignorance of our own history. Perhaps we do not aggressively defend our own Constitutional rights because we don't appreciate their origin and importance.
Supporting this theory is an annual poll that gauges citizen knowledge and attitudes toward the First Amendment, commissioned by Vanderbilt University's Freedom Forum. In 2001, 29 percent of respondents agreed strongly with the statement "The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees" while another 10 percent simply agreed, suggesting that almost four in 10 people believe we enjoy too much freedom of expression. That number rose dramatically from previous years.

But this is just a passing reaction to September 11; we're still freedom-loving people at heart, right? Sorry, the poll was taken in April, 2001.

Chillingly, the poll also found 23 percent of respondents disagreed that "newspapers should be able to publish freely without government approval of a story" and only 57 percent agreed strongly that "newspapers should be allowed to criticize public officials."

Given this, how can we who value civil rights counter attacks on our hard-won freedoms?

There is no quick fix. We must rally to stop further encroachments, but we need also to sow seeds for future liberty by passing forgotten values on to our children. Disrespect for the Constitution by those in power is not a new phenomenon with the Bush administration, but a perpetual threat to guard against.

When President Clinton alarmingly stated in 1993 that "The United States can't be so fixed on our desire to preserve the rights of ordinary Americans," barely a murmur was heard in response. And majorities of both major parties supported the 1996 "Antiterrorism" act, which began erosions of civil liberties accelerated by the Bush administration.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy warns that "The Constitution needs renewal and understanding each generation, or it's not going to last." Key to such understanding is recognizing that early Americans were reluctant to establish a central government powerful enough to suppress freedom. Many fled England to flee precisely that power. The Constitution was ratified only because Congress promised to add guarantees of liberty-the Bill of Rights-in a permanent contract between citizens and their government.

Yet today we permit these rights to be treated as privileges that Congress or White House officials may choose to ignore or revoke. Our founders would be apoplectic to witness our Attorney General-the man who lost his Senate seat to a dead man in 2000--contemptuously accuse civil rights defenders of aiding terrorists. Yet no Congressperson or major newspaper has called for his removal.

Mr. Ashcroft derided his critics as using "phantoms of lost liberty" while he unconstitutionally holds hundreds of people in prison without charges (the Bill of Rights makes no exceptions for non-citizens). If we let it happen to "them" without a fight, we will richly deserve the loss of our own freedom. Generations of Americans in the military and social justice movements have fought and died for rights we enjoy today, but our Constitution still is not self-enforcing.

We'll need more than those who deem themselves civil rights activists to build a critical mass of resistance to the internal encroachments on freedom, and we'll need to reach beyond comfortable, effortless actions like e-mails and petitions.
While addressing the current civil rights crisis, we must also rebuild a culture of freedom. We should strive to engage our young people in civics, facilitate their understanding beyond check-box memorization of historical facts and encourage a sense of patriotism that involves loyalty to our Constitutional principles, not blind obedience to power.

While truly dangerous laws like the "Patriot Act" already passed, we have reason for hope. Remember that serious attacks on liberties have succeeded many times in our past--notably during every major war. Yet each time our rights have been curtailed, we not only have struggled successfully to reclaim those rights, but furthered freedom.

We can and must do it again. But it will happen only from the grassroots up, not from the initiative of those in positions of federal power.

And while we organize to restore freedoms lost, let's strive to ensure that future generations will have no need to repeat our defensive struggle, but instead can progress further still toward a nation of liberty and justice for all.
posted by R J Noriega at 10:16 AM | Permalink |


  • At 8:34 PM, Anonymous Argus

    Interesting post. I particularly agree with your sentiment that people need a better understanding for the concepts that this country was founded on. To that end, I've created a pocket U.S. Constitution that I think is superior to any other available for two key reasons. 1) It truly is pocket-sized, being designed explicitly to be printable on the front and back of a single sheet of paper (Articles on one side, Amendments on the other). 2) It's free -- everyone should have one, so to charge for it would be counterproductive. I've spent time formatting and preparing it, and now I'm donating that time to whoever wants it.

    I always have three of these folded up in my wallet -- one for me, and two to give away. You'll be amazed how often you'll reach for it during conversations...

    "A republic, if you can keep it" - Ben Franklin



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