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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

It’s A Free Country, Isn’t It?

“Clean up your room”, John Barker’s mother ordered.

“No, I won’t”, John replied.

“You won’t, eh.  And why not?”

“It’s a free country.”

John Barker could be forgiven for his misinterpretation of the concept of freedom.  Ms. Fincher, his fifth grade teacher, had erred when she went off-text and tried to answer the questions of curious students.  She referred to the Secondary School Teachers’ Guide to American History and recited the articles of the First Amendment – freedom of speech, assembly, religion, etc. – but was perplexed when Joanie Partridge asked, “Who says so?”.

Bill of Rights

Ms. Fincher had never been asked this question, and she had no idea how to reply. “Well, it says so in the Bill of Rights”, she replied, expecting Joanie to be satisfied.

“Well, who put it there/”, the persistent student continued.

“Thomas Jefferson”, replied Ms. Fincher, hoping it was not Alexander Hamilton or Benjamin Franklin.

“You mean he just thought it up?”

Joan Partridge had of course asked the question. Where did the Founding Fathers ever get the idea or the authority to enshrine these rights within the foundational documents of the Republic?  From God, of course.

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.

Poland was one of the many countries to be ceded independence from the Soviet Union after its demise in 1989, and during the next five years Polish legislators were drafting a new constitution and wished to follow the American example and create their own Bill of Rights.  The Right to Work, guaranteed under Communism, was never challenged.  Although many Soviet diktats were dismissed out of hand as repressive, retrograde, and antithetical to the principles of the nascent Polish democracy, the right to work was never challenged and lawmakers were quick to codify it in their early drafts.

Image result for image polish flag

I remember repeating Joanie Partridge’s simple fourth-grade question to my Polish colleagues advising  the new members of Parliament: “ Who says so?”.

“The State”, one replied. “It is up to the elected representatives of the Polish people to guarantee it.”

We argued for an hour about the right to work.  Did it mean that the State would guarantee everyone a job as the Communist regime did with disastrous consequences? Would not a universal employment system guaranteed by the State soon bankrupt the system?  More importantly, where, prior to the Soviet era, did this right ever exist; and was not the Western world always a capitalist system defined by supply and demand with no guarantees either for capital or labor?

An “inalienable” right, said our Founding Fathers, could never proceed from any temporal institution such as the State and must be conferred by the Creator.  A right once conferred could never be abrogated or removed.  It was at once divinely-inspired and innate within every human being.  At the heart of the matter was Free Will and the responsibility of acting in the spirit of Jesus Christ’s teachings.  God conferred inalienable rights to every man, said Jefferson, and its was the duty of the State to protect and defend them, no more.

Thomas Jefferson

This is why the American Constitution has been so durable and basically unchanged for over 200 years.  While countries around the world revise, amend, and radically rewrite their constitutions for political ends, ours has remained permanent and revered. If a constitution is no more than a compendium of duties and responsibilities of both State and citizens based on a prevailing political mood, it is no wonder that successive governments feel it is their obligation to alter it to suit their more appropriate political philosophy.

None of this made any sense to Ms. Fincher or most Americans.  We don’t question freedom any more than we question the sunrise; and yet, despite its ‘inalienability’, the concept has been distorted, manipulated, and used for purely political ends since the days of the Revolution.  In principle we are a nation of laws because, according to our social contract, the State as protector and guarantor of our rights must pass and enforce laws that discourage or prevent any violation of them. 

Yet the State has taken its charge far too seriously, and it is those very laws which now inhibit our freedom. Government has overreached, and freedom of choice – the fundamental principle behind all others, has become more and more limited. Every aspect of our lives is regulated. Economic and financial activity, education, transport, social community and preference, sexuality, and religion all come under State scrutiny and in the name of civil protection, more and more regulation is added to an already long list.

It is not a free country when your car, your house, your school, your church, and your work all fall under the authority of the State.  One may have the ‘freedom’ to choose among alternatives, but since they are all regulated and in one way or another determined by the State, the ‘freedom’ is fictive.

Laws to promote equality, while in principle important for assuring the extension of rights to all citizens, have also eroded personal freedoms. The legalization of gay marriage, favoring what many Christians consider a Biblical ‘abomination’, has infuriated many.  Instead of guaranteeing all legal rights through civil contract, the State has determined that only marriage will do.  The protection of gay and women’s rights – important and required by law – has become an Anschluss in universities, offices, and public institutions. A culture of victimhood has replaced true respect.  The fight between individuals and their enterprises constrained by law and the demands of newly-empowered sub-groups have created an atmosphere of divisiveness and hostility. Affirmative action, now finally in its death throes stepped on the freedoms of some to supposedly promote the freedoms of others.

Since 9/11 the State has been increasingly invasive of individual privacy.  In addition to universal regulation, government now must widen the net even further.  While one in principle has freedom of speech, one wrong word on the Internet can lead to investigation, detention, and arrest.

Image result for logo NSA

The State cannot be entirely blamed for the erosion of freedom in the United States. Politicians are satisfied more with the semblance of freedom than the principle itself. In an election season patriotism based on The Land of the Free is invoked on ever stump and town meeting.  Politicians know that most Americans will look no further than the Flag and the words of the Bill of Rights for confirmation of their freedom; and will vote for more and more restrictive legislation every chance they get.

Corporate interests cannot be exonerated either.  There is no doubt that money rules in capitalist America – always has and always will – and corporate power determines marketplace choice and legislative action.  The two-year electoral cycle of members of Congress all but assures appealing to corporate interests and repaying financial favors.

Image result for image logo monopoly

             Monopoly, www.loubrooks.com

We may be shareholders in corporate America and may vote for our representatives in Washington, but our individual choices have been compromised by a corporate-political system which militates against individual rights and true freedom.  The country has simply outgrown the core democratic principles of the New England town meeting where both individual interests and community welfare were debated and decided upon openly. “Live Free or Die”, the longstanding motto of New Hampshire has become no more than a meaningless slogan.

Image result for image live free or die

Capitalism itself has been one of the greatest inhibitors of freedom in the United States. People may in principle be free to follow their economic self-interest and move up the socio-economic scale, but every Walmart checker or waitress knows the system is stacked against her.

The American citizenry has done more than its share to collaborate in the progressive erosion of individual liberties. We love our cookies and cede intrusive surveillance to Amazon, Netflix, and the US Government.  We are happy that websites have become more personal and attentive.  Why spend the time going through endless film lists and bibliographies when Amazon’s intelligent programming and big data algorithms can simplify the task?

Image result for images logo amazon.com

I never thought that I would live in an America which increasingly resembles a Soviet gulag.  Never did I think I would have to worry about whether an innocent online search would alert the FBI; or whether an ethnic zinger – the stock in trade of the Borscht Belt in the 50s - would bring the long arm of the law, get me fired, or exiled from my professional community.

I show my identity papers before any transaction – travelling, booking, purchasing, or borrowing.  I must swear to my moral probity and impeccably clean personal record before even taking university classes.  It amounts to the most aggressive, pervasive, and intrusive personal frisking ever.

China has long said that political and civil freedoms mean little until the majority of the population is freed from hunger and want. A one-party state is necessary to assure the regularity, predictability, and authority the country needs to rapidly modernize.  The model, despite the China-bashing carping from American politicians, has worked. China’s economic miracle is a remarkable success story.

Image result for images shanghai by night

                  www.imagekb.com

Radical Islamists loudly proclaim that the State has no authority, and all deference must be paid to God.  A Muslim Caliphate ruled by religious leaders faithful first and foremost to the Koran is the ideal social organization.  Even moderate Muslims in Europe deny the authority of the State and demand sharia law.  Most Africans are ruled by despotic Dictators for Life and live in a country with no rights whatsoever.

The point is that there are no such things as ‘inalienable rights’, for even in the supposedly freest country in the world – the United States – freedom is little more than a vain promise.  Every citizen’s ‘freedom’ is limited by the State and by powerful commercial-political alliances.  Capitalism which does indeed allow people to go from rags to riches, also assures the almost permanent immobility of large proportions of the population.

Thomas Jefferson’s aspirational quote is well-known:

Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.

What Jefferson did not known – and could not have known – was that ‘the law’ would be transformed from a narrow institution of government into a universal legal-corporate-economic-social hydra. 

Christ in the Gospels echoes a similar sentiment.  Mosaic Law was not wrong, he said; but it has been twisted and replaced by meaningless sacrifice and ritual. He, like Jefferson, would be sorely disappointed at the almost total ignorance of the essence and meaning of law and justice.

GOD

American exceptionalism has been based on this fictive notion of freedom, and we have gone to war to promote it.  Politicians and the rest of us fail to look inward before we look outward; are condemned to repeat our mistakes because of our idealism and our ignorance.

Apparently, however, we are happy believing that we live in the best, the greatest, the most important, and freest nation in the world.  So be it.

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