Monday, July 2, 2001

Week of 07/02/2001

America At 225
A Look At The State Of Freedoms Today
- by David Matthews 2

"This I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual." - John Steinbeck

On July 4th, 1776, a collection of men representing the thirteen American colonies began to sign a document that was written on a piece of hemp paper. This was not a decision that was made lightly. By signing this document, these men risked everything they owned, and everything they ever were. They would be forever branded by the government of the time of being traitors, insurrectionists, terrorists, and even some would say blasphemers. Indeed, many of the men who signed that document lost their possessions, their homes, their families, even their very lives.

It was a gamble that paid off. By signing that document, they sent a message to a tyrannical king and to the rest of the world of the proper role of government, and how they would no longer adhere to a government – or a leader of government – that behaves as that of King George III of Great Britain.

And thus, through the Declaration of Independence, the United States of America was born.

But it wasn’t enough to simply separate from a tyrannical government and name a new one. The will of Great Britain was eventually removed from American soil, but there was nothing to stop this collection of men – or their descendants – from being just like their former rulers. It wasn’t enough to simply say, "you’re free". You’re free? Free to do what?

So many of those men who signed the Declaration of Independence (or at least those still alive) went back and created the Constitution of the United States of America, formally establishing the role of the federal government. It established a series of checks and balances, so that one branch of government would not be allowed to usurp the authority of another. It established a method of electing leaders and representatives, including the formation of the Electoral College, which was unprecedented in human history. Many of those same men went back to their respective states and urged those state leaders and legislators to forge their own constitutions, or amended those constitutions already in place.

But still that was not enough. It was not enough to simply say what government could do. They also had to spell out what government could NOT do. Many of these founding fathers saw the risk of a government becoming just like that of Great Britain under the guise of "promoting the general welfare."

So the Constitution was amended with a series of limitations. They were referred to as the Bill of Rights, but it was for all intents and purposes the Ten Commandments of Government. Like the old Israelite laws inscribed in stone, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution spelled out what government was NOT allowed to do. Government was not allowed, for instance, to censor speech. They were not allowed to prohibit religion, nor were they allowed to promote one religion over another. They could not seize or search property without a warrant, and they could not compel an individual to testify against themselves.

And they used very simply language in spelling out what government could not do. The First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law" in regards to the freedom of religion, the separation of church and state, the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and the right of people to peacefully assemble. "No law." How complex is that? You can understand what "no law" means, right?

However, over 200 years later, we’re still debating what "no law" means. Some small towns and counties still want to promote one religion, and one religious belief, over others. A branch of the government called the Federal Communications Commission is starting a renewed effort to censor speech over broadcast mediums like radio and television. A federal park ranger banned a group of kids from singing the "Star Spangled Banner" inside a monument dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, because the ranger declared it was an "illegal assembly." Even the paper that the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were both written on would be considered illegal simply because it is a cousin to a drug the US Government has since prohibited.

So what the hell happened? How is it that simple words like "no law" need to be debated and interpreted and re-interpreted more times than Sanskrit?

Well let’s get brutally honest here… I don’t think our "founding fathers" really had a clue as to what they were signing on for in regards to freedom. I don’t think they fully grasped the notion.

Take free speech, for instance. I’m sure every founding father would have been all for the idea of an individual publicly saying "The king is a fink!" They would say you had the right to get on your soapbox and proudly proclaim that "the king is a fink" at every opportunity. You could even publish a newspaper with the banner reading "THE KING IS A FINK" and they would proudly go to war to defend your right to say that… even if they knew what a "fink" was. However, if you were to tell them "free speech" also means being able to sell a publication featuring naked people on it, or say things that would offend their sensibilities, or to call THEM a "fink", and I’m sure many of those "enlightened individuals" would’ve gone crawling back to King George as fast as a ship could take them across the Atlantic.

Keep in mind that many of these "founding fathers" who were quick to sign a document that said "all men are created equal" also had no qualms about owning slaves, and didn’t give it a second thought when they shoved the so-called "savages", the Native American Indians, off their land without any kind of meaningful compensation. They had no problem defending freedom as THEY would define "freedom", but if you tried to apply it to anything that offended THEIR sensibilities, they would say that "freedom" would only be applied "within a certain context."

Quite frankly, many people of that time could not handle what freedom really means. It just blows their mind. They could handle the idea, but the never really explored what that freedom meant. And one might dare say those individuals did not WANT to explore what freedom meant.

That’s why the ink was barely dry on the Bill of Rights when several states began to ban religious beliefs that they considered to be a threat to their "general welfare". That’s why the US Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which made certain political speech illegal, even though it was in direct violation of the First Amendment. They just could not understand what freedom means.

Even today there are many who still cannot understand what freedom in America is all about. The highest court in America, the US Supreme Court, has officially ruled that there are now TWO levels of free speech - an inner and outer periphery - and each get various levels of protection. Does that sound like it comes from a country that understands what "no law" means?

Of course, it doesn’t help when collectivist and socialist mentalities invade government, as it did in the previous century. The seductive lure of an ideal society full of "shiny happy people" came with a price that many people were willing to pay, as long as they weren’t the ones who had to personally foot the bill. Prohibition? Well, they allowed it as long as nobody went after THEIR hidden flask. The Drug War? Sure, they’ll give up their Fourth Amendment rights in the name of "safety and security", so long as nobody decided to search THEIR house, even IF they have nothing to hide. Promoting religion in schools? Sure, as long as it was THEIR religion and not some OTHER religion being promoted.

And once people are taken in by the seductive song of socialism, it is very hard to convince them to embrace freedom. Why should they want to be free, and be burdened with the responsibilities of that freedom, when GOVERNMENT can provide everything they will ever want or need?

Certainly that was not the kind of America our founding fathers wanted. And yet, that is precisely what we have today.

But it is not irreversible. We can turn away from socialism and start once again down the path towards freedom. The fact that we still crave SOME freedoms mean that there is still hope.

Someone once told me that the life-span of any free nation is 200 years, and that eventually all nations degrade into tyranny. Well, we’re coming close, but I don’t think we’re at that point of no return yet. We broke a few molds 225 years ago, and so far we’re pushing that 200 year life-span by a quarter of a century. We could also break this mold, but only if we have the strength to throw off the shackles of government and socialism and collectivism, and embrace the individual freedoms that our founding fathers accepted and risked all for, but could never fully envision.

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