Where Are We Going?

Today, November 4, 2014, is election day. We are voting for senators and governors and representatives. We are voting on referenda and constitutional amendments. Woven into all that, we are voting for future policies on wealth distribution and education and health care and abortion and gay rights, and, deeper, on help for the poor and disabled and on improving the environment and on how we use our military might.
In all of that, though, we are doing something far more significant. We are, slowly and by the most circuitour of paths, moving ourselves in an overall direction. We are, almost subconsciously, expressing where it is that we want to go as a society, how it is that we want to shape our world for those who follow after. This is no product of any grand cabal, of any secret society consciously directing us in one direction or another. It is simply the play of various forces, pushing us in one direction or another, the combination of which ends up, almost against our will, in defining who we really are. It is the play of a variety of values taking us, regardless of any one individual intention or even of the announced intention of the vast majority, toward a set of characteristics that will define our society for history.
We think that, because we in the United States have defined ourselves as a democracy, we will ultimately be seen as that. There are two fairly significant problems with that assumption. First of all, remarkably few of us understand exactly what we mean by “democracy.” Do you, for instance, know precisely what the American ideal is, and where it is precisely expressed? In this writer’s experience as a lecturer and teacher, not many of us do. For the record, our form of democracy, which Plato decried as the worst form of government, is laid out in the Declaration of Independence. Be honest now: can you quote those words precisely? “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;…” If you were honest, you probably didn’t know that. If we are honest with ourselves, we will probably need to admit that we do not review these ideals in making our political decisions.
The second problem with the assumption is that, in a way, the structure of democracy carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. Jefferson is rumored to have said that the price of liberty is license, and in practical fact that is precisely the argument made by those who, oddly enough, want to curtail liberty. Those who successfuly argued to remove all caps on spending on elections argued for that precisely in the name of one of the most basic freedoms of our constitution, the freedom of speech. Having won, they exercised their new-found freedom to gain control of the government so that they could preserve, and presumably, increase their power in our society, not least of all by curtailing many of those same rights, such as the right to vote. In sum, liberty frees up even those who want to curtail liberty. This finds its parallel in the terrorists preying on freedom of movement in America to get on a plane and use it to attack us. The problem with liberty is that, unless it is defined always in reference ot Jefferson’s brilliant statment of our ideal, it can actually become a tool of its own destruction.
So, my great fear, on this election day before which more money has been spent than ever before and more invective and just plain mud has been slung and lies told as truth and hate and bigotry appealed to more than true concern for our fellow humans, my great fear is that we are moving, slowly, imperceptibly, to the acceptance of a national fascism, toward a de facto dictatorship. I feel a movement being driven, not by the recognition of human rights, but by the interplay of various powers all operating solely on self-interest. And, if what I fear is true, what we need now, more than any time in our history, is a revolution, a re-volt, that is, a return back to the ideals that formed the basis for our democracy in the first place. We need to recommit ourselves to an ideal, not of self-interest, but of commitment to the recognition of every human’s rights.
The price of liberty, as Jefferson defined it, is not license. The price of liberty is the sacrifice of self-interest in the constant effort to serve and protect the interests of every human being.
Will we do that? Will we pay that price? I hope we will. I fear we will not.

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