Meaning comes from moral responsibility. Moral responsibility comes from the demand by the Other upon me. The Other’s demand rests solely on that Other’s confrontation of me, her announcement, by her mere presence to me, that I am obliged to her. She brings that demand to me, thus making me responsible, and thus making me meaningful.

Politics, the management of the community, rests upon this responsibility. I am unconditionally obliged to each and every human being that presents herself to me. This is precisely the meaning of the American ideal stated in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that each is endowed by its creator with certain unalienable rights…” Our obligation to recognize the unalienable rights of each and every human being is self-evident, that is to say, established without doubt or question. To hold to that ideal is what it means to be an American.

Since I am confronted by more than one person, I have necessarily to husband my limited assets to most effectively serve the multiplicity of unconditional demands upon them by this community of people. In a community, this husbanding is the purpose of politics. Politics exist in service to the unalienable rights of the members of the human community
When politics forgets this purpose, when politics operates for itself rather than for the people, it necessarily becomes a tyranny, a rule of the community in complete disregard of the people it was invented to serve. It operates in secret, so as to deliberately ignore the needs of the people. It operates to limit, rather than protect and expand, the rights of the people.

These are the marks of political tyranny: secrecy, disregard of the voice of the people, and limitation of the people’s rights. Political tyranny would call for the restriction of the right to vote, restriction of access to education, medical care and the other elements vital to the protection and growth of the people’s rights.
This is precisely what we are seeing today in America as the result of a political climate ruled by power and wealth. The demand for voter i.d.’s clearly prevents vast numbers of people from voting, or at least makes it sufficiently difficult to assure that vast numbers of people will not vote. Anti-union laws make it difficult, and in some instances impossible, for working men and women to have the bargaining power necessary to achieve a living wage. Reductions in funding for education and medical care are a direct assault on the inherent right of the people to those necessities. Huge and thoroughly unnecessary tax breaks given almost entirely to the already wealthy assure a concentration of power in the hands of a few to the detriment of the vast majority of the community.

Politics, left to itself, does not moderate the quest for power. It must, and it will, finally assert absolute power over the entire community. That is the definition of tyranny. Sadly, throughout history, with only the rarest of exceptions, the response of that community has been violent revolution. Politics makes the unfortunate assumption that it will be always equal to that violence, and so responds to objections to its power with that violence. We have seen it in America over and over, from the trampling of Hooverville by the MacArthur-led military to such anti-union massacres as those of Ludlow, Lattimore, Butte and Hazelton.

When this suppression of the fundamental American ideal happens, as it is happening now, the sole question is whether it can be stopped before the people rise up to violently oppose it. It can be stopped peacefully, by the vote. That is why those who exercise this power politics restrict the vote and pack the courts with judges and justices willing to perpetuate the tyranny. The single great hope was best put in the aphorism attributed to Abraham Lincoln: you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

So we will get it right eventually. We will, eventually, return to service to the American ideal. My prayer is that we will be able to do so peacefully


The libeeral in me decries the hypocrisy of politicians who pass legislation to satisfy the biases of the radical right and then balk when the legislation is opposed by the corporate interests that provide the money to fill their campaign coffers. There is, however, a far deeper perversion here. To put it bluntly, freedom is being equated with license.
As I have pointed out before, the ideals of the American community are expressed in the Declaration of Independence: that all humans are created equal, and that every human has been endowed by her or his creator with cetain inalienable rights, among them the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As I have also said before, this is not a proclamation of individual lack of restraint. It is rather the commitment to an inexhaustible and unconditional obligation to recognize the inherent and inalienable rights of every other human being. It is inexhaustible because I owe it to every human on the planet. It is unconditional because it does not depend on the response of other humans to me. So others may wish to limit or even destroy my inherent rights, but that does not erase or curb in any way my obligation to them. The much misinterpreted Golden Rule does not read, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you so long as they do it unto you.” If it did, there would be much truth in the cynical reinterpretation of that rule that states, “Do unto others before they do it to you.”
The point here is that, before I am free, I am bound, obligated, responsible. I am not like some random wandering atom. I am connected, driven, intended, called out by the people who surround me. But is that not bondage? Is there any freedom here? If by “freedom” you mean license, you are not free. However, if by “freedom” you mean fulfilled, given a meaning, able to become a true human, then you are free in the deepest and most significant sense. You are free in the sense that education frees one from ignorance and good government frees one from social chaos and good business frees one from poverty.
To sum up, freedom, real freedom, meaningful freedom, has nothing to do with license, is diametrically opposed to license. License is a cage. A life grounded in license, in the refusal to recognize one’s obligation to others, is empty, meaningless. It renders its proponent alone, just another dry leaf blowing in the wind, just another unconnected atom taking its random and fleeting walk. Gandhi, locked in prison for making salt, was free. Mandela, imprisoned on an island for twenty-seven years for opposing apartheid, wsa free. King, in the Birmingham jail for opposing racial discrimination, was free.
If, whether in the name of personal prejudice or in the name of God himself, you deny your responsibility to others, you are denying the American ideal. More importantly, you are denying the very core of your own meaning. If I refuse to serve a person based on his race, even if I refuse in the very name of God, I have violated my own meaning. If I refuse any service offered to the public, based on age or gender or disability or sexual preference or national origin, or for any reason not recognizing that person’s inalienable rights, I have violated my own meaning, and I have insulted the American ideal.
We live in constant peril, perhaps greater today than in earlier times, of surrendering the American ideal in order to preserve some demented mutant veersion of what it is to be American. Jefferson said that the price of freedom is constant vigilance. Perhaps most of all, we need to be vigilant about ourselves.