Recently a handsome young man stood, armed, next to Cliven Bundy, ready to use his gun to resist any law enforcement attempts to enforce the several judgments against Mr. Bundy for his refusal to pay the required fees for grqzing his cattle on federal property.  When interviewed about why he was doing this, the man said, “I am protecting our freedom.” 

     I am sure that man is a basically decent person, and I know better than to require such a man to be much acquainted with philosophical considerations.  But the man used a term, “freedom,” and if you use a word you generally intend it to have a meaning.  If you don’t tell me what you mean by a given word, I have to figure it out from the context.  When this man used the word “freedom”, he had a specific meaning in mind, and that meaning is fairly obvious.  It is also intrinsically inimical to the meaning of the word “freedom” as suggested by the Declaration of Independence.  The difference between the two meanings is a perfect illustration of what I see as the corruption of the American ideal that is taking place today.

     The enspiriting core of the American ideal is the recognition that every human being has certain rights, and that these rights are indisputable and inviolable.  That acknowledgement, that commitment to the intrinsic rights of all human beings, is by its nature the acceptance of my moral obligation to recognize the rights of every other human being .  We are free, under such an ideal, not because we have no obligations to anyone, but precisely because we have an obligation to everyone.  We are free because we are committed to a community in which each individual recognizes an obligation to each other individual, and, by committing myself to all those others, I receive in return the recognition of my own inalienable rights.  Freedom, therefore, is a product of obligation, of my responsibility for every other human being.  I am free precisely because I am obliged to all others.

     The American ideal of freedom is radically opposed to, is the polar contrary of, the notion that the individual is isolated and without obligation to anyone or anything.  That way of thinking, which is a cancer that has pervaded the entire history of Western culture, deserves a different name.  It is not freedom.  It is rather license.  It is what one could call an “atomic” worldview, in which each individual is a self-contained and impenetrable atom, claiming its space by the assertion of its own power.  In such a world there is no morality, no obligation to others, and the sole principle of relation to others is power.  And, saddest of all, in such a world there is no such thing as moral obligation, and, therefore, no such thing as meaning or value at all.

     That is what was so sad about watching those people gather around this sick, bigoted moral cipher, Cliven Bundy.  He was dragging them all down to his perverse level.  He was giving them only the illusion of meaning.  He was inviting them to a world in which it is, as a great man once said, just a war of each human against the other, and the life of a human being was nasty, poor, solitary, brutish and short.

     If that were only an isolated  incident, just some crazy white man in the desert, It would scarcely warrant comment.  What is frightening, because it is so indicative of the moral disease invading American thought and politics, is that people with the ear of the public actually endorsed this madness.  A prime example is Sean Hannity, who holds himself out as a prophet of the radical right.  He may, individually, be excused because he has rather consistently demonstrated a serious lack of intellect.  Someone, however, is allowing him to pour his bile out into the community.  Worse, the community is taking it in. 

     That, above all, is what scares me.  Not only is this paradoxically amoral notion of “freedom” being bruited about, but we are listening without recoiling in horror.  I fear, not the voice of such insanity, but the coming of the day when we will no longer recognize it as insanity.


     Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy are nothing more than the most recent Caucasian males who have been caught on tape making blatantly racist statements.  In doing so, they join a long, long list of prominent Caucasian males who have, in one form or another, revealed their adherence to the gargantuanly moronic belief that certain people are inferior to others based upon the amount of melanin in their skin.  You have to be so stupid to say that that the very statement is proof of its contrary:  anyone who thinks that skin color determines human character or intelligence is so brainlessly dumb that one might legitimately wonder whether lack of intelligence accompanies the lack of melanin rather than its presence.

This demonstration of idiocy is often matched and even surpassed by the comments that these racists-revealed make to explain themselves. “I am not a racist,” says Bundy, “I just think Negroes would be better off as slaves.” “I am not a racist,” says Sterling, “I just don’t want my girlfriend seen in public hanging around with the likes of Magic Johnson.” And who can ever forget the classic disclaimer issued by Mitt Romney, “My choice of words was unfortunate.” Right, Mitt. If only you could have announced your racism more eloquently.
But that does not end the list. The next worst guy on the list is you, hypocrite reader, my likeness, my brother. We who react with such righteous indignation to these private thoughts publicly revealed. Our sin is worse. We are the reason why racism survives. Why? Because we do not denounce it in those very private moments where it is so blatantly proclaimed. Racism cannot survive without an audience, without the confirmation of those to whom it is declared. You know what I mean. The racist joke at the country club. The sly comment at the appearance of a mixed couple. Or the endless veiled references, this or that neighborhood, this or that school, this or that economic class.
And don’t think you are off the hook because you are not Caucasian. Bigotry among African-Americans is every bit as much a fact of life as that among Caucasians. “If you’re black, get back. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re light you’re right.” Ever heard that? And how about “cracker” and “honky”? Are those terms of affection? Racism is a global event. There is nothing so hypocritical as the native of India who announces at one and the same time that the caste system is gone and that he or she is Brahmin. Hispanics ranking themselves and others by country of origin. Serbs hating Croats. Waloons hating Flemish. Northern Italians hating southern Italians.
Racism, or more properly bigotry of any kind, is omnipresent, so much so that it appears to be a part of the very fabric of human society. Even the Great Emancipator himself stated that he could never see the black race as equal to the white. Why? Why is bigotry so commonplace? Let me offer one possible reason. We humans need to feel that we have meaning, value, worth. You can do that in one of two ways. You can either prove your worth by some act or accomplishment, or you can announce that the people around you are somehow inferior to you. There is a comedian who tells of his alcoholism. It was so bad that one day he found himself in a hospital lying on a gurney with restraints on his arms and his legs. While he was lying there, another alcoholic was wheeled in, also on a gurney, also with arm and leg restraints, but also with a neck restraint. The comedian shouted at the other man, “Loser! I have options! I can move my head!”
That is the heart and soul of bigotry, and we all, all of us, Caucasian, African, Indian (east and west), Hispanic, whatever, we are all guilty of it. So, when we rage against Bundy and Sterling and Romney and the like, we are, if we are honest, raging in veiled embarrassment that we have seen racism in our own circles (and in our own hearts) and we have not condemned it there. We are, if we are to be honest about it, raging, not at the bigotry, but at its public appearance. It is not Bundy’s bigotry that is the problem. It is ours, and there is where the battle against bigotry must begin.
Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m a bigot.