Friday, October 22, 2010

Best of Times and Worst of Times for Liberty and Equal Justice in America

As discussed last time, it is the best of times and worst of times for freedom in America.     
On one hand, America’s story is remarkable:  a Nation, sprouting from the seeds of Enlightenment principles where “tolerance was a moral virtue, even a duty; no longer merely the prerogative of calculating monarchs, but a fundamental element of the ‘rights of man.’”  For the first time in history a people - coming together toward the common goal of liberty and equal justice, and clearly cognizant of human nature’s split personality between good (freedom) and evil (tyranny and oppression) - created a government explicitly designed to resolve the tension in favor of freedom.
            That is the myth, anyway.  But all is not well in the land of milk and honey; for America’s constitutional structure has failed to thwart government’s moves to the darker side:  its shameful history of slavery and apartheid; its past oppression of women; its systematic subjugation of Native Americans in violation of sacred treaty promises; its pervasive discrimination against immigrants and homosexuals; and, among other more recent repressions, its curtailments of civil liberties and inexcusable use of torture in the ill-considered “war on terror.”  Consider also American geopolitics of the last hundred years:  World War I Censorship (Congress’s and President Wilson’s 1917-1918 Espionage and Alien Acts imposing egregious punishments on political speech); World War II Nativism (the President’s authorizing the military to force 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them American citizens, from their homes and to quarantine them in internment camps for nearly three years; Cold War McCarthyism (powerful committees of both the United States Senate and House of Representatives conducting modern-day witch-hunts of thousands of American citizens accused of having communist sympathies); and Millennial Cheneyism (the executive branch aggressively exceeding long-accepted constitutional limits on its power - even while operating in a system that separates powers in order to provide checks and balances on each co-equal branch). 
In each case, prejudice, greed, and political expediency took hold before being beaten back – for the time being.  It is a constant struggle.  As much as America has accomplished in advancing humankind’s perpetual quest for greater Freedom, it has never completely lived up to its own promise, for whatever reason – whether because of  bitter class wars (Howard Zinn), its economically-motivated Constitution (Charles Beard), or some combination of these or other factors.
                Which viewpoint more accurately describes the true America - the mythic common-interest pursuit-of-equal-liberty view; the grittier class-warfare explanation; the more cynical economic-interest rationale; or something else altogether?  The reality is that there are elements of accuracy in each.  And it is useful to keep them all in mind:  Lest we become swept-up in misty patriotic myth, we should recall America’s ignoble history of injustices and intolerance; or, conversely, lest we lose hope, we should remember that the myth and partial reality of America as beacon of freedom has for centuries truly inspired millions around the world.  In the end, the goals represented in the positive myth are worth fighting for, both idealistically and practically, for they advance our individual and collective humanity – and offer a model of ambition, idealism and hope for future generations. 
NEXT TIME:  Radicals - Speaking Truth to Power