Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Two Common Themes of Williams's, Paine's, Stanton's, Du Bois's and Deloria's Activism: Governmental TOLERANCE; Criticism of Organized Religion

LAST TIME: Speaking Truth to Power (Williams, Paine, Stanton, Du Bois, Deloria)

In discussing Williams, Paine, Stanton, Du Bois and Deloria, Radicals in Their Own Time makes two important observations. First, each argued in essence that governmental tolerance for the autonomy of all citizens is a fundamental, mandatory feature of American democracy. Second, each believed that organized religion has been a major source of society’s ills (including American government’s regular intolerance of citizens’ autonomy), and all five endured serious negative repercussions for saying so.

Regarding the first, they believed government must tolerate the personal autonomy of all citizens on the reasoning that matters involving individual choice not affecting the rights of others are natural rights pre-dating government itself. Indeed, in this context Roger Williams believed the term “tolerance” is itself a misnomer, as it implies government has the authority in the first place to decide whether or not to recognize the right; whereas, the idea of pre-existing natural rights forecloses government interference - period.

Thomas Paine explained the concept in the 1792 Rights of Man: “Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others.” As for the role of society and government vis-à-vis those natural rights, Paine elaborated: “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.” “Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, not to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured.” In other words, government, which is merely a useful tool devised to protect every person’s pre-existing natural rights, simply lacks authority to curtail these rights. Government, one might say, is Liberty’s servant.

It makes perfect sense that tolerance of natural rights would be a critical governmental attribute in a country formally dedicated to “free[ing] the individual from the oppressive misuse of power, [and] from the tyranny of the state,” in the words of renowned historian Bernard Bailyn. “No idea is more fundamental,” historian Eric Foner adds, “to Americans' sense of themselves as individuals and as a nation than ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty.’”

NEXT TIME: Governmental TOLERANCE of Individual Autonomy as Core Principle of American Democracy (cont'd)