Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Roger Williams - America's First Radical

LAST TIME: Americans Are Hungry to Believe Liberty and Equal Justice Will Ultimately Prevail

Roger Williams (1603-1683) is the first person profiled in Radicals in Their Own Time: Four Hundred Years of Struggle for Liberty and Equal Justice in America.

Williams moved from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 at age twenty-eight to escape religious persecution and was was expelled from the Colony just four years later in 1635 for his nonconforming views on religious freedom and separation of church and state. Yet with his views favoring unconditional broad tolerance of the views and practices of all (believers and non-believers alike) - “I plead for impartiality and equal freedom, peace and safety to other consciences and assemblies, unto which the people may as freely go, and this according to each conscience, whatever conscience this conscience be” - he set the template for governmental tolerance of religion in the New World in his new state of Rhode Island, which made the guarantee of religious liberty a part of its fundamental law.

Williams 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, 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.

When it came to matters of religious orthodoxy, Williams like the other four radicals profiled in the book (Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois, Vine Deloria Jr.) deeply objected to he elaborate superstitions and practices that arose around Christ’s teachings in the many centuries following his death, which variously punished, stigmatized, marginalized or victimized certain individuals or groups. He railed against the hypocrisy of religious wars: “The blood of so many hundred thousand souls of Protestants and Papists, spilt in the Wars of present and former Ages, for their respective Consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace.”

In the end, for having “broached and divulged [such] diverse new and dangerous opinions against the authority of magistrates,” Williams was banished to the wilderness, where he founded his Rhode Island community dedicated to freedom of religion.

NEXT TIME:  Roger Williams in England

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Americans Are Hungry to Believe Liberty and Equal Justice Will Ultimately Prevail

LAST TIME: America's Love of Fictional "Everyman" Underdogs

With its ringing assertion that certain unalienable natural rights (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) exist beyond the reach of any manmade government - and, more radically, that the people have the right to abolish any government not observing those rights - the Declaration of Independence was a bold statement to the world. As Thomas Jefferson wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence just days before his death, “May [the Declaration] be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government.”

It was Americans' ancestors who then crafted a Constitution establishing a governmental structure guaranteeing liberty and equal justice, thereby making America the first nation in the history of the world to break the bonds of feudalism. While the promises of the Declaration and Constitution have fallen far short in the execution, the mandate for a constitutionally-limited government dispensing equal justice is every American’s birthright. “It is the protection of the humblest individual against his own government; [his] bulwark against autocratic power, and against the impulses of an irresponsible majority,” Gaspar Bacon rhapsodized in 1928.

So, when Americans are presented with anecdotal reminders of liberty, individual autonomy and equal justice triumphing over a rigid shepherd, it stirs something familiar from deep within themselves: a welling pride, a visceral longing, a sheer hope, that someone - maybe even oneself or loved ones – will have the courage to claim the full promise of Freedom bequeathed by their forebears. Americans are hungry to believe liberty and equal justice will ultimately prevail. The fictional characters identified in the last post, Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz in 1939, the Great Debaters in 2007, and even Yertle the Turtle in 1959, speak to this hunger, and stand – as do their real-life counterparts Roger Williams, Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois and Vine Deloria - as timeless American heroes for courageously challenging a powerful, often unjust and intolerant Establishment - and winning in the end.

NEXT TIME:  Roger Williams

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

America's Love of Fictional "Everyman" Underdogs

LAST TIME:  Radicals Stood on Principle, Regardless of Consequences to Selves

Even while the American masses may be “disposed to suffer” death by a thousand cuts, as the Declaration of Independence suggests (see last post), at the same time the masses vicariously enjoy the exploits of the few who refuse to be intimidated. So, in any given holiday movie-going or summer reading season, it is possible to find fictional radical characters pushing back against overweening or unjust government. “Who are we to just lie there and do nothing?” asks fictionalized radical-James Farmer Jr., for example, in the 2007 movie The Great Debaters, during a debate about the morality of civil disobedience in response to Southern lynchings in the 1930s. “There is no Rule of Law in the Jim Crow South,” Farmer continues, “not when Negroes are denied housing, turned away from schools, and hospitals. And not when we are lynched. St. Augustine said, ‘An unjust law in no law at all,’ which means I have a right – even a duty – to resist, with violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I choose the latter.”

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the Wizard-government of Oz commands as he madly works the levers and wheels trying to maintain his grasp on power in one of the most popular movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz - while radical-Dorothy scolds him for his hubris and refuses to allow him to usurp her own autonomy or to mistreat her friends. Dorothy implicitly understands the Wizard is human, no better or worse than herself – and she demands the restoration of justice and tolerance to the Land of Oz.

Or, on the lighter side, Theodore (Dr. Seuss) Geisel’s radical-turtle Mack in Yertle the Turtle implicitly knows that King Yertle is not so special that he should be able to cruelly command all of the other turtles to stack themselves up merely so Yertle will have a better view from atop the stack - so he does something about it. Mack “did a plain little thing. He burped. And his burp shook the throne of the king! … And Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-sond, Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! In the Pond! And today the Great Yertle, that marvelous he, Is King of the Mud.” And best of all - “the turtles, of course … all the turtles are free. As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”

There is good reason Americans today are so inspired by underdog stories of courageous individuals who take on an unjust Establishment and prevail – it is in their blood. It was their ancestors, after all, who against heavy odds declared and won independence from the mighty British Empire on the audacious principle that government serves only as liberty’s servant; and that the people may abolish any government that fails to do so. As the Declaration of Independence declares:

"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed … with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of those Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles."

NEXT TIME:  Americans' Hunger to Believe Liberty and Equal Justice Will Ultimately Prevail