Thursday, July 4, 2013

Cling to this day...

Happy Independence Day!

One of the best quotes I've found regarding American Independence Day is this one, taken from a powerful speech by Frederick Douglass.  All Americans would do well, I believe, to become familiar with this speech and the story of the man who delivered it.  And now, the quote:

"I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.

From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day—cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight."
-Frederick Douglass

I fear that we have now reached the point at which many Americans, perhaps even most Americans, no longer cling to this day and its principles.  Years ago, a term was coined for a morality that has been separated from religion.  The term is "cut flower morality."  Some readers of this blog may disagree with the premise behind the term and I'm not planning on discussing that today.  Instead, I want to take the term and modify it for my own use, here.

I've spent time reading and commenting on some other blogs.  It amazes me to find people, especially Americans, who profess a disdain for the Enlightenment.  Presumably, they find the Scottish Enlightenment worthy of particular scorn.  What I find even more amazing are those who dismiss Enlightenment principals as valid or valuable, but who insist they love liberty.  Liberty, at least in the sense that it has long been experienced (albeit imperfectly) in this country, cannot be separated from Enlightenment principles.  What is not surprising is to learn that someone who denies the Enlightenment's positive influence on freedom is not all that supportive of liberty in general but is, instead, willing to dispense with one individual right after another in the interest of statism and social utility.

We still call America "the land of the free and the home of the brave."  Sadly, I believe that in many cases that is no longer as true as it once was.  The reason for that I want to lay at the feet of "cut flower freedom."  That is, a freedom that has had its ties to the basic principles, ideals and philosophies that made it possible, severed.  What we are left with is a freedom that looks pretty...for a while.  It provides the benefits of liberty...for a while and in ever lessening amounts.  But, with each successive assault, with every casual (or studied) disregard for its underlying principles, it dies a little more and bears increasingly little resemblance to the living and vibrant freedom that preceded it.  

So, too, with bravery.  Regardless of their failings (and being human, they had many) the Founding Fathers had a love of liberty that many people today simply do not share.  We can weasel about on the particulars, but history is clear, I believe, that they found freedom to be alluring enough to risk all they had and all they were in its pursuit.  They knew, beyond doubt, that they were traitors to the English Crown.  They knew of England's overwhelming power compared to theirs.  Yet they were convinced that their cause was just and because of that they were willing to risk all.  One does not stand and defy the world's greatest military power of the age for no good reason...or with impunity.  There was good reason to believe that one or more of them or their co-conspirators would pay for his defiance with his life.  And, still, they revolted.  Still, they insisted that freedom was that important and that the right of the individual to be free was of greater significance than any "right" of government.

We have, sadly, lost much of that.  Instead, we cling to the remnants of our liberty as if these tattered rags are the things for which so many have "stood in the gap."  We embrace the concept of group identity as the basis for liberty, leave individual freedom wanting for support and then are surprised when we see another erosion of our rights.  Where is the will to declare "no more?"  Where is the courage and the moral outrage to inform our servant, the government, and its agents that we will no longer surrender our rights, no longer accept another disregard for our liberty?  When will we tell our elected representatives that they have one chance, and only one chance, to do our will or we will send them packing?

As I've noted before, there are those who see this as proof of a need for armed rebellion.  Regular readers of this blog know I oppose such a thing and think little of those who promote it, for we are still far better off than the rest of the world and armed conflict is a terrible thing.  So, if you think I am promoting such a thing, you are wrong.  If you read this blog on anything approaching a regular basis and suggest I am promoting such a thing, allow me to suggest that you are, quite simply, a liar.  Instead, I suggest we simply do the easiest thing that can be done by a free people.  We hold our government, more specifically its agents, accountable.  If they won't do what we elected them to do, we fire them.  Further, we should teach every generation to do the same.  Many of them may be arrogant, they may think they are beyond reach, they may view themselves as a ruling elite, but I promise you, if we send enough of them home quickly and decisively the others will get the idea and fall in line.

Douglass would end his speech on a hopeful note.  I will do the same, for I can hardly presume to compare my circumstances and experiences with his.  The principles in both our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution are powerful and ennobling.  If we will re-embrace them I am convinced we can experience a rebirth of both individual liberty and individual responsibility.  The American Experiment will always be incomplete.  That's okay because it means we will always find ways to expand liberty and freedom if we will but look.

Now, if  you'll excuse me, I have to go read my kids a short document that begins "When in the course of human events..."

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