Liberty is fundamental to how we the people view the United States. It has also become an advertising cliche, euphemism, an epithet to be sold, used, and hurled in support of ideological ends. The textbook definition of liberty is simple enough to understand:
a. The condition of being free from restriction or control. b. The right and power to act, believe, or express oneself in a manner of one’s own choosing
But how does that definition fit the American ideal? Free society is something of a paradox. To live together, large populations must give up something of themselves to the group. Philosophers have struggled with this reality for centuries, and the Founding Fathers of our nation struck as good a solution to the issue as any before or since. The Constitution, through the Bill of Rights and amendments that followed, defines areas of liberties that rise above the assumptions of basic rights.
Many of our political discussions and conflicts revolve around determinations of liberty. Does a law sacrifice too much freedom in the chase for whatever goal to which it aspires? The most common challenges over the past thirty years, have been left to guns and abortion. Abortion, as a concept, is really a debate about when life and citizenship begins. Guns are another matter. The 2nd Amendment is left curiously vague, the writers hoping that posterity would be the arbiter of liberty. For years, largely urban Democrats (for whom the prospect of a next-door neighbor having the right to keep and bear arms is not always a positive), and largely rural Republicans (whose next door neighbors looked after one another and went hunting together), had very different interpretations.
The Government, in the wishy-washy, conspiratorial, NRA version of the phrase, never wanted to get the guns. It was half of we the people that felt unsafe in the midst of all that firepower that pushed for tough gun regulations. Candidate Barack Obama, having gone through a conservative reeducation amongst the conservative hunters of the Illinois Senate, enshrined on his platform that the 2nd Amendment provided a specific individual right to gun ownership. What should have been a moment of triumph for the NRA was turned on its head; they and others have continued to attack the President for a party position that he and mainstream Democrats abandoned. The NRA wasn’t ready to stop fighting.
Again though, liberty is a funny thing. Is the right to gun ownership an absolute right? Voting rights aren’t. Discrimination is perfectly legal in cases of prevailing national interest. Free speech isn’t absolute. What is more, the rights encoded in the 4th Amendment have been under sustained assault since 9/11. Gun ownership is part of the American culture; it always has been, and always will be. But it is not the central liberty defining our nation. Speech, assembly, and restrictions on search and seizure formed the backbone of our rebellion. They are today the hallmarks of our democracy. Nobody wakes up in a foreign country with dreams of America, yearning to be free; and thinks, “boy, I can’t wait till I get there and buy my first gun…”
I am a supporter of individual gun ownership, and I believe that bans on classes of firearms are ineffective. But it is ridiculous to me, that the chief advocates of liberty today, seem intent on eroding most of our fundamental liberties with the exception of guns. To live in this country today and believe that we are as free as we were 15 years ago, you have to be certain that no one can confuse you with (or frame you as) an Arab, Mexican, or terrorist sympathizer. Setting aside the notion that not all Arabs are terrorists, and not all Mexicans are illegal, if you look like you could be one, you have less rights than a pale American. Indian, Malay, Burmese, Italian, Greek, Croat, Serb, and Mexican whose grandparents were born in Arizona working in his own garden; you could all be framed as enemy combatants or be asked to produce a birth certificate to prove your license is real.
Lets be clear about this friends, the notion that all of these rules are being supported and pushed because of racism is insulting, dangerous, and ludicrous. Good Americans with big hearts struggle with the question; “How do I protect my family from terrorism, and how to reconcile that with liberty?” One of my closest friends, a Republican, Christian, and all-around great guy without a racist bone in his body, continues to defend the Patriot Act and Military Commisions. He isn’t ignorant, and he is no coward, but he has ended debates by asking me if I were willing to risk my family to prove my commitment to liberty. The situation in Arizona and California as well; places were there is a profound sense of cultural loss, and all of the anger attendant with language gaps, cry out for solutions. When good solutions aren’t found, the bad ones are settled on.
We can’t have everything folks. There will be give and take, but the notion that America is advanced citizenship is not just a Hollywood ideal. You must, if you value liberty, acknowledge and even tolerate views and laws that you disagree with. It is through respectful conversation that these issues are supposed to have temporary solutions. Our culture evolves through time, supported by a Constitution written by men more flexible and reasonable than the screaming puppets in today’s gallery of fools.
The Rationl Middle is listening…