That's More Like It!
This is a thank you letter -- I have received nonstop eloquent and passionate responses from citizens of all backgrounds and party affiliations in response to my essay, "Hey, Young Americans, Here's a Text for You" in last Sunday's Washington Post Outlook section. The opinions shared ranged from the supportive to the critical and every shade in between, but all showed deep concern, and deep thinking, on the part of American citizens, about the issue of what makes our nation work as a democracy and what is at stake when our democracy is eroded or under direct assault.
This is exactly what we should be doing right now: urgently debating among ourselves the nature of our liberty and how to save it, and not leaving the discussion up to pundits, to a professional class of lawyers or constitutional scholars, or, least of all, to politicians. The founders intended for ordinary citizens to debate these issues and to take the lead when freedom was threatened, so I hope this outpouring is simply one more part of the much greater awakening I am seeing across the country as citizens realize our system is in crisis and it is up to "us" not "them" -- up to us all -- to save it.
Many writers have asked whether I intended to refer to the Second Amendment when I mentioned that we have been free of intimidation by the government that other citizens experience around the world. I did indeed intend to refer to the Second Amendment, though not in the sense that most of the email about this assumed. I was referring to militias -- "a well regulated Militia" --not to private gun ownsership.
Often today, the Second Amendment is associated in our minds with the private right to bear arms, which is the subject of a case--District of Columbia v. Heller--at the US Supreme Court this year. Rather, I was referring to the historical origin of the Second Amendment, as the protector of local militias that would be more closely accountable to the people than a federal army. Many in the founding period were distrustful of a large standing army: they - and their wives and children - had experienced abuse at the hands of unaccountable soldiers in their midst.
They wanted to make sure that local governments retained their own protection against foreign invaders and ALSO against the potential for domestic tyranny. An abusive military, secret police force, or network of paramilitary militias,directed to intimidate or oppress citizens to whom they are not accountable, are one of the ten key tools of those who seek a crackdown against democracies or democratic movements -- see Italy in the 1910s, Germany in the 1930's, East Germany in the 1950's or Russia, Egypt, Myanmar, Pakistan, or pretty much any closing or closed society today. The Second Amendment protects U.S. citizens by protecting local militias that are closely accountable to the people. The states are still allowed to have their own militias, which are referred to as State Guards or State Defense Forces (as opposed to the National Guard, which is part of the federal army). Twenty-five states have such guards, which are under the direction and control of the governor of the state.
Other letter and email writers pointed out that there is truth to the cynical observations I quoted that young people had shared with me. I agree --and I should have noted that: there is all too much truth in thecorrosive effect of money on our system, on the tendency of the corporate media to overlook stories that counter its shareholders' interests, and other genuine institutional forces that truly have weakened our Republic. But such analysis is often presented as being of a monolith of evil so great that individual action can't make a difference; whereas I wish that the useful analysis of systemic corruptions of the process of democracy were framed as a call to GREATER individual and collective intervention. Those corruptions only become more strongly entrenched when citizens abandon hope and give up the field of struggle.
Others noted that the 2000 election -- and the marches against the Iraq war that seem to have had little effect on the prosecution of an unpopular and illegal war -- have disheartened young people. But I also think of young people in China, Czechoslovakia and other nations -- the brave monks of Myanmar, the lawyers of Pakistan -- who marched and fought even at gret risk to themselves and even though they had even less reason to feel hopeful. I think too of the civil rights movement, in which some of the most disempowered people in the country demanded justice though they could count on zero institutional support, let alone media interest. (Mark C Jefferson, quoted above, is exactly right in his point about the leadership of the civil rights movement having been overwhelmingly African American, of course, and only belatedly joined by white students in significant numbers).
Some writers also pointed out that African-Americans in this nation had certainly not experienced over 200 years of a "strong democracy." To that observation I have to say that this is entirely correct and my lack of qualification of that assertion -- a qualification to refer to the organized, state-driven incarceration, enslavement, trafficking, rape and torture of an entire sector of the U.S. population -- was a serious oversight. (Of course many groups were left out of our circle of democracy, but only this group tortured by the state so viciously and for so long.)
Those letters I received also remind me why, as I travel the country warning Americans that it is not unthinkable that the State could turn its oppressive force in a systemic way against its own citizens, it is African-American readers who have been -- doubtless because of this history of what was a violent, legal conspiracy against their freedom -- the first to grasp that it can indeed `happen here,' and at some points in our history, to some groups, it -- state terror directed against the individual --already has.
Dr. Nadia Hoffman correctly notes that it was students in Chile (and also their professors) who fought bravely against Pinochet's coup in Chile. It was to that fight for democracy that I was in fact referring.
Prof. Leonard Steinhorn is right that I used broad and brief strokes to characterize the influences on 1960's activism when I was objecting to where the language and imagery, in my opinion, went awry. His examples of strongly engaged democratic activism on the left, such as young people getting "Clean for Gene", and the State's violent pushback against this effective activism in the form of government-led infiltration, spying, physical abuse, and smears (activities that we are seeing again under this administration, but this time, as Daniel Ellsberg notes, now often presented to citizens as legal) are spot on.
But I stand my ground regarding the cultural echo that my generation and the generations that succeeded mine received from this era. I grew up in the Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley of the 1960's and 1970's; the marches and activism he cites were mother's milk to me.'We heard far more pickup in this subculture of such frames as `the machine' and `the revolution' (later `the patriarchy' and `capitalist hegemony') than we ever did the language or framing of ideas of the Founders, let alone the notion that a truly functioning, inclusive democracy -- the founders' vsion, not some metaconcept from elsewhere - is the most radically transformative vision on earth. My point is not that the reat heroes of 1960's activism didn't use the ideals -- of course many did, especially the ones whose legacy lasted most substantially. My point rather was that when the left did go astray in it framing it was in those instances -- and there were plenty -- when it confused the ERRORS of America with the IDEA of America.
We are facing a true emergency so I hope all the writers and citizens passionate about these issues will rise up to resist this classic step in a closing society -- the step that is truly a point of no return.
I wish to thank -- and ask for action from -- all those supporters of the American Freedom Campaign on the left and of the American Freedom Agenda on the right, who have reached out in thunderstanding that this is of all issues the most transpartisan.
Patriotism knows no party affiliation and I have heard from lovers of liberty across the political spectrum -- Evangelicals, Libertarians, true conservatives, progressives and independents -- who are all equally horrified by encroachemnts on our liberties and erosions of our checks and balances because they understand that in America, the American ideal and the Constitution should transcend all our differences and should unite us all, as the founders hoped and trusted we would unite, in its defense.