Tag Archives: liberty

What Do Those Words Mean?

Given the overheated rhetoric coming from all sides in our current iteration of culture war, it’s tempting to dismiss the introductory paragraphs of a recent column originally published by Open Democracy as more of the same:

Any schoolchild in the United States knows that the US Declaration of Independence guarantees individuals’ rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Now, imagine what these principles mean for right-wingers and religious fundamentalists: where “life” refers to fetuses; “liberty” includes the prerogative to discriminate against LGBTIQ people; and “the pursuit of happiness” is reserved for straight, white patriarchs.

Dismissal, however, would be a mistake.

The concerns addressed by the column were triggered by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement of a new government body: The Commission on Unalienable Rights.

According to its statement of intent, the Commission is needed as human rights “discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights”.

 In case you’re wondering how to distinguish “natural” rights, they’re the ones bestowed by God (at least according to Pompeo’s commissioners). One of them, Peter Berkowitz, argues that Christianity is the source of all human rights. Another, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, sees marriage equality for LGBTIQ people as a sign of the “End Times”

Pompeo has raised eyebrows at the State Department and among America’s (increasingly concerned) allies by his efforts to conjoin America’s foreign policy and his religious fundamentalism.

An article in The New York Times noted Pompeo’s willingness to connect foreign policy to his religious beliefs.

No secretary of state in recent decades has been as open and fervent as Mr. Pompeo about discussing Christianityand foreign policy in the same breath. That has increasingly raised questions about the extent to which evangelical beliefs are influencing American diplomacy.

The Times listed Pompeo initiatives prompted by his religious beliefs, including the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and the expansion of Trump Administration anti-abortion policies–effected by terminating financial support for international organizations that support reproductive rights.

In speeches, Pompeo has expressed his belief that mankind is in a “never-ending struggle until the Rapture.” He told a reporter for The New York Times Magazine that the Bible informs everything he does.

His interpretation of Biblical mandates, needless to say, is not universally held even among Christians. But the fact that other people hold beliefs that differ from his hasn’t dissuaded him from his obvious belief that his is the Truth that must be imposed on everyone else.

As Open Democracy reports,

In an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal, the Secretary of State attacks “politicians and bureaucrats [who have created] new rights”, and thus “blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments”. He also asserts that “rights claims are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups”.

Women, non-Christians and gay people are thus categorized as “interest groups.”

The new commission’s initial assault is against abortion and the rights of LGBTQ people, but as the article points out, that’s only the opening salvo.

Unless you are part of the narrow demographic of rich, white men deemed to have rights in 1776, they’re coming for you too. In fact, their ideology threatens the vast majority of people – which is one reason it must be justified as “natural” and God-given.

I can think of few things more terrifying than people in positions of power who are convinced that their God has told them how He (and believe me, for these “Christians” God is always a “He”) wants them to interpret “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”

This Administration cannot leave soon enough.

The Problem With Selective “Liberty”

Michael Gerson has a way with words.

His descriptions of Donald Trump are dead-on; in a recent column in the Washington Post, for example, he considered Trump’s recent attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who came to the United States as a Somali refugee, using the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and an out-of-context quotation.

It is cruel because Trump essentially delivered his political rant while standing on desecrated graves. The images he employed not only included burning buildings but burning human beings, drafted into a sad and sordid political ploy. Is nothing sacred to Trump? When said aloud, the question sounds like an absurdity. Trump has never given the slightest indication of propriety, respect or reverence. His narcissism leaves no room to honor other people or to honor other gods. Both the living and the dead matter only as servants to the cause of Trump himself.

In the remainder of the column, Gerson documents what we all know–Trump is an anti-Muslim bigot. (Not that his hatred of Islam is exclusive–like all White Nationalists, he also manages to find room for racism and anti-Semitism.)

Gerson goes through the ugly characterizations, the anti-Muslim rants.

Trump has a long history of animus — raw animus — against one of the Abrahamic faiths. He has said, “We’re having problems with the Muslims.” And: “There is a Muslim problem in the world.” And: “The United Kingdom is trying hard to disguisetheir massive Muslim problem.” And: “Islam hates us.”

The Koran, in Trump’s scholarly opinion, “teaches some very negative vibe.” He has claimed: “You have people coming out of mosques with hatred and death in their eyes.” He once called for a “total and complete shutdownof Muslims entering the United States.” He has variously and publicly considered the closing of mosques, warrantless searches and the creation of a national database to track Muslims. In Trump’s view, “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before.”

Then Gerson gets to the point: liberty is all or nothing, and Trump’s version of liberty as  “freedom only for the faiths he prefers” threatens every religion. When government has the power to “award” liberty to some and deny it to others, the people who are favored aren’t free; they simply have been granted privileges that the government may choose at some future point to withdraw. That isn’t genuine liberty.

As Gerson writes,

Religious freedom is either rigorously equal, or it becomes an instrument of those in power to favor or disfavor religions of their choice. And those believers who are currently in favor may someday discover what disfavor is like.

As a wise person once told me, poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.

 

Rejecting Science

Watching the Trump Administration, I am reminded that there are many kinds of collusion.

The dictionary defines collusion as secret agreement or cooperation for an illegal or deceitful purpose. The  Mueller investigation is pursuing a particularly egregious form–one that, if proven, would legally be considered treason. Americans are focused on that allegation to a degree that overshadows other activities by this Administration–activities that involve a more “homegrown”variety of collusion, and tend to carry less serious legal labels.

Trump’s war on science in cooperation with favored industries is, in my view, every bit as treasonous as his relationship with Russia.

The Guardian recently documented that assault.

Donald Trump’s administration is cutting programs scientists say are proven to protect Americans, from pollution safeguards to teen pregnancy prevention and healthier school lunches, with effects that could last for years.

Experts who have worked in the federal government under Republicans and Democrats say both have sometimes put politics ahead of science but none have done so as blatantly as Trump. And they warn the consequences could continue long into the future.

“It’s as egregious as I’ve ever seen it, starting from the very top with the president just denying the existence of science, manipulating the system on behalf of special interests,” said the former surgeon general Richard Carmona, who testified to Congress that the George W Bush administration pushed him to weaken or suppress public health findings.

Science writer Timothy Ferris has noted the connection between science and liberal democracy; in his book The Science of Liberty, he also documented the historical connection between anti-science and totalitarianism.  As he writes, new scientific knowledge exposes prior ignorance and error, a process that doesn’t pose a problem for democratic regimes, since fallibility is a given in such cultures, “but it leaves totalitarian leaders clinging to outmoded doctrines in a changing world.”  He quotes China scholar H. Lyman Miller,

Just as the scientific community operates according to anti-authoritarian norms of free debate…so science prospers in an external environment that similarly tolerates pluralism and dissent…Scientific dissidents espoused a strong form of liberal political philosophy that grew out of the norms of their profession.

The assault on science, on evidence and on the proper process for achieving reliable data is an assault on liberty and democracy. Refusing to act on the basis of scientific evidence that inconveniences political allies not only causes significant harm to public health and the environment, it is an attack on reason, progress and the rule of law.

In my view, such behavior is every bit as treasonous as taking orders from Vladimir Putin.

 

 

 

 

THIS is What is so Worrisome

Fareed Zakaria is one of the more astute observers of American politics. Perhaps because of his familial background in the Middle East, where stability is rare and democratic institutions rarer, he has a focus on the institutions and norms that make liberal democracies possible. I remember being really impressed with his 2003 book, The Future of Freedom.

Last week, he had a perceptive and deeply troubling column in the Washington Post. As he began

Two decades ago, I wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs that described an unusual and worrying trend: the rise of illiberal democracy. Around the world, dictators were being deposed and elections were proliferating. But in many of the places where ballots were being counted, the rule of law, respect for minorities, freedom of the press and other such traditions were being ignored or abused. Today, I worry that we might be watching the rise of illiberal democracy in the United States — something that should concern anyone, Republican or Democrat, Donald Trump supporter or critic.

As he points out, what we think of as democracy is really a marriage of two separate systems: the choice of political leadership by popular vote, and laws protecting fundamental individual liberties from both the government and those same popular majorities. Hence “liberal democracy.” Zacharia notes that in several countries, the two strands have separated, with democracy (in the form of the vote) persisting, but liberty “under siege.”

Here is what I believe to be his most important–and worrisome–point:

What stunned me as this process unfolded was that laws and rules did little to stop this descent. Many countries had adopted fine constitutions, put in place elaborate checks and balances, and followed best practices from the advanced world. But in the end, liberal democracy was eroded anyway. It turns out that what sustains democracy is not simply legal safeguards and rules, but norms and practices — democratic behavior. This culture of liberal democracy is waning in the United States today.

I shared similar concerns in a post just last month. As Zakaria writes, we are now seeing what our American democracy looks like when those norms of democratic behavior and honorable public service erode, and populism becomes demagoguery.

The parties have collapsed, Congress has caved, professional groups are largely toothless, the media have been rendered irrelevant…What we are left with today is an open, meritocratic, competitive society in which everyone is an entrepreneur, from a congressman to an accountant, always hustling for personal advantage. But who and what remain to nourish and preserve the common good, civic life and liberal democracy?

I just finished reading an important book that gives “chapter and verse” on how we got to the place Zakaria describes. American Amnesia was written by eminent political scientists Jacob Hacker of Yale and Paul Pierson of U.C. Berkeley, and it details (as the subtitle promises) “how the war on government led us to forget what made America prosper.” I will discuss the book’s research and conclusions in blogs to come, but suffice it to say that their copious documentation amply supports Zakaria’s observations.

We can turn this around, but time is running out.

The “Liberty/Equality” Conundrum

In my classes, when I get to the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, I generally begin with a discussion of what Americans mean by “equality,” and the perceived tension between equality and liberty.

Clearly, if we are talking about the operation of law and civil government, we are bound to understand the call for equality as limited to those areas in which government operates, and not surprisingly, there is a pretty substantial literature exploring what it means to be “equal before the law”– to have equal civil rights and liberties.

It isn’t simply us lawyer types, either; political philosophers have argued for years–okay, centuries!–that government efforts to nudge us in the direction of egalitarianism–that is, in the direction of material equality— diminish liberty and are ultimately immoral, because advocates of redistribution tend to ignore the issue (near and dear to more libertarian hearts) of merit or desert.  Those who see it that way read the famous Marxist admonition: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” as support for expropriation — a system where productive and conscientious workers would be taken advantage of by the ineffectual and/or lazy.

Americans have a deeply-rooted cultural belief that people are poor because they are morally defective, and it didn’t start with the Tea Party. I once traced Indiana’s welfare system back to the 15th Century English Poor Laws- laws that prohibited giving “alms” to “sturdy beggars.”

So here we are, stuck, policy-wise.

We have a longstanding (and probably insurmountable) concern about the fairness of taking money from people who have (at least theoretically) earned it in order to help people who–for whatever reason–have much less. In more selfish eras (like now) that distaste for redistribution jaundices our approach to taxes for even the most traditional civic purposes. Paying more taxes than absolutely necessary (i.e., police, fire and maybe the sewer system)  is seen as state-sponsored theft, or at the very least, a deprivation of liberty.

As I previously noted, it isn’t difficult to find people arguing that efforts to narrow the gap between rich and poor (redistributive taxes) are assaults on liberty. If there is one thing Americans appear to agree upon, it is the pre-eminence of liberty over other values. What we don’t see discussed very often, however, is what we mean by liberty–and the extent to which government is responsible for ensuring that citizens can access it.

Liberty, at its most basic, is my ability to live a life of my own choosing, so long as I am not harming someone else–my right to live where I like, marry whom I love, choose or reject a church, vote for candidate A rather than B, raise my children as I see fit, opt to spend the weekend at a museum or in the garden….But there are a lot of people in my state (as elsewhere) who do not have liberty in any meaningful sense, that is, the ability to make these minimal choices, because every waking moment is spent simply trying to survive.

Every person struggling to make ends meet is not a “sturdy beggar,” trying to pull a con. (If research is to be believed, relatively few are.) But rather than trying to change this stubborn cultural meme, or reminding ourselves of the multiple ways we all benefit when societies are more equal, let’s ask a different question.

If a 10% increase in your taxes could be shown to provide public services  allowing every American to enjoy at least a minimal level of liberty/self-determination–would you pay it?

Or is the liberty you cherish limited to your own? If it’s the latter–I think that’s privilege you are valuing, not liberty.