Tag Archives: Independence

Middle Interim

Primary season has begun. Eight states have already held them and the numbers are beginning to come in.

November is going to be significant, no matter what the outcome, because it may tell us something about who we think we are. Midterms are notorious for low voter turn-out. That has to change. After a year and a half of incompetence (actually much more than that, but I’m addressing the current manifestation of mediocrity) we cannot afford to be our usual “oh, who cares about midterms, it’s not like they’re important” attitude that usually seems to dominate at them.

A few things to keep in mind. Midterms have traditionally been decided by far less than half of eligible voters. Which means that the winning party usually wins by virtue of less than a quarter of the voters. The rest of us then spend the next two years complaining about the idiots in congress etc, but rarely do the people who blew off their civic responsibility (and who are often the loudest complainers) own up to the mess they allowed to occur. Well, to those of you who fail to vote, two things: you have basically permitted yourselves to be irrelevant; and you will probably be bypassed by the generation coming up. Until that happens, though, the rest of us have to suffer the consequences of your voicelessness.  You did a number on the country this last election by sitting it out.  If you’re happy with the results, well, so be it. But if you’re one of the ones regularly complaining about the state of the country, all I can say is, either show up from now on or shut up.

Moving on.

I do not intend to write another thing about Trump after this. As far as I’m concerned, he is a giant ball of mediocrity. He is, however, being consistent according to his past. His “style” if you will is to dance around and take advantage of openings like a boxer and punch. He has no plan in the usual sense. His goal is to win the present argument and hope it comes out in his favor. The trail of bankruptcies, half-finished ventures, and lawsuits is a testament to this. He is not orderly, coherent, or conscientious. He is an improviser. It may well be that he is someone you might want on your negotiating team going into a difficult discussion, but he should never be the lead. There is no evidence that he has any longterm strategy. He is all about tactics. Example: note the photographs of the recently concluded G7. The roundtable, where every single person attending has a collection of papers, notebooks, reference material at their seat—except Trump. He did not prepare, he was not prepared. He was looking for a chance to “go with his gut” as he likes to say.

No doubt people who have done business with him have made money. He’s in that game, stirring the pot, and just by the law of averages certain people will know how to play, and will make out well. Some of his ventures have been “rescued” by people who then turned them around and made them work. Let me be clear—there’s nothing especially wrong with that. If everyone at the table is there to play the same game and they all know the rules and are willing to take the risks, fine. That’s a species of American business. You improvise, you deal, you roll with the punches, you look for some way to land on your feet, and sometimes things align and it looks like you came out okay. A survey among those with whom he has done business in the past reveals a very mixed assessment, but mostly he is regarded by some of our more consistently successful entrepreneurs as a rogue factor at best, a rank amateur, or a lucky incompetent at worst. Even so, that’s a game and he plays it. It’s questionable if he ever gets the result he started out wanting, but the definition of a win in this case is fluid. If he walks away able to play the next round—and can find people willing to play it with him—that counts as a win.

You can’t lead a country that way. You have to know what the end result is supposed to be and thus far there is no blueprint.

This would not be as great a problem as it is if we had a congress that possessed collective competence. The problem is, congress is filled with people who are either cut from the same cloth or are just as mediocre. The majority in control seem incapable of accepting that whatever vision they may have carried into the job is not working out and maybe, just maybe they have to compromise on some things in order to do the People’s Business. Many of them are looking at Trump in alarm, but those who might be in positions to do something are caught by the fact that large parts of Trump’s tactics align with what they’ve been trying to do for years, namely destroy the safety net, establish (often unstated) class hegemonies, and hand over as much power and resources to those they believe will work to the benefit of the country as a whole from the private sector. They have done this under the guise of “getting the government out of people’s lives” but then turn around and enact laws that allow private corporations to get very deeply into people’s lives. They see no contradiction in this. Since those corporations are dependent on government assistance to do what they intend to do, it ought to be obvious that taking one hand off so the other can replace it is little more than a shell game wherein the only difference is who gets scammed.

Trump has been the beneficiary of a long trend in this direction. He did instinctively understand that about the Republican Party, so that just about everything he said, including the way he said it, conformed to the deep desires of the GOP, its funders, and its base. His crudity exposed it to the glaring light of day and he managed to turn that into a positive for his campaign. He parlayed what we mistake as “plain speaking” and honesty into a slogan-driven campaign that eschewed nuance, comprehension, and decency and embraced vulgarity, bluntness, and condescension on behalf of a strain of impatience, intolerance, and frankly ignorance parading as common sense.

A few words about that. Judging by the evidence, what he tapped into can be called a collapse of caring capacity among a certain strain of self-identified American Firsters. Some decades ago the lid came off of a Pandora’s Box of vileness in the American collective culture—racism, misogyny, greed, all supported on a deep loam of myth that extols a readiness to do violence, ignore what is shown to be weakness, and an assumption that the successful American is somehow the product of an elemental “natural man” model of human nature, that if left alone we are all basically successful, entrepreneurial, independent, and highly competent. This is where all the arguments about “level playing fields” come in.  One faction of our culture assumes we already have that and people complaining that the system, however you define it, is stacked against them are only seeking unfair advantage. Admitting this latter to be true opens the possibility that our renowned self reliance is also a fable and that there is no such thing as an Independent American, not in the sense intended. It attacks a self image we have used to push ourselves up various ladders since we claimed national independence. The idea that we all rely on others and on advantages not of our creation to do anything runs counter to that myth.

Most of us know better. Some of us know better but have found advantage in perpetuating that myth.  Some people really don’t seem to get it. They don’t want to accept that their skin color, at a minimum, can be an advantage or a disadvantage. We want to believe that ability and merit are all that matter.

Trump’s hardcore supporters not only don’t want to believe it, they are willing to reject the idea with prejudice, and use Trump as their poster boy. They see all criticisms of America, his boorishness (and by extension theirs), charges of sexism and racism, as nothing but barriers intentionally placed to prevent them from being recognized for their innate greatness.

More, they seem to believe that all the people they see as taking unfair advantage have only done so by virtue of certain elected officials who were “on their side” in opposition to them. Now they have “their guy” in charge and so advantage will accrue to them.

Never mind the people who came to depend on certain progressive social policies who are now losing them and can’t understand why. Let’s just look at business. These tariffs are punitive. But they will likely not hurt the countries they are ostensibly leveled at nearly as badly as they will hurt home industries. Yet this has been one of the demands of a certain mindset for a long time—why aren’t we charging tariffs on those imports? Can’t those people in Washington see that “unfair competition” is destroying American business?

But the costs of tariffs will fall massively upon the very businesses they’re supposedly meant to protect.

Why? Because the world is more complex than such simply thinking.

It might not even be a bad idea, to adjust import duties, but not this way.  This is where his mediocrity manifests destructively. Instead of using a scalpel, he used a hammer.  (Perhaps understandably so, since his “expertise” is overwhelming in real estate.  He even compared his recent agreement with North Korea to a real estate deal. Pay attention—this is going to cause serious problems.  On the one hand, real estate is seen as a longterm, tangible commodity, but the deals surrounding it are almost always short term, high profit affairs that seek a quick agreement so the parties involved can take their money and walk away as quickly as possible. Any longterm benefit goes to banks, and we’ve seen how well they manage such things.)

The average American has been under the idea that the last forty or fifty years of international trade dealings have been in favor of the rest of the world to our detriment. The basis of this belief is a holdover from the post-World War II period when we were actively trying to help rebuild a devastated world. We understood in our bones that if the imbalances of the 19th Century and the injustices of the post World War I era continued, we would be facing another calamitous war in the near future. In order to do avoid that calamity, certain international conditions had to change.

When engaging in this resulted in the economy of the 1950s and 1960s, no one complained. We had the technology, the labor pool, and the financial resources and it put millions to work at high paying jobs which many people came to believe would be the way things were going to be from now on. In reality, the perceived “loss” of American hegemony has been the result of our success. The world is today as it is because we were tremendously successful. But obviously that meant our relative status would change. As the world recovered and the global economy took shape, industries grew in places where they previously did not exist and in those places where they had, things became more efficient and productive. The novelty of imported automobiles in the 1960s, which were the brunt of jokes then, have now become part of the accepted, normal landscape, including factories for such cars being built and operated on American soil. For better or worse, the world is catching up, and consequently the American worker has been complaining about those “lost” jobs when by the end of the 1970s the proverbial writing was on many walls.

But as a country we adapted to the new conditions and the path forward has been made obvious—we will live in a global economy.

(An aside here. I write science fiction. One of the main conceits of SF for decades has been a global government and economy. Borders would become lines on maps, movement relat8vely unrestricted. We saw some of what this would look like in the EU. But in order to achieve that, some things must change, and one of them is the idea that any one country gets to be “in charge.” I think the erosion of that myth has been one of the drivers of the reaction that put Trump in office. Some Americans want to believe in American Exceptionalism. The idea that we might be just one of the club seems a step down, nationally. What they see in Trump—and what his performance at the G7 supports—is someone who is willing to validate their perceptions. The whole “Make American Great Again” appeal is far broader than the racial aspect (make America White again), which is part of it. It’s born out of an impression that there was a time we could do what we wanted and the rest of the world listened to us. Well, that was never fully or legitimately the case, and by the end of the 1970s everyone should have realized it. But comforting illusions are difficult to dismiss and when someone comes along willing to tell us that they aren’t illusions, that we can be that way, again or otherwise, reason takes a back seat to national pride.)

Unfortunately, most of our problems cannot be laid at the feet of international trade. Our problems are internal and Trump is doing nothing to address them. By now that should be clear. And these tariffs and his juvenile exhibition at the G7 will do far more harm than such fantasies of a Triumphant America cherished by our own strain of authoritarian absolutists could possibly be worth.

But the reason I intend to stop writing about Trump (and I admit I may have occasion to do so regardless) is that Trump is not the problem. He is representative of a point of view that is, intentionally or otherwise, wrongheaded and in many ways toxic. When arguing about him with his supporters, a curious thing happens. The conversation ends with the first criticism. Even in instances where the facts underlying the criticism are inarguable, the Trump supporter shuts down and will concede nothing. (If you could argue about the issue without ever naming him, you might find a different reception.) This has become the flip-side of Obama Derangement Syndrome. When you criticize Trump to a supporter (just as when you tried to defend Obama to a detractor), you really aren’t talking about Trump anymore—you’re talking about your conversant. At the first volley, they think they know who and what you are, walls descend, the conversation is over, because now it is tribal. You aren’t criticizing Trump in their minds, you’re criticizing them.

Trump is stomping on and tearing up agreements and damaging relationships which have taken, in some instances, 70 years to build, acting as he assumes his supporters want him to act. There is no regard for consequence because, after all, how will this hurt him? He has billions, he’ll be fine. He can shit all over our allies and throw hissy fits about trade and never miss a meal.

His cheerleaders with considerably less reserves will pay for all this.

But just consider one aspect of this performance. The idea that America is supposed to come out of this more respected, or more feared, is a pitiful ambition when by acting this way he is proving that America cannot be trusted. When we have to go to our allies (or former allies) and say “This needs to be done” they can, and probably will, say “Maybe, but not with you. We can’t depend on your keeping your word.”

There may have been ways to renegotiate some of these agreements to gain a bit. But not this way. These are playground tactics. All he is doing is destroying the confidence we really did once command from others.

But this isn’t really about Trump.  This is about the walking wounded who put him in office and still think he’s doing a great job, even as they lose what health care they had and see their last remaining jobs disappear because local companies go under, broken by the burden of higher costs for imports they can’t function without.  They put their faith in a Pied Piper and he’s leading them all to a cave which is about to collapse.

We will survive. America is a big place and there is much good here. In some very important ways, we are great and never stopped being so, just not in the blunt-force-trauma ways Trump supporters seem to want. But it should never have been this hard or this costly to get to the new condition we will have to embrace in order to live on this planet and do all the worthwhile things. It’s not 1955 anymore and it never will be again.

I hope we will be better.  We can be. But maybe we just have to molt, get rid of the old skin, and leave this nonsense behind.

In the meantime—vote. Help others to vote. If you don’t vote, you surrender you voice. None of this will work without participation. Vote.



We’ve had a banner year of in terms of bizarre homicides.  I could say that all homicide is bizarre, but somehow when it involves people who actually know each other it seems more…expected, I suppose.  Tragic, shocking, but after a little thought you can see how it happened.

So-called mass shootings are another matter. These are exercises in mindless spleen-venting on the part of people who are then portrayed as mentally ill, “radicalized,” or some variation of misanthropic moron, either an ideologue or a racist or sometimes just someone who has reached the end of the apparently short string by which life was hanging.  Collectively we try to make sense of them.  For most of us, this is like making bricks without straw: work the material all you want, it’s just mud in the end and nothing that holds up. We just don’t know.

Into this once more we have another round of what has since 1968 been a cyclic iteration of the Gun Control Debate. The question arose on the federal level during Prohibition when gangsters were running around with Thompson machine guns.  The police argued that the ownership and use of such weapons outside the military represented a public danger, and limitations were duly enacted, but this was by no means the first instance within the borders of the United States when possession of firearms by private citizens was an issue of law.  And to be sure after the Civil War the question had teeth in the face of Reconstruction policies and the subsequent reaction of the defeated South to the condition of free blacks.  There is ample in our history to make a case that the idea of restricting access to personal firearms is a matter of oppression.  Hence these arguments cannot be quietly put to rest.

One thread is the presumed constitutionality of the matter.  The 2nd Amendment is seen by many to guarantee unrestricted access to firearms.  Strict Constructionists line up in odd combinations with Survivalists, militant preservationists, and others to claim the Founders meant exactly this.  On the other side are those who argue they did not.  The fact is, it’s an open question.  A good deal of American law was based on English Law and Blackstone’s Commentaries served as an often unacknowledged guide to the writing of local and state ordinances as well as hovering in the back of all the conventionists’ minds while drafting the various state constitutions and the federal constitution.  This is one reason so many early state constitutions look so much alike, even in language.

What did Blackstone have to say about possession of arms?

5. The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defense, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute . . . and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1765

Right there we see the basis of our legal understanding and the problem with clarification.  Under due restrictions.  Blackstone—and presumably most if not all the Founders—understood that some regulation was necessary.  But by pairing it with a right both Blackstone and the Founders left the issue vague enough to result in precisely the argument we now have.  I wrote a piece about my interpretation of what the Founders were thinking here.

Recently I saw this debate once again where the minds of the Founders was being analyzed for both pro and con.  I thought to chime in, then held back.  I realized suddenly that it simply doesn’t matter what they had in mind.

People will take what they want from the Constitution, just as they do from the Bible, and use it in any way that serves their personal view of how the world ought to be.  The vagueness—assumed vagueness—of the 2nd Amendment in this regard allows for the evolution of civil construction to suit a changing situation.  The whole Constitution is like that.  “What does it mean?” is open to interpretation as long as the issue is recognized as fundamentally important.

(Scalia is simply wrong in his view that the Constitution is not a living document, that it is somehow set in stone and inviolate.  If true, that makes it all but worthless.)

The intent of the Founders, however one wishes to construe it in practice, was to guarantee that the armed power of the state came from the express consent of the people.  That the “king” was not to hold that power exclusively to the detriment of his subjects, but they would hold it to keep the king in check.

How they held it was and is open to debate and certainly open to reformulation.

In that regard, we should also remember that the United States has traditionally been a state opposed to the idea of standing armies and until WWII, when our current arrangement of maintaining a large federal armed force came into acceptance, we raised armies at need.  Consider this from Teddy Roosevelt’s Sixth State of the Union address:

“Our Regular Army is so small that in any great war we should have to trust mainly to volunteers; and in such event these volunteers should already know how to shoot; for if a soldier has the fighting edge, and ability to take care of himself in the open, his efficiency on the line of battle is almost directly Proportionate to excellence in marksmanship. We should establish shooting galleries in all the large public and military schools, should maintain national target ranges in different parts of the country, and should in every way encourage the formation of rifle clubs throughout all parts of the land. The little Republic of Switzerland offers us an excellent example in all matters connected with building up an efficient citizen soldiery.”

And by the way this was one of the primary functions of the NRA before its lobbying arm expanded to dominate the entire machinery of it.

But the fact is, the situation has changed and we are not talking about abstract political philosophy but about access to military style weapons and head’s full of junk going out and popping off at targets of opportunity because they think their world is ending.  Or they want their 15 minutes.  Or they didn’t take their meds.  Or they overdosed on paranoid social media and Fox News.  Or they think—

And we have a multi-billion dollar arms industry that thrives on this stuff, because every time it happens people run out and buy more guns.  Naturally they don’t want to see restrictions.

But to argue that restrictions are in some way a violation of the Founders  intent is not only a narrow and self-serving view but beside the point, because for the most part the people making that argument wouldn’t change their mind if they could be proved wrong.  This is religion for them and like people who insist that Leviticus supports their view of the present world and its ills they will interpret it as they want.

Just as those who find the 2nd Amendment a vestigial piece of antiquated nonsense that perhaps ought to be expunged.

The Founders certainly never intended us to be hamstrung by what they did.  The world is a different place—technologically if not politically—and refusing to sit down and try to find a solution to a problem because “the Constitution says” would likely strike them as absurd.

And childish.

I don’t believe any rational person feels the guy who shot up the Planned Parenthood clinic  is mentally or morally qualified to have had unrestricted access to weapons.  To defend his ability to have them because you think it means you can’t have the same access to the same weapons is a troubling and frankly myopic attitude.  We have a real problem in this country with firearms in the hands of people who, with just a little thought, we know shouldn’t have them.

The people who shot up San Bernardino are a different matter. Sane but definitely operating out of a different playbook than the rest of us, one built on self-justifications, paranoia, and perhaps a bit of political vulgarity that made them feel outside the scope of ordinary avenues of communication.  The fact is, anyone could do this and we have no way of knowing who might or when or why. It would be nice to think we could predict with certainty, but we can’t, so other solutions should be sought.

However, the debate must be had before we can come to any solution.  But stop using the Founders as an excuse.  Be honest—this isn’t about them.  It’s about us.


As promised, more words.

I haven’t done very much about the political season of late. I’ve been watching it in utter dismay. I am astounded at the circus antics of those who would style themselves as America’s saviors. It’s just possible their intent is to save us from them.

Ben Carson melted down recently, bellowing that Obama didn’t get treated this way. His memory, like everything else, is deficient. But to be fair, Obama gave the sharks less to attack. He behaved like a serious-minded person, offered content, policy ideas, and a grasp of reality that did not lend itself to easy assault unless those mounting the assault intended to do so on the basis of his politics.

So they made shit up. He was born in Kenya. He’s a Muslim. He’s a communist. A variety of lesser things. With an evident lack of ability to attack him on the grounds of political position, they concocted ephemeral bullshit and hoped some of it would stick—as they have continued to do.

Carson has apparently opted to make things up for himself instead of letting others do it for him, and complains when he gets attacked for it. From my perspective, that he has now become the front-runner for the GOP nomination suggests the media has gone easy on him till now, otherwise how could he have reached this point?  When they failed to attack him and focused instead on his chief rival, Donald, he started shoveling out more nonsense to attract the detractors and gain some traction.

As a campaign strategy it may have worked too well.

Really, there are only a couple of things he has said which should have eliminated him from serious consideration long before now.

His comparison of Obamacare to slavery.

No, he did not say slavery was the best thing that ever happened to black people, that was a comment from a satirical website.  But he did suggest Obamacare was akin to slavery because “in a way, it is slavery, because it is making all of us subservient to the government.”

By that thinking, traffic laws make us all slaves.

One might put this down to the hyperbole of political campaigning, and I’m willing to concede that.  In this case, I don’t care, because it is an abuse of language and an insult to morality.  “In a way” nothing is like slavery except slavery, and we need to step back from this kind of comparison.  It’s as bad as labeling any policy you don’t like fascism just because you don’t like it. Or comparing someone to Hitler simply because you disagree with him.  It bends the meanings of those words so out of shape as to render them meaningless.

Besides, the longer the ACA  (Affordable Care Act, not “Obamacare”—this was a law written by congress, not the president, so use the correct labels, please) stands, the more actual citizens like it.  This is not a guess, this is born out by surveys. Oh, and the gargantuan economic meltdown attributed to it hasn’t happened.

It also shows a blatant insensitivity for history, but Carson isn’t the only one who indulges in that.

No, “Obamacare” is not like slavery and by saying that he exhibits a willingness to indulge the basest sort of demagoguery.  And for a doctor to take that line bothers me, since it also shows a disconnect with the realities of his profession.  Now, had he then said “We should go to single payer” then I might listen closer and give him a bit more consideration.

The other thing is this whole magilla about evolution.  He said: “I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the adversary.”

The adversary being Satan.

If you believe in that sort of thing, I can’t argue with you.  It’s bullshit, but belief is one of those non-negotiable things that thrives on disagreement.  The more people tell you you’re wrong, the more noble it is to dig in and believe.  So there is no profit in trying to argue about it.

But that non-negotiable part is worrisome in someone who wants to lead a powerful nation and might be called upon to compromise over fundamental disconnects in ideology in order to preserve, like, the world.  One of the things Obama is continually criticized on by people who think adherence to immovable ideologies is noble is his seeming willingness to compromise. It is seen as weak, poor leadership, etc. It happens to be one of the things I like about him and in that job the ability to listen and accept sometimes uncomfortable differences in pursuit of mutuality and peace is a talent I suspect Ben Carson, if he means this stuff, lacks.

He has made similarly idiotic statements about the Big Bang.

Now, he’s a brain surgeon, which is suppose to be, in certain contexts, code for “really smart.”  I’m not seeing the smart.  He keeps making shit up to gain some kind of street cred among the Party faithful.  That whole thing about being confronted in a fast food restaurant?  True or not, he said of the encounter “Guy comes in, put the gun in my ribs. And I just said, ‘I believe that you want the guy behind the counter.'”  I’m having a hard time seeing how this is any indication of presumed bravery.  He just admitted to telling a robber not to hold him up but hold somebody else up.  Point the gun at the minimum wage worker behind the counter.  Aim that thing at someone else.

He’s a doctor.  What happened to “Above all, do no harm”?  Why not, “This is between you and me, let’s go out to the parking lot” and get the assailant away from others who might be hurt?

I get it, this is supposed to be his Clint Eastwood moment.  But think about it.  He was figuratively and, if he is to be believed, literally stepping behind someone else in the face of personal harm.

Then, we have his recent problems over—wait for it—the pyramids of Giza.

“My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. Now all the archaeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big — when you stop and think about it, and I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time — to store that much grain.”

To be fair, he said that in 1998, it is not part of his current campaign strategy to undermine archaeology.  But still, it makes one wonder if he has ever read a book outside of his course studies in medical school. There’s a term for this kind of thing:  pseudoscience.

Now he’s bellyaching about media scrutiny.  What did he expect?  He’s running for president.  There is one school of thought that suggests that personal beliefs should be off-limits in considerations of who should serve in that office.  As far as it goes, I accept that.  But when one opens one’s mouth and reveals it to the world, it kind of stops being only a personal belief, it becomes part of what you want the public to perceive, and an indication of what you think is important for the public to make a choice.

Now we come to the West Point thing.  He claims to have been offered a full scholarship.  What does that mean?

Here are the  admissions requirements . Note, one of the requirements is a nomination from a senator, a representative, or a president.  He would have had to apply.  A “recommendation” from a general would not have been enough.

As for his attitude toward the Black Lives Matter movement, well, it may be a question of style, but it seems perverse.  “I hate political correctness” has become akin to those who claim to hate feminism but without actually understanding what it means.

But he has supporters.  More, it seems, than Trump, which may not be saying much.

There is a deep admiration in this country for so-called plain-speaking, especially when it seems to be in service to challenging the establishment.  But such speech ought first and foremost be linked to intelligence and a bit of knowledge about what windmills you think you’re charging.  The flush of shocked cheering at the presumed independence of someone like Ben Carson should give way to a reasoned apprehension that he also seems to be independent of actual reason in too many areas.  On top of his Party consistent adherence to the standard issue GOP platform, this causes me some amusement and a bit of nervousness that people who would vote for him could be so stump gullible.

And the clown car rolls on.

Freedom and Those People Over There

It’s the Fourth of July.  The national birthday party.  On this day in 1776 was the official reading of the Declaration of Independence, when the Thirteen Colonies broke from Great Britain and began the process of forming a nation. In the 239 years since we as a people have engaged an ongoing and often contentious, sometimes violent conversation about the one thing we like to say distinguishes us from every other people or nation or country on the globe:  Freedom.

Contentious because everyone means something different when they use that word. We do not agree on a common definition.  This isn’t a deep, difficult to understand reality, we simply don’t.  Put any group of people together from different parts of the country and have them talk about what they mean by Freedom and while certain common ideas bubble, once you get into the details you find divisions, sometimes deep.

Clearly for most of the first century, as a nation, we had a pretty limited notion of what it meant.  It meant freedom for a certain few to do what they wanted at the expense of others.

So native Americans didn’t have it, nor did slaves, nor, for the most part, did women. Even a white skin on a male body didn’t guarantee one equal consideration, because money and property were important, and, to a lesser extent, natural born versus immigrant, language, and religion.  We, like any bunch of people anywhere, fell into groups and competed with each other over privilege and those who came out on top extolled the virtues of freedom while doing what they could, consciously or not, to limit it for others who might impose limits on their success.

This is not controversial.  This is history.  We’re human, we can be jerks like anyone else.  What makes it awkward for us is this widely-held belief that we are unfettered supporters of Freedom.

In the simplest terms, we claim to be free when we feel no constraints on preferred action.  So if you’re going on along doing what you like to do and no one tells you that you can’t, you feel free.  If, to complicate things a bit, someone passes a law that says Those People Over There may not do something you have no interest in, well, you don’t feel any less free and may wonder why they’re complaining about being oppressed.  After all, you’re free, you don’t have any complaints, and that makes this a free country, so stop bitching.

Naturally, if someone passes a law that says you can’t do something you either want to do or makes claims on your resources in order to support such rules, now you feel a bit less free, imposed upon, and maybe complain yourself.  Of course, Those Other Folks Over There are quite happy about the new law and themselves feel freer as a result, so they look at you now as the sore thumb sticking up.

But it still involves questions of constraint, which is what the law is about, and we agree in principle that we need laws.

If we need laws to restrain—to tell us what we can and cannot do—doesn’t that immediately beg the question of what it means to be free?  I mean, the libertarian line would be that I’m a grown-assed adult and I can control my own life, thank you very much, you can keep your laws.

What if your desire for unconstrained action puts a burden on other people?

What if, to make a big but logical leap, your sense of freedom requires that others have less than you or, to put it back at the beginning, that some people be ownable? You know: slaves.

That the Founders built it into the framework that slavery could not only exist within the borders of this new “land of the free” but that it was illegal to discuss the issue in Congress for twenty years might cause us to ponder just what they meant by Freedom.

And it did take over a century before the laws began to change concerning women and property. Was a time a wife was legally owned by her husband—her, her body, and all her associated belongings—and could be thrown out with nothing but the clothes on her back if the marriage went sour. That doesn’t even take into account that it wasn’t till 1919 that women could legally vote.

How does this fit with our self-congratulatory view as the freest nation on Earth?

Well, we say, that was then.  This is today and we’re not like that.

Aren’t we?  Then why are we still arguing—loudly—over questions of equality, and in several areas of concern?

I put these out there to leaven the uncritical jubilation over what really is a worthy aspect of this country.

What the Founders implicitly recognized was the multifaceted and often conflicting perceptions people will inevitably bring to this question.  They may well have held some overarching, abstract view as to what Freedom meant but they knew such could not secure the kind of stability necessary for a viable nation.  Absolute freedom would destroy us just as surely as absolute tyranny.  So they set up a framework in which we as a people would continually argue about it, and by extension demonstrated that it was this freedom to hash it out that they saw as the most relevant, the most viable, and in the end the only practicable way of securing individual liberty over time.  They built into it all the nearly sacred idea that we can say and think what we please and set up fora wherein we could express ourselves without authoritarian retribution.

That was the idea, at least.  Like everything else they put in place, it hasn’t always played out that way.  McCarthy wasn’t the first one to send a chill through the republic to make people afraid of ideas.

We are, however, free to argue.  Sometimes we have to bring ridiculous force to the table to make an argument, but at the individual level we can go to our various barbecues this weekend and have it out on any topic without fear that some censorious official will show up at our door next week to take us to a room and be questioned about our beliefs.  There have been times when even this was not a guaranteed freedom, but over all this is what the Founders decided on as the most efficacious form of freedom to protect.  They arranged things so the suppression of the freedom to have an opinion could end up fueling a political movement and take the argument into the public arena where it can be further debated.

But this also means we have to learn to privilege the freedom of expression and thought over any other.

And it’s hard. It is damn hard.

Follow the comment threads of any heated or controversial post anywhere—the equivalent today to Letters to the Editor in other periods—and you can see that many people just don’t get that.  It frightens them.  Why?  Because it’s fluid.  Because it means things change.  Because it calls into question what they thought were absolutes.  Because they grew up thinking their country was one thing, unchanging, ordained by divine testimony, and their sense of freedom is based on holding to those absolutes and defending them from those who would see things differently.  Flux, change, revolution.

They came to believe that all the work was already done and everything would be fine  except for Those People Over There, those…those…malcontents.

Forgetting, of course, that the whole thing came from the minds and labor of malcontents.

We come away from our youthful education about 1776 with the belief that the war was the revolution, but this is not the case.  It was the war for the revolution, which is what came after.  The revolution was the process of setting up a new form of government and establishing a framework distinct from what had gone before. 1787 was the year of revolution.  The Constitution was ratified by the delegates to the convention on September 17, 1787.  It then had to go before the individual states for final acceptance, which was not finished till May, 1790, when the last state, Rhode Island, voted to accept it by a two vote margin. Those two and half years were the actual revolution, because revolution brings us the new.  In a way, 1776 was little more than a decree to stop sending the rent to England and a statement that we were willing fight over the right to have a revolution. The war was not the revolution, it only allowed the revolution to happen.

And what was that sea change in the affairs of people?  That the people would choose their leaders?  Not an especially new idea—kings had been elected before (in fact, the Thirty Years War began over just such an election)—but here it would be the way we would always choose our leaders.  The mechanism by which we made that choice, now, that was based on the revolution, which was folded into this rather imprecise notion of Self Determination. But it rests ultimately on the sacred right of each one of us to disagree.

It is by disagreement—loudly and publicly, but beginning privately and from conscience—that we move toward that other nebulous concept “a more perfect union.”  Which itself is a strange phrase.  More perfect.  Perfection, by definition, does not come in degrees.  It either is or isn’t.  Usually.  Unless they, the Founders, were recognizing the fact that change is inevitable, especially if we’re going to sacrilize the freedom to disagree.  In practical terms, your perfection, however conceived, is unlikely to be mine.  If so, then the formula is there to move us from one state of perfection to another equal but different state of perfection.

Which is unlikely and sloppy logic.  Most likely, they knew, as they should have, being good students of the Enlightenment, that perfection is unachievable but the idea of it serves as a spur to do better.  Perfectibility is the ongoing process of seeking perfection.  In the seeking we have to define it and in the definition comes the debating.  In the debating we find a method for—often convulsively—blocking the hegemony of factions, or at least tearing them down when they become onerous.

So in order to “form that more perfect union” we accept that it is always just over the next hill and we have to have a consensus about what it looks like and to get there.  Which sets us to arguing, which is the best guarantor of liberty of conscience.

But we have to work at it.  Which means the revolution is not finished.  What they set in motion was something that would never be finished if we tended to it seriously and with reason and commitment.  So if anything, July 4 is the day we should celebrate as the point when we took steps for creating the conditions for the revolution. The revolution followed the surrender of the British and the commencement of the work to create a nation.  That was—and is—the revolution.

As long as we can meet and differ and find accommodation despite our differences and allow for those differences to be manifest to the benefit of society, the revolution continues.  That it continues is the sure sign that we have freedom (and tells the nature of that freedom).  Even when we don’t always use it or recognize it or allow it to define us.  Oh, we have work yet to do!  But we can do it if we choose.

Just some ruminations from a citizen.  Have a safe Fourth of July.