When your freedoms come under attack, will you stand up and fight?
Will you, personally, take action? Or will you just sit on the sidelines and hope things will blow over?
Let’s admit it can be easy to understand why the first reaction of so many Americans today is to just keep a low profile. Now in the middle of 2020, we’ve already been through so much disruption that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago - it’s no wonder if people feel exhausted. If you’re the kind of decent citizen who values personal responsibility, you’ve undoubtedly got plenty to do just trying to pay the bills, be there for family and friends, and do good work at your job, if you’ve still got a job. Isn’t that enough?
Sure, you may have noticed that extremists on both the far-left and far-right have become increasingly polarized, militant, and frighteningly authoritarian with a willingness to wield violence and power. But isn’t that just a minority fringe? All the polls show the majority of Americans – call it the “silent majority” – do not agree with the rabble-rousers on the extremes of either side, so can’t we assume the extremists won’t be able to get away with “too” much. At least, you may be thinking, “it’s not on my doorstep, not yet.” Isn’t that enough?
And perhaps that is the question: when is enough enough? When is it time for the silent majority to be silent no longer? When is it time for “everyday” Americans to take a stand and act?
The thing is, that’s a question that doesn’t have an answer. Precisely because this is America, and in our proudly pluralistic, melting pot society, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all answer. In America, so long as I don’t violate the rights of anyone else, I have the right to choose when and how I will act to secure what I value, if I choose to act at all. Similarly, you have the right to make your own different choices based on what you deem is best for your life.
In America, we tolerate, if not outright celebrate, what makes each of us unique and different. Perhaps so much so, we can lose sight of what unites us. America is distinctive among other nations in that what unifies us is not race nor ethnicity, it’s not religion, it’s not a tribal lineage into which one is born. Being “American” is a choice, a choice anyone can make by choosing to embrace our characteristic American values.
What unifies America is indeed a set of basic values that have been codified into our evolving national institutions. These values could be designated broadly as the philosophically liberal tradition. The Declaration of Independence identified that human beings have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our constitution expounded on this liberating conception by guaranteeing specific derivative freedoms of conscience and religion, of speech and of the press, of assembly, of self-defense and the right to bear arms, of equal justice under the law, of due process and property, of equal suffrage at the ballot box, among others.
Admittedly, it was not perfect at the start. Successful innovation generally is an incremental, iterative, evolving process, and the innovation that is America is no exception. However, 1776 does mark a definitive turning point. For the first time in history, a country was founded on a vision of liberty for all, setting in motion the pursuits of generations of Americans to make that vision real - to abolish slavery, to secure voting rights, to eradicate Jim Crow segregation, to establish civil liberties for all races, for women, for LGBTQ peoples. Arguably, there is still much work to be done in the continuing fight for a consistent, all-encompassing liberalism, as we each make arguments for just what liberalism entails and how to best achieve it.
Argument, in fact, is itself core to the philosophically liberal tradition. Debate, dialogue, free inquiry, the marketplace of ideas, these values are at the foundation of the liberal tradition’s view of the nature of human beings. We need liberty because no human being is omniscient, but in order to survive and thrive we must each make decisions and act in spite of uncertainty. Though every human individual has their own perspective and their own biases, the standards of science - including the insistence on falsifiability, blind and double-blind testing, and replicability – not only render everyone equal before the method, but also provide a mechanism for continuous self-correction. We need the freedom to continually challenge our own and others’ conclusions in the continual march toward objective knowledge.
The liberal tradition values the freedom to think and the freedom to act on that thinking, especially the freedom to pursue productive goals. Liberty is our requirement as creators, builders, and producers who flourish when we’re free to make use of our ingenuity to solve problems, develop exponential innovations, and effectively manage resources – in a phrase: to create value. Our success as human beings requires that we boldly face the future with an abundance mindset, seeking to build win-win relationships in which we voluntarily collaborate and trade with others to mutual benefit. But only in an environment of protected liberty, trade, and free markets in which rights are upheld can we prosper as creative and empathetic members of communities who respect the autonomy of each unique individual while volunteering to work together to leverage our diverse strengths toward common goals.
The liberal tradition of reason and freedom requires government to secure, protect, and defend our rights – to ensure we are free to act without threats of violence and/or coercion. To this end, the government has an important societal function in the form of the police, the military, and the court system to wield retaliatory, defensive power against those who would violate rights. Arguably, there is still much work to be done to ensure that our government representatives at all levels and in all functions are actually serving the rights of all Americans - but working to make progress in our government functions is also part of the legacy of our liberal tradition.
Today, the basic liberal ethic is under attack. Explicitly and from multiple angles, the legacy of American freedom faces novel and unprecedented threats. However, this is still America, and cowering in submission before an authoritarian menace has never been the American way.
America is the land of the can-do spirit, where everyday citizens roll up their sleeves and get to work to solve problems, including the work of honoring, defending, and building upon our evolving liberal values. Each and every one of us is an inheritor of the American experiment, and if we are to keep this republic and continue to make progress on the legacy of 1776, it is up to each of us to boldly and proudly show our determination to live our values.
Let’s admit it won’t be easy. Living our liberal values in the current cultural climate will require considerable effort, time, thought, and resources all fraught with the risk of potentially losing friends, losing work, losing money, losing arguments, losing all the familiar comforts of a current routine. We’re bound to make mistakes along the way, maybe painful mistakes - and there’s no Hollywood guarantee we will win in the end.
But what would be the cost of not taking action?
Will you deflect responsibility and let others bear the burden of speaking out, until you run the risk enshrined in Niemöller’s poem of there being no one left to speak for you? Will you sanction what you know to be dishonesty and vicious falsehoods, until you lose your own integrity and sanity? What about gratitude for those before us who sacrificed so much so that we could inherit freedom? What about hope for the future and the America we will leave to generations to come?
In this critical moment in our nation’s history, what will you choose to do? Who will you choose to be? Will you be someone who stands up and speaks out? Will you take action to make America the haven for freedom it ought to be?
We need Americans everywhere to defend our liberal values, to courageously, calmly, stalwartly say “No” when authoritarian forces threaten to clampdown on our freedoms, pull down our statues, riot on our streets, cancel our peers, and poison our institutions with anti-liberal ideas and values. We need to stop power-hungry politicians if they threaten to supersede constitutional limitations - because we are still a government of laws, not of meddling bureaucrats.
We need Americans everywhere to stand up for all that is truly noble in the liberal ethic, to insist that liberal values constitute and fortify the foundations of our workplaces, our schools, our community organizations, our government institutions.
We need Americans everywhere to do what Americans are known for doing best: building new and better solutions. We need artists creating new sculptures, music, paintings, films, and more - new stories that grapple with all the nuanced complexities of the liberal tradition and help show us a way forward. We need scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians to continue their work of testing, questioning, invention, and revision, clearly championing while striving to make better the liberal field of science. We need entrepreneurs building new companies and new organizations that proudly uphold core liberal values. We need social leaders to take up positions on committees and on boards, to organize new forms of liberal activism, and to build new institutions that continue the difficult work of the liberal project.
Will you take a stand and show the world you are willing to be bravely American?
Will you take up the challenge and embark on your own hero’s journey to demonstrate what liberal values mean to you?
Will you take on the project begun by our Revolutionary-era founders, embracing with renewed appreciation their Spirit of Liberty and striving to realize that yet-to-be-accomplished vision of freedom and equal rights for all, in spite of the massive opposition marshaled to oppose us. This is the call of 1776 Forward!
It will not be the easy choice. But if with all our differences we can join together under the banner of the liberal values that unite us, we can learn from each other, challenge each other, support each other, and fill our lives with the meaningful, hopeful work of building together a better future for America. It is not the path of least resistance, but it is the path that builds character, strengthens deep relationships, makes real progress toward greater justice, and results in lives lived with sacred honor.
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