By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Now, there’s no denying that these are hard times for our civil liberties, which are feebly defended by the centrist ruling elite (which complains about the loss of rights only after it has voted to remove them) and erratically covered by the mainstream media, which get riled up only by attacks on freedom of the press. Then again, we should never count on our liberties being defended by leaders of any kind. As the great socialist Eugene V. Debs famously declared, “I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else would lead you out.” The same logic holds true here: If we expect other people to protect our freedoms, then other people can also take them away.
To stop this from happening, one has to fight — even when it’s hard or boring. This means paying heed to the machinations of Washington (the Bush administration feeds on the public’s lack of attention), sending money to constitutional-watchdog groups such as the ACLU (which Kinsley aptly terms the canary down the mineshaft of constitutional rights) and, if necessary, carrying the battle to the streets, which is where most of our freedoms were won in the first place. Although the Bush administration encourages a pacifying sense of powerlessness (think of Dubya’s air of lordly disdain about the anti-war demonstrations), it is fearful of popular opinion — it hasn’t forgotten that the majority of voters were against him last time. When the shockingly tyrannical provisions of PATRIOT Act II were leaked to the wider world, the instant outcry helped stop things cold — even Bill O’Reilly got into the act. Once the public heard about Operation TIPS, which turned informing on one’s neighbor into a national ethic, the revulsion was so powerful that Congress wound up explicitly banning it. After the media finally began covering the FCC’s recent decision on media ownership, the reaction was so negative that the Senate Commerce Committee actually found the courage to roll it back (though the White House is likely to push for it once it falls off the radar).
Such triumphs may not sound big and glamorous, but that’s how freedom is usually gained — slowly, painfully, against the wishes of those in power, however benevolent they may think themselves. As Woodrow Wilson put it during the 1912 election campaign: “Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance.”
Wilson was absolutely right, which is why on Independence Day, 2003, it’s worth remembering that the constitutional freedoms we enjoy weren’t sent down from heaven or plucked off a tree. They were born of centuries of struggle by untold millions who fought and bled and died to make sure that our government can’t just walk into our bedroom or read our mail, can’t throw us in jail without proving to the world its right to hold us, can’t torture us into making confessions, can’t compel us to pray to a god we don’t believe in or prohibit us from saying whatever damn thing is on our mind. It’s our fault and our shame if we forget that such hard-won liberties can be taken away by the likes of Justice Scalia, that constitutional minimalist, who won’t simply feel self-righteous as he takes away our rights, but will do so behind closed doors where there are no TV cameras or reporters to ask unwanted questions about all we’ve lost.