Morgan Liddick: Why we should celebrate our differences
The other day I was watching “Brother Nathaniel” dancing away on the corner of Route 9 and Wildernest Road. As I watched him do his joyous Jesus Boogaloo, cross waving and bicycle warning lights flashing at both elbows, I was struck by what a fabulous country we have.Consider a couple of events taking place elsewhere in the same week: In Caracas, protestors were shot at, gassed and arrested for opposing Hugo Chavez’ efforts to strangle the last independent broadcasters in the country. Evidently they did not feel, as he did, that criticism of the President and his increasingly authoritarian and statist rule constituted treason.In Moscow, participants in a Gay Rights demonstration were set upon by counter-protesters, and when they complained about being assaulted, by the police. Many demonstrators, including several Western European parliamentarians, were roughed-up and detained. This didn’t happen because they violated the law; they had a permit, and homosexuality has been legal in Russia since the mid-1990’s.
No, it happened because most Russians find the behavior distasteful, and are not above showing their disapproval through fisticuffs, or worse. We Americans love to complain about our country. We grouse about our leaders; howl about how unfair our economic system is; whine about the various petty injustices, real and imagined which bedevil us. We ought instead to begin every day by thanking God – or whatever higher power strikes our fancy – that we live in a country that considers freedom and the right to express one’s opinion as the bedrock of our way of life. This is a rare boon, so we are lucky indeed.Our Founders looked upon freedom – in particular, the freedom of expression – as the cornerstone of democracy. There is a reason that “Liberty” is one of the three enumerated rights in our Declaration of Independence, and that freedoms of conscience and speech are the first rights guaranteed by the first amendment to our Constitution. Pride of place is indicative of their importance to those who created our nation.These men regarded the free exchange of ideas to be the best assurance of the emergence of truth, and surest protector of the rule of reason. In the debate over adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, James Madison – the principal author of the latter – called the First Amendment a device “to provide those securities for liberty which are required …” and a large majority of the assembly agreed with him.
To Madison, and George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, Eldridge Gerry and the others, debate and discussion was essential to the production of ideas which were sound and principles which were enduring. They saw the “marketplace of ideas” as a type of laboratory or refinery, in which concepts and theories could compete, and through the process of argument, be improved. To them, debate had the power to drive the political process forward, to the betterment of all. That is not to say that the debate was always a denatured or impersonal dialectic, in the spirit of the Platonic dialogues. It was sometimes an acrimonious, bareknuckle affair, as when Thomas Jefferson attacked the administration of Federalist John Adams – in the process destroying the beginnings of America’s first political party. It sometimes got downright catty, with Jefferson – Adams’ vice president – referring to the President as “Your Rotundity.” But always, the tendency was toward more speech, and more freedom. The 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts foundered on the rock of this widely-held preference, taking the Federalists down with it, never to be heard from again.Since Jefferson and Adams, who later reconciled to our eternal benefit, there have been many episodes of intense debate over matters both momentous and petty, in form both snarky and not. From portrayals of Andrew Jackson as an unlettered rube to the dense philosophical arguments of the Abolitionists to the Red-baiting of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the wild mass protests against Vietnam, we have certainly had our moments. But all of these challenges to prevailing wisdom, and the conflicts that ensued, strengthened the ideas and arguments on both side of the issues – precisely as the Founders intended.They understood, as must we, that unchallenged arguments are weak. Over time, what “everyone knows” becomes flaccid, feeble, and habitual; able to prevail only because no one bothers to pose questions. When new concepts arise, the status quo either gathers strength from being tested, or it collapses quickly in the face of opposition. This is important to us because we live in a world rife with ideas, not all of them favorable to us. We need to bring our “A” game every time, and debate should be a welcome tool to hone our thoughts for the continuing test.
Shouldn’t it?While we’re at it, week 23 of the Democrat Congress’ war in Iraq. And counting.Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. E-mail him at email@example.com. Also, comment on this column below.
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