Friday, July 02, 2010

The Great American Contradiction

I’ve made no secret of how much I love America. I love its history, landscape, culture and people.

I feel more ‘myself’ here than I ever did in England and my life has certainly changed in myriad positive ways since I arrived here.

This is why I take 4th July – America’s Independence Day – pretty seriously (even though the Declaration of Independence was actually signed on the 2nd of July.

Founding Father John Adams even expected that to be the date immortalized in the history books.)
“The second day of July, 1776, will be memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations, as the great Anniversary Festival.” Letter to Abigail Adams, 3rd July 1776
As the 4th July approaches, many people start considering just what this anniversary means – both in terms of history and how it relates to modern America.

Most agree that the essential thing we're celebrating is ‘liberty’ - the essential keyword of the American identity. I think you can argue America stands for many other things (just don’t mention Christianity – many of the more significant founding fathers were secularists) but the one we can all agree on is that ‘the land of the free’ has a constitution designed to champion individual liberty above all other things.

It’s the fundamental difference between the American and the European identity and it’s a good one. (I explored the American identity a little more in this post.)

As the 4th of July approaches, people on both sides of the political spectrum raise cans of Coors Lite to toast ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ - however I fear they're completely oblivious to the fact that modern American politics completely contradicts this supposedly sacred principle.

I was talking to somebody from Texas the other day, and we compared life there to New Jersey.

It turns out, in a great many practical ways, that Texas is a state in which you enjoy many more personal liberties than in New Jersey: The taxes are lower, you’re trusted to pump your own gas, you can pick up beer and wine from a drive-through liquor store and you can buy a handgun almost as easily as a pack of chewing gum.

The irony is, of course, that New Jersey is considered the more ‘liberal’ state – because in NJ you are protected from being fired from your job because of your sexuality, you have more of a safety net if you lose your job or your circumstances change, there are same-sex domestic partner laws and it’s relatively easy to get an abortion. None of these things are necessarily the same in Texas.

So what you’re left with is two states in which you enjoy diametrically-opposed 'liberties,' but are also at the mercy of significant restrictions. Each offers certain individual liberties that aren’t enjoyed in the other state – but neither is really very ‘liberal.’

And that’s the Great American Contradiction – we’re a nation that celebrates ‘liberty’ as our founding ideal, but both liberals and conservatives betray that ideal each and every day. They’re hypocrites, backstabbers and idiots – they are the stuff of Abraham Lincoln’s nightmares.

I mention Lincoln because he had some choice words to say about the issue.

Back before he was president, then-senator Lincoln was asked to sign a bill restricting immigration into Illinois along demographic lines. He used that, and the continuing abomination of slavery in the south (the ultimate hypocrisy of a nation that celebrates ‘liberty) to form this beautiful argument against champions of ‘liberty’ restricting other peoples freedoms:
“When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for example, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
He was absolutely right, of course.

American conservatives can whine about Europe all they want – and not without good reason – but there’s at least no ideological hypocrisy toEurope having oppressively high taxation, limited freedom of the press, iron-clad gun control and other illiberal policies. This is because no country in Europe ever claimed to be the seat of liberty and the world’s champion of freedom.

On the other hand, that is a claim America makes – and increasingly fails to live up to. Just look at our current track record:

We’re a land in which ‘all men are created equal’ yet:

Between 2% and 10% of Americans aren’t ‘born equal’ if they’re born gay – conservatives have ensured they can’t legally commit to the person they love in many states, and they can get fired from their job simply because of their sexuality. These are both rights those born ‘straight’ enjoy.

Americans born with one skin color aren’t ‘born equal’ to those with another – liberal laws and statutes will grant scholarships, university positions, job placements and welfare benefits to people based on their race and ethnicity, not individual merit or need. No matter how well-intention, that’s the opposite of equality.

We’re a land in which there can be ‘no establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’ and yet:

Conservatives are ‘establishing’ the Judeo-Christian religion by forcefully inserting monotheistic religious doctrine like ‘intelligent design’ into school books and curriculum, and intertwining Church and State by fighting to have the 10 Commandments and other Christian scripture on display in state buildings.

Liberals are ‘prohibiting the free exercise thereof’ by trying to ban parents from homeschooling their kids with a Christian curriculum, and fighting to limit individual and corporate expression of religion (banning stores from having ‘Christmas’ sales for example, preferring the secular term ‘holiday’ - even though private enterprise should be allowed to express whatever they want.)

It’s a land in which we have the ‘freedom of expression and yet:

Conservatives fight to ban pornography, swearing, blasphemy and negative portrayals of the military and government from newspapers, magazines, television and radio (hence why you can show bloody violence on cable TV at 10am, but never a nipple, even after midnight.)

Liberals fight to limit political expression (using the hilariously inappropriately titled ‘fairness doctrine’ to limit conservative talk radio) and are endlessly trying to ban anything ‘politically incorrect’ - or whatever they perceive to be sexist, racist, homophobic, offensive, inappropriate or just ‘unlikeable.’

We’re in a land in which all people have the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ - the first of those being ‘life’ – and yet:

Conservatives argue that abortion is murder and ‘all life is sacred’, even to the point of contradictorily trying to ban abortions that could save a mother’s life. However, they also avidly support the death penalty – even after acknowledging that up to 15% of those on death row are innocent.

Liberals argue that the death penalty is murder, and ‘all life is sacred’, however argue contradictorily that abortion isn’t terminating a ‘life’ and defending a position in which late-term, viable pregnancies can be terminated as long as the baby’s still in the womb (whereas it would be classed as murder if a pre-term baby of that age had already been delivered.)

[Just for the record, I’m not supporting or attacking the right to abortion or the death penalty here – I’ve written about my thoughts on both. I’m just pointing out that Conservatives and Liberals are both identically hypocritical by arguing that ‘life is sacred’ when supporting positions that demonstrate the exact opposite.]

There are all sorts of similar contradictions on both sides of the political spectrum.

Conservative argue that they need to ‘defend’ the constitution, but then want to add an amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

The liberals argue that they’re ‘liberal,’ but want to eliminate any notion of personal responsibility and mandate increasing aspects of our lives – even down to banning smoking, trans fat, sodium and anything else they perceive as ‘unhealthy’ (we Americans clearly lack the ability to decide for ourselves what vices to indulge in.)

And just as you start to support the conservatives for pushing back on liberal restrictions – fighting for gun rights, arguing against whatever inane ban some democrat is pushing – they do the exact same thing; banning sales of alcohol, pornography or legalized marijuana in complete contradiction to their supposed support of ‘liberty.’

Turns out neither conservatives or liberals are really concerned with ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ unless they’re the liberties they personally hold dear – and they’re both equally guilty of trying to restrict the freedoms of other people.

So this 4th July, as you munch into your burger and crunch your ‘freedom’ fries, it’s worth thinking about just what the notion of ‘liberty’ really means – and how to truly embrace the founding spirit of this wonderful country, you’ll have to fight vehemently to defend certain ‘liberties’ that you’re not necessarily convinced other people should actually have.


Susanne said...

Really enjoyed your perspective! Thanks for sharing this. Happy 4th!

Tom said...

The quick way to tell if you're in a free state or not: Do they trust you to responsibly use fireworks to celebrate the fourth?