Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Common Good Always Trumps Individual Rights

The current crop of Republicans, a radical, rabidly conservative group, take as their jumping off point a very unnuanced view of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.  To them, rights, if not specifically qualified in those documents, are absolute.  So whether it’s the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration, or whether it’s the right of free speech or the right to bear arms in the Constitution, no limitation on those rights is warranted (unless of course it limits the rights of opponents and so suits their purposes.)

And one must say, the words certainly sound absolute.  But let us consider their context.  First, the Declaration of Independence - the mother, if you will, of all our founding documents.  What does the Declaration say about rights?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The context of this recitation of rights is that all men are created equal and that all have the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Now, unless you believe that the Founding Fathers meant to set up a state of anarchy … with everyone exercising their liberty, doing whatever they wanted, without restraint … one can’t believe that they meant that no bounds could be placed on the exercise of these rights.  

Why?  Because when you have a community of people it is inevitable that at some point the free exercise of one person’s liberty and pursuit of happiness bumps up against another’s … either harming another or impinging that person’s exercise of his liberty.  Since the Declaration states that all men are created equal and all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the system can only work if one says that each person has this liberty so long as it does not harm others or impinge on the rights of others.

This last proposition is in fact the basis for all government laws and regulation of any type.  Whether it’s criminal laws, traffic laws. zoning ordinances, building codes, the Clean Air Act, banking regulations, etc. … all of these derive their legal basis from the basic proposition that neither an individual nor a corporation can act as it will, if such action harms another or the public welfare.

Then there are the sacrosanct rights enumerated in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights.  But even the most jealously protected right of them all … the right of free speech … is not absolute.   Not only can one not yell “fire” in a crowded theater, but the laws of libel and slander prohibit both written and spoken words that are defamatory, malicious, and false.  There are false advertising laws, which prevent corporations from misleading the public.  The list goes on and on.

As for the right to bear arms, even assuming for the moment that the Constitution indeed grants that right to an individual (until recently the courts had not so held), it would be ludicrous to argue that the government can place no limitations on a right which has not just the potential, but as we see almost daily causes others grievous injury and death. Yet to the NRA and its supporters, and the majority in Congress which is either beholden to the NRA or scared of its power, virtually any regulation whatsoever, no matter how reasonable and called for, is anathema.

As recently as a generation ago, conservative Republicans understood that while they had their ideologically preferred way of addressing issues, they shared common ground for the most part with Democrats in understanding what the great public issues were.  They understood that we lived in a country where citizens had both rights and responsibilities. Where we all played our part, each according to his abilities, in supporting the government in its role of securing the rights of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

As it says again in the Declaration of Independence:

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”

That is the purpose of government.  The mantra started by Ronald Reagan and taken up by the Tea Party Republicans that, “government is not the solution; government is the problem,” is at odds with not just our founding documents but our history.  

Indeed, it is at odds with the history of the Republican Party.  It was often Republicans that pushed for government action.  Whether it was the Republican President Lincoln pushing to end slavery or the Republican President Theodore Roosevelt breaking up the huge trusts of the day, such as Standard Oil, Republicans have a long and proud history of arguing for government action to protect those less powerful., to insure that all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

When it comes to the rights we have, no one should shrink from vigorously protecting his or her own rights.  However, everyone must understand that with the exercise of rights comes a responsibility not to harm others or impinge on the exercise of their rights. When it does so, then the common good demands that such exercise of an individual right be regulated so as not to harm others.  The common good always trumps the exercise of an individual right.*

*A note of clarification.  In light of recent events around the world, and the comments of several readers, I need to clarify that if the exercise of one's right, such as free speech, offends another or the majority, those others are not harmed nor are their rights in any way impinged.  And so there is no justification for restraint in that situation.  When I speak of the common good, something far more concrete is meant ... like breathing clean air, drinking clean water, not having to fear violence, not being cheated.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

New Name - Same Mission

I suddenly have become aware, duh!, that the name I originally created for this blog, Preserving American Greatness, is not really appropriate to its mission statement.  That’s pretty bad for a writer.  But better that realization later than never. 

One problem with the original name is its connotation.  It sounds like the blog is a proponent of American exceptionalism, which it certainly is not, or that it promotes a right wing “America right or wrong” perspective, which also clearly does not apply.  Beyond being misleading, this connotation would naturally be offensive to many people around the world for whom we have long ceased being regarded as “the beacon on the hill.”

The other problem is that although the seeds of greatness are in the American story, our country has unfortunately not fulfilled the promise shown in the Declaration of Independence.  We are certainly a powerful country, the biggest economy in the world, the strongest, or at least biggest, military force in the world.  We have made huge advancements in many different areas.

But on a human level, we have failed rather miserably.  The curse of slavery that was embedded in our founding documents remains with us despite the Civil War, despite all the laws that guarantee equality.  While women have had full rights (well, almost) now for a century, and they have advanced far in the work world, their position vis a vie men is still very unequal in fundamental ways.  People’s attitudes have changed, but only by degree, not fundamentally.  

We live in a most unequal and divided society … not just between black and white Americans, men and women, the rich and most everyone else, but in ways without end.  The promise of “success” (as defined by our culture) is tantalizingly held out to everyone by the marketing media, but for the majority in this country the Declaration’s guarantee of the unalienable right to the “pursuit of happiness” remains a cruel joke.

So just what are America’s values?  To me they are encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”

Greed, a consuming self-interest, and a lack of concern for others may be the values of our contemporary culture, but they are not the values that our Founding Fathers gave America at its birth.  While the words of the Declaration may seem on the surface to champion self-interest and the right to do whatever one wishes, they are tempered by the spiritual statement that we are all created equal and that we all were endowed by the Creator with unalienable rights.  Thus, if the exercise of one person’s right harms another or inhibits his right, then there needs to be a check.  The Declaration does not proclaim an unfettered right to anything.  That would be anarchy.

This is why I wrote the book, We Still Hold These Truths in 2004 (years before the conservative author Matthew Spaulding wrote his take on things under the same title, oddly fulfilling the statement I made on the book’s first page that “in [the Declaration’s] interpretation lies the core of both the Liberal and Conservative ideologies that have run through American political life and the tension between them).  This is why I started this blog several years ago.

This blog is a celebration of those profoundly liberal American values.  It is dedicated to insuring that the promise of the Declaration becomes a reality for all Americans and beyond that, that these values impact our dealings with other nations.  Let me repeat here the mission statement that was my first blog post:

Our nation stands under attack … not from without, but from within.  Both our politics and our culture have been corrupted.

Politics on both the right and left are ever more polarized.  We cannot be a great or strong country if the people and their politicians view fellow Americans who happen to have opposing points of view in an us v them mode, as the enemy; we can only progress if we are united, albeit with differing perspectives on how to go about things.  And our culture caters to the worst aspects of capitalism with ethics and concern for the common good falling to the demands of greed and competition.  The same issues are present throughout much of the world today.

One central aspect of the problem is that our country and much of the world is bereft of spiritual values.  Now right here we have a definitional problem.  I am not referring to the values hawked by born-again Christians in this country, or Islamists in Muslim countries, or the ultra-Orthodox in Israel.   Because interestingly, in almost all cases, the “spiritual” or “moral” positions taken by these self-righteous people go against core tenets of their own religion.  

On the other hand, you have the majority of people, at least in the United States, who claim to believe in God but are not spiritual in any meaningful sense; their lives are totally a creature of contemporary culture.  Their spiritual core is if not empty sorely depleted.

It will be the mission of this blog to look at current events, be they political or cultural, from a spiritual, not religious, perspective, with relevant support from our founding documents, the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.   Remember when it was popular for Christians to wear bracelets that said, “What would Jesus do?”  That’s basically the question that this blog asks, but from a larger spiritual perspective.

I will take as my perspective the common teachings that are at the core of the spiritual/moral constructs of all the world’s great religions … Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Greed is the root of all evil.
Put away lying; speak every man truth.

Only when these maxims are followed will we achieve “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” and realize the goals set forth in the Declaration of Independence, that “governments are instituted to secure” the equality of all men and their “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”