A couple years ago, I posed a thought experiment in The Observer: what if all contact with the world outside Jefferson County was suspended? How would we do? How long would we be okay? My answer was optimistic: we’d be okay, knowing the diverse skill set of the community and the beautiful land surrounding us—the richest, most arable land in the state of West Virginia.
Of course, the problem with the question was the premise. We are not “privileged,” other than in thought, to be cut off suddenly and silently. In reality, external actors transact considerable business in our county, and we hope in these transactions that some form of democratic process makes the exchange worth as much or more than the profit motive that brings them here. That said, has the democratic process always been followed when allowing these transactions to occur?
In 1852, abolitionist Wendell Phillips proclaimed: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few.” This is my favorite variation on a sentiment reportedly uttered as early as 1790, a time when orators might have known a thing or two about liberty. Notice it’s not “vigilance for a bit until we sort a few things out”—no, this is an explicit warning to all future generations of the burden and responsibility of citizenship. Benjamin Franklin, who also knew a thing or two, referred to our newly minted government as “a republic, if you can keep it.” He was not speaking to a passive audience; he too expected citizens to bear the responsibility of the republic.
If, on the other hand, we react in the moment only to the most outrageous violations of the democratic process, we will always be at a disadvantage, always backpedaling against “business as usual,” “our hands are tied,” “accede to the inevitable,” or the worst: “trust us, we’re experts.”
There is a story about a frog: placed in boiling water, he will immediately jump out. But placed in water heated sufficiently slowly, he will avoid the risk of jumping and prefer instead the increasingly uncomfortable water until he is boiled to death. The “boiling frog metaphor” is just a metaphor, because frogs actually don’t do that, but it’s nonetheless a useful metaphor for our own condition if we ignore politics except when something outrageous happens. As Phillips noted, “power is ever stealing from the many to the few.” Without eternal vigilance, I think you see where this is going: ultimately, we will not have a community worth saving.
The framers of the Constitution did a few really clever things. Putting the first amendment first was one of them. Freedom of religion, of speech, of press, and freedom to assemble. Think about that power: you are free to believe, say, write, and talk about whatever you want. Until the late 1700s, this was unheard of except in antiquity. Our responsibility as citizens is to vigilantly protect the rights the framers gave us, knowing that otherwise they will be chipped away, one degree at a time.
Voltaire, one of the most eloquent Enlightenment thinkers of the age, meant to say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (a disciple, Beatrice Evelyn Hall, actually wrote those words “… in the spirit of Voltaire.”). Voltaire knew a thing or two about liberty inasmuch as the Enlightenment values that overthrew kings gave us the freedom embodied in the first amendment.
This freedom, properly exercised, allows us to build the diverse relationships and robust assemblies that put a notion of enforcement behind consent of the governed. Treat the first amendment like a sacrament, practice it. Passionately engage your fellow citizens in argument, particularly those you vehemently disagree with; learn the basis of their beliefs, respect them, and you will thereby fortify your own beliefs with sound and tested logic (or maybe you will change them). You will get good at thinking clearly. At the very least, you will discover what unites, and respect what divides. In a democracy, everyone must have a voice, and we must protect that.
Still, it’s not hard to see what we’re doing wrong—increasingly tribal, led by customized news feeds on social media to make us feel good about ourselves, told over and over again to be good consumers, and oh yes, we must vote (for Tweedledum or Tweedledumber?). Someone once wrote that news programs were written at the fifth-grade level. A friend who once ran for local office told me, local politics is at a third-grade level. At one time, the primary education, the trivium, was in logic, grammar, and rhetoric, and was devoted to creating good citizens. Knowing what’s at stake and knowing our responsibilities, we must fix this deficit in ourselves if we care to take responsibility for our governance.
Clear rhetoric informs, educates, and transforms, but what is left for the transformed citizen? After you’ve thought through a problem clearly, and perhaps tested your idea with others, particularly with those inclined to disagree with you, do whatever you are called to do. Martin Luther King, Jr. was to my mind the greatest gift our country ever gave to the world. In his words:
“I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
Incidentally, if you are thinking this quote through, both property and corporations are enactments of law. Feel free, says this courageous man, to break an unjust law, provided you are willing to accept the penalty of punishment. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fearless radical, a master orator, who married sacred purpose to civil disobedience. More recently, we saw this at Standing Rock. We need diverse expressions of conscience.
Nature finds its profundity, its resilience, and its majesty in diversity. The thinkers who developed the concepts of liberty, and the framers who put them into our Constitution, celebrate and promote that diversity in the political process where every citizen has the right to his/her own beliefs, to state them, and to debate them, with fellow citizens. This keeps liberty vibrant and strong. And where injustice occurs, where liberty is threatened, actions of diverse conscience born of a vibrant community ensure the community’s survival, and moreover, its transcendence.