As Ben Franklin was leaving the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was famously asked by a Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia:
“Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
“A republic,” Franklin replied, “If you can keep it.”
Every moment we spend playing the victim is a moment we make ourselves a victim again at our own hands. It is a moment of disempowerment where we grant other people the power over our happiness.
We human beings are made resilient. Your empowerment and your enlightenment is not waiting on the world to change. It’s only waiting on you.
It doesn’t require every voice to harmonize with yours. It accepts that you are strong enough to establish your voice, even in a world of opposition.
Too many human beings have fought too hard for too many centuries to establish an uneasy, incomplete, and, yes, still imperfect beachhead of human freedom on this planet to give it all back.
For centuries the church was the arbiter of what you could think and say. Then slowly the king came to control it. Consequences for your freedom of expression, when it countered authority, were swift and final.
Then about four centuries ago people came to these shores seeking a place on this planet, then non-existent, where the individual could determine for himself what he wanted to believe and have the freedom to express it.
Like the first time you got the car keys, we lack experience with these things. For millennia our thinking had been enslaved to the will of priests and kings. The sudden freedom of that “set of car keys” is something we’ve had to grow into.
We’ve struggled mightily and imperfectly to understand its implications and to expand that freedom from a very exclusive club of white Christian male landowners to the rest of us.
Along the way, we’ve done hideous things. We’ve inflicted suffering on others and on ourselves. We’ve stolen, pillaged, and oppressed. Generally, we’ve maintained the low bar humanity has set throughout history. We haven’t lived up to our lofty principles, even to this very moment.
Yet, in the midst of this muddy climb from the bottom, we created a document far smarter and freer than we were capable of being at the time of its writing – The United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Fair enough, the document was written by a bunch of “old white European men.” Some of them owned slaves. Some of them participated in the massacre of native Americans. Some of them openly oppressed women and people of different religious faiths.
Still, somehow, this array of imperfect human beings birthed a document that was and is a template for our higher potential. It looked at human nature and human history and laid a foundation for a nation with greater freedom than had been imagined to that time or has been realized even now.
It enshrined certain principles into the DNA of the new nation. It sought to put safeguards against the whims and emotions of the moment from overwhelming it’s carefully constructed wisdom. For the first time in history, a government asserted that certain freedoms are yours simply because you’re born human rather than because the king or the priests grant them to you.
The very core of these ideas, enshrined in the very first amendment, is the freedom of expression (not the freedom from expression). They knew that every other freedom rested on that one. Along with it they protected the freedom of the press (today we might call it the freedom to information) to ensure people had the information they needed to function as responsible citizens and that government didn’t control it. They protected freedom of belief so no longer did you have to believe as the “king” believed. Finally, they protected the right to protest and seek redress for grievances.
The First Amendment is a powerhouse and the very lifeblood of freedom in America. Today, for the first time, all Americans can truly avail themselves of these freedoms to a greater extent than ever before.
Yet, oddly it is now under attack from the left and the right. More and more, people are reaching for the power of government, or worse the mob, to silence those they disagree with.
Granted, some still have not grasped that freedom to speak is not freedom to harm or abuse others. Some people truly are racist, bigoted, homophobic, or purveyors of pseudo-science.
Yet, the solution to these issues IS the First Amendment not its abolition. Freedom is not clean. To have it, we have to put up with ideas we may despise from others. Our First Amendment rights do not include the freedom not be offended, not hear untruths proclaimed as truths, not to hear people disagree with and attack our most cherished ideals.
You see, the reason the kings and the priests of old and modern tyrannical regimes restrict freedom of expression is because it’s dangerous. It creates fractures and some chaos in society and that threatens their control. Frankly, it’s easier to just silence dissenters than to deal with that mess.
Are there forces on the left and the right in America who have now concluded the same thing? Are we ready to scrap that hard-fought right of every individual express himself or herself for the expediency of winning an argument or feeling safe in an unhappy or frightening moment.
To do so, would be to crawl back into the sludge of that millennia-long dark age where a few got to decide what everyone else could think and say.
If we do that, it will only prove that human devolution is possible and that free people can choose and have chosen to give it all back.
Have an awesome and free Friday!