Tag Archives: Fourth of July

The Spirit of Independence: How Culture Drives Politics

To a first approximation, American political history before the 18th century is British political history. As most American schoolchildren know, in the 17th century, John Locke crystallized the idea that human law should reflect Natural Law, but the idea that Law must serve the well-being of the people on whom it is imposed goes back at least to the Anglo-Saxons.

Since tyranny must shape to itself both the law and the political institutions of its day, it stands to reason that when a governing elite has gone too far in abusing its power, the fight back for liberty by the people at large does not start directly in the political realm or in legislation, itself.

Throughout history, changing a country’s politics and statutes has been the final goal of forceful popular attempts to contain power, but mass-refusal to accept political abuses has always begun in the culture. “Culture” is a vague term so let us define it as the sum of actions of the citizens of a country, the attitudes that drive their responses to events, their expectations of what they may do and the memories of what they, and perhaps their ancestors, have always done.

The founding of the United States is just one example of this process. In 1776 (American Independence), as in 1689 (the original Bill of Rights), 1628 (Petition of Right), 1215 (Magna Carta), and even 1014 (Anglo-Saxon Charter), freedoms that citizens already believed they had were codified and concretized to shape political institutions. And in each case, this shaping of political entities with the purpose of increasing or protecting the rights of free individuals that were already recognized in the culture has been invariably triggered by the over-reach of the country’s governing elite (or, at least, part of it).

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Seen in this light, the American Revolution was not so much an American Revolution as a British evolution – another turn in the ratchet of Anglo political liberty, driven by the kind of cultural conservatism that all liberals should celebrate.

As William Pitt the Elder, statesman and former British prime minister, said as he spoke against the Stamp Act in the year of the American founding.

“I rejoice that America has resisted. Three million people so dead to all feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest[of us].”

This reflects the interesting fact that the attitudes that drove American Independence were found not only among the colonists. They were as prevalent among their British compatriots in the “motherland”, born from and into the same Anglo culture.

Pitt’s use of the word “feelings” is telling. Feelings are not defined in law or carved over the doors of our most important state building. Rather, as Pitt was acknowledging, they are the sentiments that drive political change, reflective of the prevalent attitudes and expectations in society.

In fact, in the Anglo tradition, the political elite has explicitly recognized that the feelings and expectations of the people are the ultimate limits on its power, and has conceded as much when it has had to negotiate with the people that it governs. The Magna Carta, various coronation declarations going back even as far as a millennium, the Petition of Right etc., all refer explicitly to the “customs” of the people – those freedoms that the people have a right to expect simply because they are commonly asserted and have been enjoyed for so long. These customs exist in the minds of the people, defining, albeit fluidly, the boundaries in which (earlier) kings and (now) politicians must confine themselves if they are not to risk a popular backlash that makes governing impossible.

The modern liberty movement must take heed of this lesson of history: large-scale popular movements against power are triggered not when enough people see in that an abstract right has been taken from them – but when enough people actually experience their everyday lives as being impinged upon.

Put another way, it’s when Power offends our cultural freedoms – not our political liberty – that we rise up against it.

Why else have both the Left and the Right in our time sat relatively silent as our rights to due process, privacy, and free speech have been removed by such legislation as the Patriot Act and the NDAA, and yet become very vociferous over our right to smoke weed (on the Left) or own guns without restriction (on the Right)? The answer, at least in part, is that smoking and/or guns are part of the culture for many Americans, so government overreach into those areas actually feels like a personal infringement. In contrast, removing your right to due process doesn’t feel like anything until you need due process, and invading your privacy doesn’t feel like anything if you don’t know that it is even happening.

Independence Day make many of us feel patriotic. That term originally meant loyalty not to a cause of separation from Britain, but to the very ideas of liberty, worked up through an Anglo tradition of many hundreds of years, distilled marvelously in our Constitution. These ideas, filling coffee-shop conversations everywhere, even in the 18th century, constituted a kind of cultural norm, and were shared by Britons on both sides of the Atlantic.

True patriots today are committed to the same ideas. That subset who can fairly claim the spirit of American Independence are the few who will put their own wellbeing at risk to defend them.

One of them is Edward Snowden. His revelations have altered American political discourse by changing the everyday American experience of sending an email or a making phone call from one of privately communicating with a loved to one of sharing one’s life with the State. Mr. Snowden’s importance is less that he has told us anything new about the massively invasive power that government has assumed for itself since (at least) 2001. (There are myriad accessible articles about the Patriot Act, NDAA etc. and their implementation that anyone could have read any time in the last decade.) He has, in fact, done something much more important: he has turned our government’s violation of our political liberties, which most of us know only as words on a document, into a felt violation of our cultural ones, of which we can feel as we go about our lives.

And when enough people feel that way, drawing on their customs (attitudes and expectations) of liberty – not on their political institutions – they push back, forcing legislative and political lines to get redrawn in a manner that reclaims the liberties that have been lost. As per the list of dates above, it has happened throughout history. And it happened in 1776.

The Founders were not ideological revolutionaries. They were, every step of the way, acting in the Anglo tradition of liberty, a tradition that the British elite in that time was failing to respect, as our American elite fails to respect it now. Their “revolution” was therefore a culturally-rooted resistance to a violation of the customs of that very same culture, but its outcomes were, as intended and as always, profoundly political.

Until now, our government, or as they style themselves, our governors, have managed to take away so many of our political freedoms without too many people feeling a thing. Snowden’s revelations are important inasmuch as they have helped turn the overbearing reach of Power from a legal and political abstraction to a felt reality in our lives.

On Independence Day, it is appropriate to let ourselves be inspired by the simple fact that Snowden is American. Snowden as much comes out of a culture of American Independence as he contributes to it. Don’t think that the Chinese, Russians, Iranians and French states, for example, aren’t doing all the things that the Americans are – or that, at least they would if they had American resources and power. But Edward Snowden isn’t Chinese, Russian, Iranian, or French. Perhaps that is no accident. Perhaps it is worth celebrating the fact that there is still enough of the founding, independent, spirit of these United States left that caused one of its sons not just to hold to its founding values, but to do something about them.

The American liberty movement is understandably pre-occupied with law, policy and political institutions. All of these are of course profoundly important. But the real game is in people’s minds. If we can strengthen our culture of freedom by telling the truth about where we stand today, contrasting it with our rich tradition of liberty, and thereby stimulating that healthy sense of “how dare they?”, then the politics shall take care of themselves. Repealing a bill is hard for you or me to do. Getting people to care is not. Snowden has gotten many people to care. As Bill Clinton said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

Whatever else is true, Snowden is an Independent American whose principles are the principles of American Independence. And that is surely all that any Patriot is called to be.

On this Independence Day, God bless England, America’s crucible; God bless Snowden and every other true patriot, and God bless the United States of America.

On July 4th, Remember the “Sons of Liberty”

On this July 4th holiday I hope that you will take a moment to truly consider the sacrifices made by so many generations of Americans that have made us free.  I would like to share with you an idea from our nation’s birthSons-of-Liberty that may have been forgotten by many.  No doubt you have heard of a group that paved the way to the American Revolution known as the Sons of Liberty?

What you may not know is that this group of patriots started small as a group of agitators known as the Loyal Nine.  The name came from the fact that this group consisted of only nine men, committed to agitation of the Stamp Act.  The Loyal Nine began in the summer of 1765, eleven years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Within one year, their number would grow to over two thousand men known as the Sons of Liberty.  Possibly, they are best remembered for their role in the Boston Tea Party and in the tarring and feathering of Stamp Tax collectors.

The true role of the Sons of Liberty however, was most influential not only in those dramatic acts of defiance against British tyranny but in their role in media.  Yes, in media!

If you are unfamiliar with the Stamp Act, it was a direct tax by the British Parliament specifically on the colonies of British America. The Stamp Act required that many printed materials in the colonies be produced on stamped paper produced in London, carrying an embossed revenue stamp. These printed materials included legal documents, magazines, newspapers and many other types of paper used throughout the colonies. Like previous taxes, the stamp tax had to be paid in valid British currency, not in colonial paper money.
A great many of the Sons of Liberty were printers and publishers themselves, and even those who were not were sympathetic to the cause. It was they who would pay the most as a result of the Stamp Act. Nearly every newspaper in the colonies carried daily reports of the activities of the Sons. Accounts of the most dramatic escapades spread throughout the colonies. In one most remarkable incident, an account of the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions was printed far and wide. The ultimate effect of such reporting was to embolden both citizens and Legislatures in every colony.

When the Stamp Act became effective on November 1st of 1765, nearly all of these papers went right on publishing without the required Stamp.  One of the direct goals of the Stamp Act was to crack down on free speech by these colonial newspapers. Why was the work of the Sons of Liberty so important to the coming revolution?  Because the newspaper printers of the colonies were the original American alternative media.  These newspapers were able to speak against propaganda pushed by the British authority.

Today, we commonly use words like “liberty” and “freedom” to describe our lives and our nation without considering the cost of those words. It is easy to discuss these things when the majority of people in our nation embrace the language.  Today as you celebrate this Independence Day, whether it be with a family BBQ or a fireworks display, consider for moment that at one time the idea of independence was not accepted by the majority of people in the colonies until a faithful few- like the Loyal Nine- stepped out and did the work of a patriot.  Speaking out against tyranny, even when the majority would not do so.  Perhaps it was the work of the Loyal Nine and the Sons of Liberty that inspired another patriot, Samuel Adams, to write:

“It does not take a majority to prevail… but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.”

Happy Independence Day!

B

Police Planning 4th of July ‘No Refusal’ Blood-Draw DUI Checkpoints

On July 4th, 1776, America’s founding generation took its first historic step towards an experiment in freedom that unleashed one of the most innovative and productive nations in world history. On July 2nd of that year, the Second Continental Congress had voted to separate itself from the oppressive tyranny of the Kingdom of Great Britain. Two days later, the Declaration of Independence was drafted (though historians dispute whether it might have been signed a month later).

Since that time, citizens across the US have celebrated American-style freedom on the Fourth of July, grilling out and firing fireworks in honor of the liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights. However, some alarming new Independence Day traditions have emerged in the contemporary United States. State and local police across the country are preparing “no refusal” DUI and DWI checkpoints at which citizens will be investigated for suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, not on the basis of their driving, but simply due to their geographic location. Those who refuse to submit to a breathalyzer test will be forced to endure a blood test instead.

Texas police have announced that they will be running “no refusal” programs with mandatory blood testing for those who refuse breathalyzers, as will law enforcers in Oregon and Tennessee. Judicial officials will be on hand all throughout the holiday weekend to approve warrants, in some cases over the phone, that allow officers to take blood from citizens by force, which will then be examined for intoxicants. Due to the questionable constitutionality of its program, Tennessee state law requires that the locations of the checkpoints be made available to the public in advance. The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security has publicized its checkpoint locations, which can be found at this link.

Civil liberties advocates have long argued that checkpoints violate the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, as being in a geographic location does not constitute probable cause to launch a criminal investigation against an individual. Also, checkpoints take officers off the street, where it would be easier to watch for reckless drivers, and instead concentrate them in specific locations where drivers wait in a line, making it impossible for police to determine whether or not the individuals being investigated are driving dangerously. Without being able to watch for signs of reckless driving, officers will rely on less reliable indicators such as communication skills or redness of eyes to make judgments on drivers’ level of impairment, possibly putting individuals with colds, allergies, or long shifts at work in a position to be falsely suspected of DUI. Those who do not want to submit to a breathalyzer test could then be subjected to a blood test by force on the very day set aside by Americans to celebrate freedom from tyranny.