This past Thursday night I attended a salon populated primarily by foreign affairs professionals. The guest speaker was Dan Twining, the President of the International Republican Institute (IRI). IRI identifies its mission as to "advance democracy and freedom. We link people with their governments, guide politicians to be responsive to citizens, and motivate people to engage in the political process." In short, IRI spreads American values throughout the world, and apparently emphasizes two such values above all else – the commitment to democracy and to freedom.
After that salon, I’ve been reflecting on IRI’s charge. Just how committed to those values are we? In other words, just how “American” is America today?
Over the course of the last year or so, this blog has frequently addressed the state of American democracy. I think it is safe to say our commitment to democratic values can be questioned. Just consider, to take a few examples: the rampant efforts at voter suppression that come to light prior to each election; the high percentage of eligible voters who don’t even bother to cast a ballot (in the case of midterms, we’re talking about the vast majority of eligible voters); the existence of rampant gerrymandering in the U.S. Congressional Districts; the fact that there are populated areas that have no representation whatsoever in the Senate (just ask the folks of D.C. and Puerto Rico) or any voting representation in the House; the fact that four states with the largest populations have about as many people as the 35 states with the smallest populations, but the latter get nearly nine times as many representatives in the U.S. Senate; and the memory of two recent Presidential elections where the winner lost the popular vote.
If our society is committed to democracy, let’s just say that we have embraced a rather odd definition of that term. Fortunately, however, for organizations like IRI and its blue analogue, the National Democratic Institute, our nation remains far and away more democratic than many others around the world. So we can still enjoy at least a modicum of credibility when we take our pro-democracy lectures across the pond.
The same can surely be said for our commitment to freedom, and then some. If there is one value that continues to unify Americans, it’s the love of freedom. In some respects, you can say that whatever is either best or worst about this country stems from our obsession with freedom. To be sure, there are ways in which other countries surpass us in that regard. Several countries have legalized euthanasia, and we have not. But even in that regard we are ahead of the curve, for euthanasia is now legal in many states and that number is sure to increase over time.
As a Jew, I am incredibly thankful for America’s commitment to church/state neutrality and the sacred right to freely exercise one’s faith. It’s not a coincidence that we have easily the world’s most thriving Jewish community outside of Israel. As the President of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue of Washington, I also appreciate how difficult it would be for our government to outlaw certain traditional Muslim attire; Europeans might be able to get away with that sort of Islamophobic law, but it won’t fly here.
The American love for freedom is not just etched into our laws. It’s ingrained in our culture. Our national symbol, the bald eagle, says it all – we want to be able to soar in whatever direction we see fit. To dress the way we want. To love who we want. To smoke what we want. To worship in the morning and visit topless bars at night. (Well, OK, not all of us want to do that, thankfully, but most of us believe in the right to be able to do it without Big Brother swooping down and stopping us.)
It is not surprising that the two laws in our country that generate the most passion are the first two amendments of our Constitution: the right to freedom of expression in all its manifestations, and the right to bear arms. Is it any wonder that opponents of the Second Amendment are left to flail away in failure despite the fact that this nation is thoroughly awash in firearms? If America permits something that is valued by a substantial portion of society, God help whoever tries to outlaw it. Fly, eagles, fly.
Personally, I can appreciate this sentiment. I despise guns, but I accept that in this culture, those who own them will probably get to keep them. I don’t smoke dope, but I wouldn’t deprive others of the right to do so. Or to visit prostitutes, or to eat meat – neither of which I partake in. Nor would I advocate restricting the freedom of speech except in very limited ways. No engaging in fraud. No shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater. But if you want to say all sorts of obnoxious things on the campaign trail ... I wouldn’t stop you.
Free speech has always been the quintessential American right. Our system has worked because, for the most part, we haven’t abused it. At least not until now. Today, for the first time in my lifetime, we’re putting our commitment to free speech to the test.
Every day you can turn on the radio and hear nationally syndicated personalities spew insults in the direction of “liberals,” “Feminazis,” or anyone else who gets in the way of their preferred political party. Alternatively, you can turn on the television and watch the liberals get their revenge with incessant mockery against their own opponents. Our President refers to the press as the “enemy of the people.” Our campaign rallies are punctuated by nasty chants directed at media outlets and prominent politicians. For some, this is all just fun and games. But for others, and I dare say most, it has become a Petri dish of hatred. Today, if you want to be politically engaged and fit in with your environment, you better choose a team, demonize the opponent, and relish the name calling.
In this past week, the chickens started coming home to roost. Politically motivated mail bombs were sent all over the country to some of the nation’s most recognized citizens. Immediately, the purveyors of hatred distanced themselves from these criminal acts. And technically, they were right. It’s illegal to send mail bombs, but legal to regularly spew hate. That’s the American way.
It’s also a case of having-it-both-ways. If we are going to use our commitment to freedom to wage a civil war of words in which members of each political party are taught to despise the other, how do we expect to export American values around the world? And what exactly do we expect to happen here at home? Frankly, if our political and cultural leaders viciously rip into their political opponents day after day, calling them names, questioning their patriotism, and effectively talking about them like a cancer on the American soul, isn’t more violence inevitable? How can we subject 300 million people to these daily toxins and expect them all to figure out that the “game” is to be nasty, or even hateful, but not violent?
This past week, we got lucky. Nobody got hurt. But remember, our commitment to freedom doesn’t simply permit lots of hate speech; it also permits lots of guns, including assault weapons. In recent years, cultural and political leaders have seemed to think they can bombard 300 million people with disrespect, hatred and guns ... and expect everyone to keep their fingers off the trigger. I realize freedom is a great thing. But even great things have a price, and in this case it’s insanity. Something has to give, my friends. No scorched-earth civil war can possibly remain peacefully civil forever.
Let’s hope that in ten days, we elect leaders who refuse to demagogue or demonize and who have the courage to speak out against those who do. As for the rest of us, just please remember that no matter who you are or what political party you belong to, take a breath before you hate.