If we created and ranked national holidays to honor events most important to our daily lives, surely December 15 would rate near the top. But most media ignored this notable anniversary. It’s not a legal holiday. Heck, there weren’t even any ads in my Sunday newspaper touting a sale to commemorate the event that dignifies our claim to be a “land of the free.”
Those surprised or angered by Americans’ failure to counter the assaults on our freedom by John Ashcroft, George Bush, et.al., might consider the anonymity of December 15—the date our country’s founders ratified the Bill of Rights 210 years ago—as a symptom of national amnesia of our own civil rights history. Perhaps we do not aggressively defend our own Constitutional rights because we are ignorant of their history and importance.
Supporting this theory is an annual poll that gauges citizen knowledge and attitudes toward the First Amendment, commissioned by Vanderbilt University’s Freedom Forum. This year, 29 percent of respondents agreed strongly with the statement "The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees" while another 10 percent simply agreed, suggesting that almost four in 10 people believe we enjoy too much freedom of expression. That number rose dramatically from previous years.
But this is just a passing reaction to September 11; we’re still freedom-loving people, right? Sorry, the poll was taken last April!
The poll also found 23 percent of respondents disagreed that “newspapers should be able to publish freely without government approval of a story” and only 57 percent agreed strongly that "newspapers should be allowed to criticize public officials.”
So what can those of us who value civil rights do to counter attacks on our hard-won freedoms? There is no quick fix. We must rally to stop further encroachments, but we need also to sow seeds for our future liberty by passing forgotten values on to our children. Disrespect for the Constitution is not a new phenomenon with the Bush administration, but a perpetual dilemma.
When President Clinton alarmingly stated "The United States can't be so fixed on our desire to preserve the rights of ordinary Americans" in 1993, barely a murmur was heard in response.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has warned that "The Constitution needs renewal and understanding each generation, or it's not going to last." Key to such understanding is recognizing that early Americans were reluctant to establish a central government powerful enough to suppress freedom. The Constitution was ratified by the states only because Congress promised to add guarantees of liberty—the Bill of Rights—in a permanent contract between citizens and the federal government.
Yet today we allow these rights to be treated as privileges that Congress or White House officials may choose to ignore or revoke. Our founders would be apoplectic to witness our Attorney General, with unabashed contempt for free speech, accuse civil rights defenders of aiding terrorists. Yet no Congressperson or major newspaper has called for his removal.
Unfortunately, the Constitution isn’t self-enforcing. Though generations of Americans in the military and social justice movements have fought and died for rights we enjoy today, the Constitution merely is discolored paper without vigilant defense.
While addressing the current civil rights crisis, we also need to rebuild a culture of freedom. We should strive to engage our young people in civics, facilitate their understanding beyond check-box memorization of historical facts and promote a sense of patriotism that involves loyalty to our Constitutional principles, not blind obedience to power.
While dangerous laws like the “Patriot Act” already passed, we have reason for hope. Remember that serious attacks on liberties have succeeded many times in our past--notably during every major war. Yet each time our rights have been curtailed, not only have we struggled successfully to reclaim those rights, but institutionalized more.
We can and must do it again, but let's recognize that e-mails or petitions are insufficient. We must organize well beyond the "usual suspects" to build a critical mass of resistance to the war on freedom. If each of us who shares these concerns pushes past our comfort level to inform and engage those with whom we share a holiday dinner table, we'll go far in fomenting the needed insurgency.
And while we organize to restore freedoms lost, let’s strive to ensure that future generations will have no need to repeat our defensive struggle, but instead can progress further still.
Jeff Milchen is the founder of ReclaimDemocracy.org, a non-profit organization devoted to revitalizing grassroots democracy and revoking the power of corporations and money over civic society. Originally published in the winter 2002 edition of The Insurgent, ReclaimDemocracy.org's quarterly print publication.