... asked James Madison, author of the Bill or Rights, in short dialog with that title published in 1792. The first speaker, a proponent of Liberty -- clearly Madison himself -- replies: The people themselves. The sacred trust can be no where so safe as in the hands most interested in preserving it.
Not so, replies his opponent, an advocate of Order: The people are stupid, suspicious, licentious. They cannot safely trust themselves. When they have established government they should think of nothing but obedience, leaving the care of their liberties to their wiser rulers.
Fast forward to 1991, the Bicentennial of the Bill of Rights. In February Alfred Sikes, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), spoke at the Cleveland City Club about the wonders of new communications media and technologies that were then just coming on-line. In the Q & A following his speech I asked what threats these innovations might pose to freedom of speech, press, and religion under the Bill of Rights. His utterly chilling answer was that it would depend on how much free speech, free press, and freedom of religion "the public demands." In other words, if the people arenít actively demanding these freedoms, they donít need them.
Twelve years later, it is increasingly evident that advocates of Order are ascendant in Washington, and that the present Bush administration believes the people are "stupid, suspicious, licentious", and should leave "the care of their liberties to their wiser rulers."
Madison continues: ... [T]oo true it is, that slavery has been the general lot of the human race. Ignorant--they have been cheated; asleep--they have been surprised; divided--the yoke has been forced upon them. But what is the lesson? That because the people may betray themselves, they ought to give themselves up, blindfold, to those who have an interest in betraying them? Rather conclude that the people ought to be enlightened, to be awakened, to be united, that after establishing a government they should watch over it, as well as obey it.
In 1991, I was stunned by Sikesí pronouncement. I thought the whole idea of the Bill of Rights was to protect the liberties that enlighten, awaken, and empower the people, and place those liberties out of the reach of both government and the marketplace of supply and demand.
Madisonís opponent counters: .... It is not the government that is disposed to fly off from the people; but the people that are ever ready to fly off from the government. Rather say then, enlighten the government, warn it to be vigilant, enrich it with influence, arm it with force, and to the people never pronounce but two words -- Submission and Confidence.
The recent action of the FCC in relaxing regulations on media ownership betrays the same reasoning: enrich the government with influence from large corporations, and say to the public "You Ďstupid, suspicious, licentiousí folks can get all the news, entertainment, religion and political doctrine you need to be obedient subjects (and submissive consumers) through the operation of the free market under giant media corporations. Donít worry -- your government is enlightened, vigilant, Ďenriched with influence and armed with forceí and will take care of everything. Just donít resist, ĎTrust Usí, and you wonít need liberty."
Madison flames in defense of Liberty:....What a perversion of the natural order of things! To make power the primary and central object of the social system, and Liberty but its satellite.
The voice of Order, anticipating Orwell and Ashcroft, disagrees: ....Wonderful as it may seem, the more you increase the attractive force of power, the more you enlarge the sphere of liberty; the more you make government independent and hostile towards the people, the better security you provide for their rights and interests.
Sikesí 1991 statement presaged the current effort to privatize freedom of speech and press, and suggested that the press (expanded now to include broadcast media, photocopying, fax, and Internet) should be commodities available on commercial markets -- business opportunities for corporations.
Liberty up for sale? in response to public demand? by the same corporations that invest in government?
In the past two years we have already seen "message control" in our media displace dissenting views on war, terrorism, foreign policy, the environment, education and drugs. We have seen privatization and deregulation empower multinational corporations selling oil, weapons, drugs and the natural resources necessary for human life. We have seen the prophets of order decree that national security demands the suspension of rights of due process.
In Madisonís dialog the voice of Order accuses: ...You are destitute, I perceive, of every quality of a good citizen, or rather of a good subject. You have neither the light of faith nor the spirit of obedience. I denounce you to the government as an accomplice of atheism and anarchy.
On behalf of Liberty, Madison concludes: And I forbear to denounce you to the people, though a blasphemer of their rights and an idolater of tyranny. Liberty disdains to persecute.
Sikes was more prescient than he knew. Today there will be no freedoms unless the public demands them. If we do not act as keepers of our liberties, we will not have them. Indeed, there wonít even be a dialog between Liberty and Order.
Are we citizens or subjects? Itís up to us, the people.
Caroline Arnold served 12 years on the staff of Senator John Glenn, and now chairs the Kent Environmental Council in Kent, Ohio.