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The New Social Contract — and Why You're Not Part of It

People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.
- Benjamin Franklin

It was, I suppose, inevitable. For 225 years, we stumbled toward freedom and held tyranny at bay with a simple piece of parchment.

Yes, the Constitution is a less than perfect document. But until recently, we rode the tide of history, moving steadily in the direction of greater freedom. But it was always and only five pieces of brittle parchment. Merely as strong as the men and women – citizen and leader alike – who claimed to cherish the values it espoused.

Now, fear makes us weak and it threatens to shred that delicate parchment, and usher in an era of tyranny. Indeed, it is well on the way toward doing so.

The Constitution was built on a principle arrived at in the Enlightenment: the simple notion that the governed and those who would govern, essentially entered into a social contract. An agreement about how we would apportion and share power.

Over the years, we adopted a broader definition of who that social contract included and built protections into the document to assure that we honored them.

But today, in the home of the brave, fear trumps freedom. In the name of security, a massive and patently illegal surveillance program that would make George Orwell’s 1984 look low-tech, reaches into our living rooms and infects our national discourse.

The Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788. It was only 5 pages long, written on paper so thin you can almost see through it with no power except the integrity of those who signed it and the power of the ideas embedded in it.

On December 15, 1791, the States ratified the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Another single sheet of paper-thin parchment – it extended individual freedoms and further limited government’s power. Here again, the parchment had no power except the power embedded in a vigilant, brave, and freedom loving people.

Over the years, blacks were freed and given the vote; women were enfranchised; government’s power further constrained.

Wars were fought to protect these freedoms; men and women died, were wounded, and disabled guarding these rights from foreign threats. Yes, many wars were fought for reasons of imperial or economic hegemony, not defense of the freedoms in our system of government, but many were.

After 911, we began to construct a security state. We took razor blades to the parchment and excised freedoms we had hitherto died for. Warrantless wiretapping; systematic eavesdropping on a massive scale; even imprisonment and execution of America citizens without due process.


Because, it made us safer from the threat of terrorism, we were told. That’s what Bush said; that’s what Congress – especially Republicans -- stated (until it gave them an excuse to bash Obama – which apparently means more to them than security); and that’s what Obama claims now.


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Well, OK. Let’s say that’s true. Does it justify jettisoning the constraints and protections that we’ve fought for? Does it warrant reversing the tide of history and rolling back the freedoms we’ve gained.

If we freely give away – out of fear – that which our attackers would have taken from us, don’t they win? Don’t we lose?

Less than 3,000 people died on 911. This is about what we kill with cars on a slow month, and about what we kill with guns in a slow year.

Since then, even using the most expansive definition of terrorist killings, less than 100 more have been killed by terrorists, including the 3 fatalities in Boston this year.

Put another way, over the last decade, terrorism – even including 911 – has killed an average of about 20 people a month, compared with 3000 to 4000 a month from cars, and 300 from guns.

How can we hold dear the grossly exaggerated freedoms in the Second Amendment, while gutting those in the Fourth Amendment, when the result is to kill more than 10 times the number of people as terrorists do?

But more importantly, how can we give away freedoms so cavalierly, when the threat we face is so small?

Are we a nation of cowards, willing to relinquish freedom at the first whiff of a threat?

The quote from Benjamin Franklin above called us to courage; the words and actions of our leaders today call us to cowardice.

One can’t help wonder whether the difference is because tyranny has already been visited upon our land – it came from within, in the form of corporate hegemony. Perhaps the constant drumbeat about the terrorist threat is merely cover for the fact that the social contract has been rewritten since Reagan. No longer is the compact between the governed and the government – it is between the corporations and the government.

We are now one nation, under corporations, for corporations, by corporations.

Perhaps the hoary threat of terrorism is meant to keep us from recognizing that. The fact that it also allows the government to tap your phone; observe your emails and otherwise poke its nose in your business, is just gravy.

At any rate, there’s a new contract in town, and you’re not part of it, and that’s why your rights are diminishing.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson

screen_shot_2017-07-26_at_9.09.47_pm.pngJohn Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track, both available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson

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