Putting Liberty at Risk in the Name of Order and National Security

In 1792, James Madison published a little dialogue between a "Republican" and an "Anti-republican" entitled "Who Are the Best Keepers of the People's Liberties?" defending the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

In this playlet, the "Republican"--clearly Madison himself--is a proponent of Liberty. His answer is unequivocal: "The people themselves. The sacred trust can be no where so safe as in the hands most interested in preserving it.

The "Anti-republican" opponent, an advocate of Order, replies: "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. Alfred Sikes, then Chair 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 Sikes 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 aren't actively demanding these freedoms, they don't need them.

Twenty years later, it's evident that advocates of Order are ascendant in Washington, and that the present administration believes the people are "stupid, suspicious, licentious," and should leave "the care of their liberties to their wiser rulers."

Madison has the voice of Liberty continue: " ... too 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."

The "Anti-republican" 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 "Republican" 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 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."

In the past twenty years we have 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 natural resources. We have seen the prophets of Order decree that national security demands the suspension of rights of due process.

In 1991, I was stunned by Sikes' pronouncement. I believed 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.

We see now that Sikes predicted the movement to privatize freedom of speech and Press, and make the Press and broadcast media, and later the Internet and social media, into commodities available on commercial markets--business opportunities for corporations.

In 2003 the FCC relaxed regulations on media ownership with the same reasoning: enrich the government with influence from large corporations, and say to the public: "You 'stupid, suspicious, licentious' 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.. Don't worry--your government is enlightened, vigilant, 'enriched with influence and armed with force' and will take care of everything. Just don't resist, 'Trust Us,' and you won't need liberty."

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have shown us that Congress has not in fact been controlling the CIA, NSA, FBI, or DIA, and that those agencies are contracting out most of our spying to private for-profit contractors and technologists with skills and reach beyond anything imagined even five years ago. The scripts they are playing have been secret, but basically unprotected.

Snowden and Greenwald are merely the vanguard of people of conscience who will come forward to reveal the extent of the loss of our basic liberties.

In Madison's 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's "Republican" 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."

To manage the challenges of terrorism, endless war and climate change we are going to need the best resources of all Americans. Our success will depend not so much on what plans are in place, what codes are operating, how much metadata we have, how many potential terrorists are thwarted or how many whistle-blowers are in prison, but on the widespread ability of a people armed with free speech and a free Press to question authority, to improvise, to use common sense, and most of all, an underlying commitment to respect and help one another, and work together stop the endless cycle of war, violence and persecution.

Madison had it right: free people don't call one another traitors.

Liberty disdains to persecute.

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