We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…
Life. Liberty. Happiness.
We hold these truths to be self evident.
Great words, great ideals, especially when you’re telling a king to stick it up his ass.
We hold these truths to be self evident.
Except for that that part, of course, where those truths weren’t self evident.
Not at all.
The men who wrote that letter to King George may have found certain inalienable rights to be self evident, but they were in the minority. King George III certainly didn’t find those rights to be self evident, nor did his governors in the colonies, nor the nobles of the British Empire, nor did most American colonists for that matter.
It turned out that there was nothing self evident about any of it, as the Founders themselves found out once they’d won their independence and set themselves down to write the Constitution . That lack of evidence is one of the reasons the words in the Constitution are very, very different from those in the Declaration.
Even after the Constitution was hammered out, those truths were anything but self evident. For the better part of 1787 the Framers locked themselves in the Pennsylvania State House and shouted at each other, arguing over whether or not an enumerated bill of rights should be included. George Mason and Elbridge Gerry demanded a formal list of rights, but others such as James Wilson passionately argued that incorporation of any specific rights in the Constitution was a bad idea because it directly implied that any rights not explicitly enumerated did not legally exist – inalienable though they may be.
Turns out, both sides were correct.
Two centuries later, you’ll find Americans declaring with a straight face that citizens have a God given right to carry a full military arsenal into the toy section of Target and gun down whomever they perceive to be a threat but not the right to vote or even a minimum degree of healthcare.
If rights are not specifically spelled out in the fabric of the country’s governing document, then it’s not long before some pinch-faced self-involved jackass decides those rights don’t exist, or that they apply only to a certain segment of the population. If you say “all men are created equal” when what you really meant was “all human beings regardless of sex, creed, color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or lack thereof, age, ability, height, weight, dexterity, eye color, ear size, attractiveness, income bracket, military service, pacifism, reading ability, bilateral symmetry, political affiliation, taste in music, and any other bullshit category we divide people up into” then what will inevitably happen is that somebody, somewhere will argue that those rights don’t apply to people they don’t like.
And that, Folks, that right there, is just about the only self evident truth.
Ironically enough, that is also exactly what the Founding Fathers were talking about in their declaration to King George.
The Framers corrected their naiveté in fairly short order. Those today who would enshrine the Constitution as holy writ, handed down from their deity inviolate and Divine, ignore the fact that the very men who wrote the Constitution considered it a flawed and imperfect product of human endeavor right from the very beginning – and many said so, loudly. And they not only included in the very fabric of the Constitution itself a mechanism for change and update, they themselves set about making modifications and corrections almost immediately.
The Bill of Rights is one of those changes – the first ten changes in point of fact, if you want to get technical about it.
Those Amendments addressed certain truths that weren’t self evident to all.
But it wasn’t enough.
It took a Civil War and another modification to the Constitution to force the nation to acknowledge certain rights, rights that should have been self evident but weren’t – and apparently still aren’t to a significant fraction of the population. Women’s Suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, the battle for Gay Rights, these struggles exist because for far too many Americans, Americans who should damned know better by now, the truth of human rights just isn’t all that self evident.
And the fundamental problem is this: For Americans, our rights come without responsibilities.
The Founding Fathers apparently had a much higher opinion of us than we deserve. As such they overlooked this simple self evident truth: rights must come with accountability – otherwise, for a population increasingly without reason and prone to extremism, rights become less about individualism and more a license for violent ideology and unhinged fanaticism without consequence.
And you don’t have to look very far to find proof of what I’m talking about here.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Freedom of religion was intended as exactly that, the personal freedom to believe or not without the government imposing belief, or not, upon you. It’s as simple as that, if you believe, fine, then go believe. Go to your church, say the hosannas, sing the hymns, drink the wine, fondle the snakes (or the priests, whatever), shake, dance, and rock and roll. But the First Amendment does not give you the right to use your goddamned religion as a club to beat the rest of us about the head and shoulders. You have no right, no right at all, none, to threaten the rest of us with your God. Fuck you. You have no right, no right at all, none, to tell the rest of us who we can marry or how to manage our own reproduction or to demand equal time with science in the classroom. Freedom of religion was intended to keep your god out of my government, and my government out of your church, not so you can go around acting like a raving jackass or so that TV personalities can grow insanely rich tax free or so that corporations can make healthcare choices for their employees in the name of their CEO’s small and selfish god. If you claim that the earth is 6000 years old and you demand creationism be taught in public schools in direct conflict with everything we know about how the universe works, then before you’re allowed to damage the next generation you should have to prove your silly nonsense to the same exact level of scientific rigor we demand from any field of science. If you claim that same-sex marriage “will destroy the fabric of society” then the burden of proof is on you and you alone, you should have to prove your statement in a court of law in no uncertain terms. Freedom of religion wasn’t enumerated in the Bill of Rights so you could use it to deny everybody else their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
For far too many Americans that is exactly what Freedom of Religion has become – a club to beat others with.
Freedom of speech was intended to allow each citizen to express themselves without fear of a king lopping off their head. But it doesn’t mean that you can go around saying any stupid-assed thing you like without consequence or without taking responsibility for your idiotic nonsense. Freedom of speech wasn’t intended to protect you from getting punched in the nose when you say something stupid, ignorant, racist, sexist, homophobic, jingoistic, demeaning, insulting, hateful, inflammatory, or so you can just keep flogging your pet conspiracy theory over and over and over no matter how many times it’s been soundly debunked. It’s one thing for some drooling nut with a bad comb-over to call the president a communist Muslim from Kenya, it’s another thing entirely for a sitting Congresswoman to do so over and over without consequence.
Freedom of speech was intended to ensure individual liberty, not to tear the country apart for a political agenda or to enshrine booger-eating paranoid stupidity as some kind of virtue.
Freedom of the press was intended to ensure that the people had multiple sources of independent information about their world and an avenue of inspection into their government. The Framers weren’t so naïve as to expect unbiased truth from the press, but they intended Freedom of the Press to provide an independent check upon the excesses of government power. Freedom of the Press was never intended to allow media moguls and pundits and corporations to become petty tyrants themselves. Freedom of the Press was intended to keep Americans informed, not so that the media could become a substitute for critical thought. Freedom of the Press was intended to give Americans food for thought not a replacement for it. Like Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press was intended to preserve the Union not tear it asunder, it was intended to preserve liberty not to destroy it under an avalanche of hate and fear and falsehoods in the name of profit and politics.
Freedom of the Press was intended to give the people a voice, not to put words into their mouths.
Freedom of Assembly was intended to allow people to gather together, in celebration, in communication, in worship, in concern, in defense, in petition, in whatever peaceable manner they choose up to and especially in criticism of government. Freedom of Assembly wasn’t intended to allow a bunch of gun waving racists and haters to gather together and threaten to shoot down the government and snarl at their neighbors because they don’t want to pay their fair share or because they refuse to acknowledge the rights of other Americans. We settled that, long ago, we called it the Civil War.
Freedom of Assembly was intended to facilitate direct communication between the people and their government, not so the raging mindless mob could burn our nation down and squat in the ruins.
Freedom to Petition the Government For Redress of Grievances was intended to do exactly what it says, to allow each citizen to face the government on a equal footing in court and demand legal satisfaction for violation of their rights and liberty. Freedom to petition the government is similar to Freedom of Assembly, the difference being that Assembly is a direct form of communication and Redress is through the government itself via the Judicial Branch. Freedom to Petition applies to business as well as individuals but it was never intended to allow business to dictate individual rights.
Freedom to Petition the Government for Redress of Grievances was intended to preserve individual liberty, not so business or the church could use the courts to force their version of morality upon the rest of us.
And there’s this:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
If there is any right – enumerated or assumed – that we Americans have perverted beyond all rational recognition, it’s this one. If ever there was a right Americans demand free of any responsibility whatsoever, it’s this one. The right to keep and bear arms was intended so that every American could muster to the defense of the nation in time of crises, not so a bunch of dimwitted paranoid droolers with tiny brains and even smaller dicks could carry an arsenal of automatic weaponry into restaurants and the toy section of their local department store. The right to keep and bear arms was never ever intended to allow thirty thousand Americans to die or be injured every single goddamned year in firearms related violence. The right to keep and bear arms was not enumerated in the Constitution so that a bunch of irresponsible government hating religious nuts could go around threatening to kill the rest of us. A nation of crazy fanatics with guns is not the price of freedom.
The right to Keep and Bear Arms was intended to secure liberty, not to make Americans afraid in their own communities.
And so it goes, from the First Amendment to the Tenth.
Two and half centuries ago Americans fought for freedom from the tyranny of a foreign king.
They fought for the rights we now take for granted, that we take as our birthright and our due as Americans without effort or responsibility or thought for the consequences of our abuse.
As I sit here, on July 4th, 2014, it seems to me that the inalienable truths that were so obvious to our Founders are no more self evident for many Americans today than they were to the King of England 238 years ago.
It is long past time to shout down the crazies and the haters and those to whom the truth of life, liberty, and the promise of happiness for all human beings, whoever and wherever they are, is not self evident.
It is long past time for Americans to start living up to the promise of our founding.
Happy Independence Day.
Now, get to work.
In Moscow we fought for an inch of freedom! Here you take it and pour shit all over it.
- Vladimir Ivanoff, Moscow on the Hudson, Columbia Pictures 1984