By Chris Mills
I haven’t written in a few weeks, but not for lack of interest. Like you, I have been watching the iconic current events lately unfolding in the news, of a kind suggesting strongly that they ought to mean something. By iconic events I refer to such as the Encyclopedia Britannica announcing the cessation of printed editions; the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman; the killing of Afghan civilians by Robert Bales; the Republican presidential primary campaign; and America’s sudden obsession with Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution.
To write something cogent about an event, one must first perceive it in a light that suggests something specific, and meaningful, or at least interesting. But of these sorts of events, which lately seem to come at us hand over fist, I have seen nothing specific, meaningful, or even all that interesting. The loudest message in any of the current headlines is that nothing has changed. But taken together, then I think something begins to emerge worth observing. Or, at least, taken together the news lately may act as a catalyst upon our thoughts, and bring us to the question: “what do all these things mean, and what does it all have to do with me?”
One answer is that it has nothing to do with you or me. Encyclopedia Britannica could go on making books; George Zimmerman could have holstered his weapon; Robert Bales could have stayed in his barracks; Mitt Romney could have pursued a career in philanthropy; history could have taken any one of these paths, and our lives would be no different than they are. Watching and listening to the shrill headlines has a myopic effect. We begin to feel like passive observers of our own lives and society. Or perhaps a better analogy is that we become ensnared like Ahab on the flank of the Great White Whale of these cacophonic times, a victim of our own credulity.
Emerson wrote: “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.” Now, books hardly hold the place they did in Emerson’s day, but I think the principle stands. Tradition and received wisdom have their place, but there is no law stopping us from writing books of our own. We study the lives and writings of Jefferson, Paine, Roosevelt, Reagan, Obama and Romney, as we should. But at the end of the day, there are no guns to our heads to sign a Norquist-like pledge of allegiance to any of those men’s ideas, except the guns we point at ourselves.
Partisanship is rife in more than just our politics. Every new issue seems to compel us to take up sides. We seem more obsessed with our judgments than with our personal credibility as judges. Put 20 presumably well-informed men and women together and ask them about any hot issue of the day and you’ll get two opinions, not 20.
The overarching problem with partisanship is that it makes us weak and susceptible to whomever speaks most loudly. The reason the flood of nefarious money unloosed by the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision is so, well, nefarious, is that it buys volume. If we were more alive to a message’s content than its loudness, Citizens United would be moot. Shine the light of critical reasoning upon American politics and today’s politicians will scurry for cover. New men and women, of a character that does not dread the light of reason would take their places. Things would get moving again.
American freedom, I mean true American freedom, is under assault, not from without but from within. Every generation has its mortal threat and this one is ours. We are challenged to insist upon the right of habeas corpus for our minds. And as the threat comes from within, so too must the response. It will not come from President Obama or Gov. Romney. It will not come from FOX or MSNBC. It cannot be found in Google or on Facebook. Nor can it be looked for from the Occupy or tea-party movements. These last two are more part of the threat than the hope, in their mutual parodies of conformity and convention.
I loathe the bumper sticker that reads “Freedom Isn’t Free.” It’s preachy and hypocritical. But insofar as our intellects are concerned, it gets at a kernel of truth. American society is jealous of its equilibrium. The cost of free thinking can be very dear.
In the final analysis, the freedom we have is the freedom we deserve. If we would change it then we’ll have to give up the comfort of our received opinions and fight a second citizen’s revolution. But this time the action will not be in our fields and forests. It will be in every American living room, wherever and whenever a citizen soldier squares off against his television, and stands his ground.
Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife. He has three adult children. Chris welcomes reader feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.