MAY 23, 2012
What We Remember
This week’s first moment of clarity comes courtesy of my wife, Joanne, who astutely observed that politics is like a drug – too much of it causes you to do things you don’t want to do.
She is right, of course. Politics drives honest people to lie, kind people to hate, optimists to turn dour, happy people to become angry, humble people to seek glory, balanced people to become obsessed, and content people to covet.
Timid people join angry mobs and shout vile epithets. People who would not utter an unkind word hurl insults in blog comments while hiding behind aliases and assumed names. Property is vandalized, jobs are threatened, businesses are boycotted in the name of politics, as if “it’s politics” was a hall pass to excuse criminal activity.
Like drugs, we convince ourselves that the views we agree with are soothing, moderate, and healthy, while insisting that those we disagree with are toxic, frightening, and deadly. When we gather with like-minded partisans, it is a benevolent wine tasting party; but when our opponents gather, those are crack-heads plotting a crime spree.
It is easy to see that the ends don’t justify the means, but our real hidden problem is that the ends – control of government – has become worth the means. Kings and Queens would not trade their honor to be servants, and we are intended to be a nation of 310 million self-sovereigns. Our government was not created to be the weapon by which we deny our neighbors’ liberty, and yet that is what it has become.
Our great advances in the human condition were not brought about by government action; government was dragged kicking and screaming into the industrial age, the abolitionist movement, the prohibitionist movement, universal suffrage, racial integration, the communication age, the information age, and the global economy.
The middle class was not created by an act of Congress; institutional charity was not the result of an executive order to be charitable; we do not have smart phones because there is a federal Department of Very Cool Stuff. Everything that is began as a new and radical idea inside of one free-thinking person’s head. It is freedom – not government – that enables those new ideas to take root and disrupt the status quo.
America is not a great nation because of our government; we became a great nation because we placed limits on our government. Our Founding Fathers knew that concentrations of wealth and power corrupt human nature. They took great pains to isolate government, to limit its reach, and to distribute its power. We need only to look around at the mess we have made with our post-constitutional experiment to appreciate the wisdom of their vision.
They set up a careful balance of powers between states and the federal government. They constructed a representative Republic and divided that government into equal branches; legislative to make laws, executive to enforce them, and judicial to resolve disputes. They placed our nation’s capital in a swamp, and not by accident. They gave us a Constitution which makes clear that all three branches exist only to protect our rights and preserve our self-sovereignty.
That Constitution lists the enumerated and limited powers of Congress, specifies the roles and qualifications of the executive and judicial, and adds an additional perimeter firewall of defense in the Bill Of Rights to protect the rights of citizens from the encroachment of government.
They understood clearly what we fail to grasp – that government is force and those who seek to expand its power are the enemies of liberty. They knew that power intoxicates so they made it difficult to get a fix and nearly impossible to overdose.
This weekend we honor the memories of all in who gave their lives to defend that Constitution and to protect the freedoms it enshrines. They were Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Constitutionalists, Whigs, Socialists, Bull Moose, Populists, Progressives, independents and members of dozens of other parties and factions whose names and slogans have come and gone over time.
But they were not partisans when they died; they were Americans – kids, mostly. For them there is only one country, one uniform, one flag, one oath, one white stone marker.
They did not seek glory for themselves; they served their nation, they did their duty, they sacrificed their lives so that we could pursue happiness in ours. They did not fight for a candidate, or a party, or a program; they fought for their country, they fought for each other, they fought for their families, and they fought for our freedom. Their families grieved so that ours might prosper.
We remember their sacrifice with gratitude; that is the purpose of the holiday. We honor their memories when we live free and prosper, and we dishonor ourselves when we take our liberty for granted. Have a happy and honorable Memorial Day.