Read a couple tweets yesterday from Charles Cooke (@charlescwcooke):
I don’t like its being done per se, but the fact that people can burn American flags with legal impunity helps to show me that I’m free. 1/2
And frankly I’m much more interested in that beautiful principle than in the people who choose to use it in a way that I dislike. 2/2
Disagree; that we allow the burning of the American flag shows that there are people who want me unfree.
One burns what one does not want. The flag is an abstract symbol of freedom.
I like Cooke’s writing. I think he’s intelligent, well informed and far seeing. He’s a go-to guy for political commentary; so please understand I’m not actually going after Cooke. I get Cooke’s point – we must allow that which is disagreeable to us to ensure our own freedom. And, in fact, that disagreeable things go on proves that we are free. But is this really so? Are we really free when we permit people to rampantly work for anti-freedom? Are we sure, that is, when we allow arguments against freedom to thrive that our freedom will survive?
In the run-up to America’s involvement in the Second World War, while Hitler and Stalin were allied, the American left was stout in its demands that we keep out of the war. So, too, were many patriotic Americans – but for the left, it was purely a political calculation. They weren’t opposed to fighting (after all, just a couple years previously many American leftists eagerly fought for the Spanish Republic against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War – and those who didn’t fight gave money and other support), but merely to our fighting on the side of the British against the Nazi Germans, allied with the Communist Russians. Indeed, in our industries there were strikes which hindered the delivery of war materials to Britain under Lend-Lease – strikes which were fomented by communist elements within the labor movement (after all, why go on strike when orders for war materials are going to give you a job and more pay?). All of that changed, of course, the minute Hitler invaded Soviet Russia – then the left was loud in its demands for war and magically all those strikes in war industries providing Lend-Lease stopped. And just as long as we were allied with the USSR against the common, Nazi enemy we had no trouble on the left. Everyone was united for the war effort. Cool, huh?
But then look what happened when the common, Nazi enemy was struck down – all of a sudden, the left started to discover various problems with American power and most especially with the use of American military and economic power on the global stage. Not a peep of complaint from the left while we fire-bombed Dresden and Tokyo – but inadvertently bomb the wrong village in South Vietnam: the left is calling us war criminals. The genuinely criminal (but highly atypical) massacre at My Lai gets Pulitzer prize reporting…the genuinely criminal (but highly typical – and at least 10 times more deadly) communist massacre at Hue barely rates a mention in the MSM. No anti-war movement in World War Two – but there was one during Korea and vastly more vigorous during Vietnam. All three wars – World War Two, Korea and Vietnam – fought by the same, old United States (flawed but still the beacon and bulwark of human liberty); fought in each case against brutal, inhuman tyrannies, but in two out of the three wars we had leftwing opposition to the war, and in the last case it got strong enough to ensure American defeat.
We can all say – and agree – that it signifies American greatness that we permit vigorous dissent against American actions. That we have vast numbers of people who continually criticize the things we do. But is there a difference between someone pointing out a wrong we’re doing and someone who is committed to destroying who we are? There was, after all, a vigorous anti-war movement during the American Civil War. It greatly strengthened the North in it’s war effort – without the sting of vigorous criticism, we might not have won. Because we had to justify our actions against well-reasoned arguments, our actions tended towards a higher order of efficiency as time went on. We got better at training the troops; better at supplying the armies; we found progressively better commanders to lead the armies; we developed a better overall strategy for beating the South. The South, on the other hand, never really developed an anti-war movement. There were Southern unionists but they were small in number and never organized themselves into a political party capable of challenging the Southern war party. The Southern government was never really challenged in the conduct of the war and made one incredible mistake after another and eventually lost. Dissent in a democratic society is vital – there must not be uniformity of thought.
But the difference between the anti-war movement in the Civil War and the movement in the Vietnam War was that the northern anti-war movement didn’t want to destroy what we were, as a people. There was no thought among them of jettisoning the Constitution. No thought that democratic self-government was wrong. No desire that those who favored fighting be destroyed and driven out of the body politic. It was sincerely felt among them that fighting a war with fellow Americans was just not the way to go; that no possible benefit of victory would outweigh the cost of fighting. The left-wing led anti-war movement of the Vietnam War was different in that they had nothing but contempt for our Constitution and for democratic self-governance. The ideal, at least for some of the anti-war leadership, was that the anti-war movement would grow into a revolutionary movement which would overthrow the United States government and replace it with a socialist dictatorship – where vast swaths of the American population would be proscribed as enemies to be destroyed.
The belief that we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain, unalienable rights is a dogma as much as any dogma proclaimed by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church cannot prove (in the scientific sense) that God is a Trinity any more than an American can prove (once again, scientifically) that we have unalienable rights. But it is in practical terms as much a requirement that an American believe in the dogma of unalienable rights as it is a requirement that a Catholic believe in the Trinity. You really can’t be an American if you don’t believe in unalienable rights any more than you can be a Catholic and deny the Trinity. We freed the slaves, enfranchised women and have poured out blood to defend liberty simply because we believed in our founding dogma – that all people have certain, unalienable rights. The question I think we need to really start asking is just how many people holding American citizenship really believe in our founding dogma – how many really believe that we have unalienable rights? It is true that my unalienable right to free speech means I can burn the American flag – but, honestly, if I’m burning the American flag, how likely is it that I believe in an unalienable right to free speech? The flag is just a bit of cloth, of course, but it is a symbol of the dogma – just as a crucifix might be a bit of carved wood, but it is a symbol of Christ. If I were to burn a crucifix, how much of a Catholic would you think me to be?
Speech codes on campus. Complaints about micro-aggression. Assertions that people be excluded from areas based upon skin color. Are these the sort of actions which indicate a devotion to the ideal that all are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain, unalienable rights? Or as these the actions of people that believe that rights are conditional and based upon social utility, as they define it? I think the latter. Should I feel safe in my freedom while people are out there giving firm indication that they don’t respect the rights I consider unalienable?
We are caught in a bit of a bind – those of us who believe in the dogma cannot take action to actually do anything to those who don’t. But maybe we should start asking? You know, actually start to query our opponents in the political sphere on what they really believe? Not so much on a lower level, but on the higher level – during a debate next year, maybe the GOP candidate should ask Hillary Clinton if she believes in an unalienable right to free speech…and then ask her how she feels about campus speech codes. We need a national clarification of what we, as a people, broadly believe. Maybe we’ll find that a majority really doesn’t favor free speech – it’d be interesting, at least, to find that out as it would tell us in favor of free speech where we really stand. But we’re not having that debate because we are presuming our leftwing opponents are in favor of free speech. Maybe they’re not – and maybe they don’t want to admit too loudly to their views? But if we don’t challenge them on it, we won’t be able to draw the line for the American people to see – and make a choice between the two sides.
I think the left has gotten a free ride from us for too long – we keep behaving as if we on the right and those on the left are working in the same frame of reference. This is where the concept – being expressed by Jeb Bush and Chris Christie for the 2016 Presidential cycle – that we can work across the aisle comes from. The presumption being made is that our opponents want essentially the same thing we do. But, do they?
We need to have a national argument about this – not a national conversation. A national conversation is just a means whereby the left decides what we converse about and provides us the pre-approved result of the conversation. We need an argument – vigorous but polite – about just what we, the people of the United State of America, believe. What is our commonality? What binds us together to make e pluribus unum? Is there, indeed, enough we agree upon where we can actually say we live in the United States of America? Personally, I think there is – I think that a few things political can command 80% or better support. Free speech. Freedom of conscience. That sort of thing – but if we don’t have the argument and clearly define what we mean by those words, we’ll be continuing to surrender the debate to that small part of the left which actually calls the tune on the Progressive side of the aisle – and it is a tune very much out of sync, I believe, with the fundamental desires of the overwhelming majority of the United States. I could be wrong, of course – but if I’m wrong, the only way to know for sure is to have the argument.