January 02, 2004

Essay: Of Rights and Responsibility - -

Try to realize, and truly realize,
that what stands between you
and a different life
are matters of responsible choice.
from The Seat of the Soul
by Gary Zukav

Not long after deciding to write this, I stated my intention on my web log. I did so because I like to think I have some integrity, and intimidated by the task, I knew I wouldn’t back out once I advertised. Now as I tackle the subject, I feel I have some greater appreciation of both my rights (to make my announcement - "coming soon" - disappear with a few key strokes) and my responsibility (to deliver as promised). Believe me, abdication has been difficult to resist.

The subject of "rights" - human rights, civil rights, gay rights, property rights, privacy rights, and so forth, seemingly ad infinitum - has added a great many decibels to "The Great Noise" that erupted at the crashing of the WTC over two years ago, much of the clamor generated by the emergence of the odorous "Patriot Act" from the usually constipated bowels of Congress. Chances are that the "PA 2.0" upgrade will be shipped, just not quite on time. Like all such things these days, the documentation will probably be unreadable, there won’t be anyone at the helpdesk, and the source code will be hidden in Ashcroft’s Bible. Of course, the minute we fire it up . . . BSOD and total system lock.

We are, indeed, in danger of losing many of our codified rights. Should George W. Bush be awarded a second term with the Republican Party maintaining a majority in Congress and sympathy in the courts, we will surely see repeal of some and erosion of others. For nearly two years neoconservative stalking horses like Hugh Shelton have been preparing the way. In very late 2003, just before publication of this essay, with no fanfare (and almost no media coverage save that still chirping away on the left like a mine canary), a significant piece of "Patriot Act II" (call it "P.A. 1.5") was approved and made law by stealth.

I must say the following unequivocally: in a democracy, rights are not "lost" - they are abdicated through a societal failure of responsibility. We have spent so much energy on defining and exercising our rights, that we have failed to protect them with responsibility. Instead of participating in the democratic process, we have denied the necessity of effective self-government and have settled for "government-for-hire." It is no wonder, then, that a century of "dumbing down," media conglomeration, the rise of the ruling/legal class, and the pressure to consume have left us with an administration grateful for an "external" excuse to ignore (or even glorify) the miasma of our plight. I will not here argue the case for terrorism in any way. But I will say that it is a fact of nature that opportunistic predators strike at the weakest, rather than the strongest, organisms. In that simple but glaring light, the president's claim that we are defiled and attacked because we are envied our greatness is at best pathetic. Although we claim to still be the greatest nation on earth, we have been lagging for many years behind other countries in education, healthcare availability, workers' rights, arts, and crime prevention.

We can no longer bask in the afterglow of our "defeat of communism." In fact, state communism defeated itself - in spite of its propaganda - by removing, rather than enhancing personal responsibility. We simply outlasted and outspent them.

The test of American democracy was not decided by the disintegration of the Soviet Empire. The Soviet Empire embraced a corruption of Marxist thought and died of - simply - greed and fear and repression. It occurs to me that those same commodities are now in abundance in the United States of America. If you listen closely, you can hear millions of Americans trying to whistle past the graveyard. True, everyone whistles their own tune, but that doesn't faze the graveyard. It is essential to remember that "The Cold War" was not a battle between communism and democracy, but a battle between communism and capitalism. In the United States of America, democracy has been the flag in which capital has wrapped itself. I fear that having "beaten" communism, capital will have little use for democracy. But, maybe, if SUVs get a little cheaper, Britney reveals a little more skin, and the music gets turned up a little more, it'll be pretty painless.

What a waste it will be. We are the wealthiest nation-state on the planet. We have the resources and creativity to feed, cloth, shelter, comfort, and sustain the world. Why, then, are we embarked on a mission to suppress all those who do not espouse our particular brand of political economy? And if what we're pushing is so good and so right, why does our government conduct itself with deception and secrecy?

To those "on the left" I throw down this challenge: why are we blaming the neoconservatives? I ask liberals and progressives to do the same self-searching that I have asked of our government: "if there's a problem, what part of that problem is with me?"

These are issues of responsibility; at a national level, social responsibility and personal responsibility are mirrors of and to each other. Gary Zukav, the author I cited as an invocation for this essay, would tell us that each of us is responsible for the whole thing. I understand that concept, but it can only be understood on a spiritual plane, and it is very hard to practice it. Populist progressivism, however, is very much about a spiritual view of life - that we as individuals will be well and wealthy only to the extent that we ensure that everyone is well and wealthy. To the extent that we are selfish and scared and greedy, to that extent is our wealth and power hollow and ineffective.

Before I go on and bang the drum for personal responsibility, I will tell you that I have been, at times, nearly the worst example of a responsible person that you might find. I have found ways of denying, avoiding, or simply blowing off responsibility that have been downright creative. I'm at a deficit - I owe countless amends and most of the time use my despair of making those amends as an excuse to give up trying. My point here is that I have my own battle to fight in this area. And so do you. So do Bill Bennett and Rush Limbaugh. This personal battle involving a self-examination of our values must be constantly fought if we are to bring integrity, power, commitment, and connectedness to a progressive movement.

All I can offer here are some suggestions from my own experience. I have said elsewhere that the new progressive movement must have a spiritual basis. You may squint and curl your lip at that, but there it is. Do neither as I say or do. Do as your heart and soul tell you. This is simply what I believe:

I have the right to be apolitical. In a democracy, I have the responsibility to be as fully involved in the government of society as I can be;

I have the right to behave selfishly to the edge of the envelope. I have the responsibility to think of the comfort and well-being of "the other" first. I was taught the simple concept of "manners". I am not a fan of any religion, but all those with which I am familiar place a high degree of value on tolerance, charity, compassion, and selflessness. I cannot believe that our constitutional separation of church and state means that we are not allowed to be good people, active members of society, responsible citizens. To a great degree, however, we have tattered the cloth of personal responsibility as a civic virtue. Responsibility has become a commodity. "Don't blame me, I voted for McGovern . . .";

I have the right to choose. I have the responsibility to choose the "no" option in many situations that allow me with legal impunity to choose "yes". Self-denial means overcoming fear: "what will happen to me if I don't [fill in the blank]?" The real question should be, "what would happen to all of us if each of us had just what we need and no more?";

I have the right to live to the limit of my means (or even beyond that limit should loose credit prevail). I have the responsibility to live simply, to leave a small footprint, to stay the hell out of the way unless I am certain to contribute positively to the greatest good;

Under the tent of "freedom of speech", I have the right to say pretty much what I please. I'm afraid I'm not very good at this one, but I have the responsibility to be reasoned, knowledgeable, respectful, and truthful;

I have the right to form my own views. I have the responsibility to know the truth, even if it contradicts my views;

I have the right to protect myself from those things I fear: poverty, violence, misinterpretation, estrangement, fevered disagreement, incarceration . . . I have the responsibility to act with humility, courage, integrity, and, very often, restraint.

As a species, I think we have learned nothing from our banishment from the Garden. The message was, "you don't get to do everything, you don't get to have everything, you are not god." God was on our side. She was trying the "tough love" bit. Do not be so arrogant to believe that the gods will shed a second tear when we have destroyed ourselves. And will our last breath exhale the words, "it wasn't my fault?"

Be at peace.