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Free Speech or Tyranny: The American Choice

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

(July 10, 2020)

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” ~John Winthrop, 1630

Free speech is, without a doubt, the heart of America. The First Amendment is essentially all about "Free Speech." Free Speech is enshrined in our Constitution. It was fought for and bled for in the 18th century. It is being fought for and bled for today. The idea that there is no thought police in America is the reason why 21st century free speech advocates (regardless of their country of origin) wave the flag of the United States. (In the late 1980s as the Soviet satellite states fell the United States was the shining city on a hill that inspired protestors willing to risk a wall of gunfire to physically tear down the Berlin Wall. Today, in 2020, the free speech advocates of Hong Kong fighting a desperate --probably doomed-- battle for the cultural and ideological freedom of their city from the Mainland Communist leadership wave the flag of the United States.)

Our flag symbolizes ideals and goals rather than mere geography. This month --this over heated and rather thoughtless month in the heart of 2020-- black clad and masked protesters declared that our flag is "hate speech" and burned it in the streets of American cities. Guess what? They live in a country where even burning the flag is a form of constitutionally protected Free Speech. You can hate America, you can dedicate your life to trying to destroy America and our flag, our ideals, our Constitution, will protect your right to scream your hate to the sky. (Just for the record, because apparently various District Attorneys throughout the United States missed that crucial bit of law, torching a shoe store is NOT a form of free speech. That is actually a crime. We call it "arson" --there is a very distinct difference between "peaceful protests" and "felony rioting.")

Personally I think our country is stronger than the shrieking hate mongers. I think the United States is strong because our ideals are eternal. And our ideals, while definitely not universal, are ideals tens of millions of people have striven to attain for the last two hundred and thirty years. Free speech is at the heart of what makes the United States exceptional and unique.

Back in the 1980s, the last cruel and horrible decade of the Cold War, there was a joke --the kind of bleak joke that passed for humor in the Soviet Union, but was in fact a revolutionary truth disguised as humor-- that made the rounds in Moscow. A low level rather naive American is debating a minor Soviet Apparatchik on the relative merits of Communism and Democracy. The American, after talking about the glories of capitalism, groaning supermarket shelves, free choice, economic opportunity, the opportunity to vote for your own representatives every two, four or six years, has a mic drop moment. "In the United States, you can even protest Reagan if you want!" (Reagan was then President of the United States.) The Soviet blandly replies, "Fascinating, in Moscow we can protest Reagan if we want to as well." (The joke, of course, is that Soviets who dared to protest the all powerful Politburo and Kremlin risked what was known as the "knock at the door" and a swift imprisonment in a prison like Lubyanka, or one of the many nameless prisons of the Gulag Archipelago.) In the United States you could protest the most powerful man in the country and risk nothing, in the Soviet Union a joke that offended someone in power could send you to Siberia.

The freedom to say what you think and think what you want is a unique promise of America. It is a promise won in war. It is a freedom that was paid for with blood. Today, in 2020, too many school teachers are busy not teaching American history. Not teaching the true exceptionalism of America. It is hard, if you were born with the history of free speech that we have, if you were born and raised in the United States, to understand that in many countries free speech is curtailed, free speech is controlled, and people are trained from a very early age to police their own thoughts. Anyone who watches television in this year of 2020 is aware that free speech, the very heart of America, is under attack. If, like me, you are a "millennial" you know schools did not teach the story of how the founders of America clawed their way towards a near fundamental belief in free speech. And, quite frankly, many of us do not know enough of the world to understand how unique our heritage is... I grew up being able to say anything I wanted to about anyone. It is one thing to travel and drink in some cute sidewalk cafe overseas, it is another thing to really get to know someone from another country and realize after a year or two that what I have always taken for granted --freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of thought-- is something that is not universal.

And so... in the heat of July perhaps we should all take a moment to look back at where this story of America began. Because I, for one, would hate to think that an ideal as hard won as the ideal of free speech, could be obliterated as quickly as a bronze statue. So let us collectively flip to the beginning of this amazing book of American history and think about the origins of the ideas we live by. Maybe by understanding the beginning we will understand the chapters we want to write for ourselves. Do we want to tear down something great? Preserve it? Or build on a sturdy foundation? (For my part... I've always liked repairing sturdy old treasures. And I'd rather spend a weekend fixing a freebie chair I found on the curb than buying something new.)

There is always one clear moment when a war begins. But the first shot fired in a war is never really the moment a war begins; more accurately it is the moment when peace definitively dies.

The first “official” shot of the war that would become the War of American Independence was fired in New England in April of 1775. Ironically, and rather appropriately, the shooting began before there was any formal declaration of independence and long before there was any real plan. Historians see the 1760s as the lead-up to war. The war began with pamphlets, taxes, speeches, smugglers. Violence begat violence, grudges grew as feisty and independent minded colonists pushed back against a colonial bureaucracy imposed by distant England.

But the roots of the uniquely American willingness to rebel without a plan, to believe wholeheartedly in both individual liberty and individual responsibility, did not emerge solely out of the 18th century era of reason, but instead was shaped by the enduring memory of the bullheaded, devout and fiercely religious world of the 17th century Puritans. Quite frankly, it was easy for a group of people to contemplate the impossible —rebellion against a monarch— if they already believed their only true legitimate judge in this world, or the next, was God.

The America of the 1760s was a far cry from the America John Winthrop knew in the 1630s. It was, comparatively, far more cosmopolitan. It was wealthier. It was more violent. More prone to conflict —both internally and externally. But also, simultaneously, more staid and more easy going. Puritans of John Winthrop’s generation did not really seem to believe in a forgiving God, and they certainly rarely forgave themselves, but by the 18th century even the fiercely devout Congregationalists of Massachusetts had begun to contemplate the world in a more forgiving light. (Often a forgiving candle-light… the 18th century had brought luxury to the American born grandchildren of Puritans who had never even given themselves the luxury of forgiveness. But, despite the changes wrought by a century of industrious work, despite prosperity, luxury and the creeping impact of deism, Americans of the 18th century had somehow never lost John Winthrop’s belief that their ultimate —and only meaningful— judge was not of this earth.)

Despite the growing wealth of the colonies, the 1760s were years of turmoil in the 13 Colonies. Eighteenth century colonial Americans were scattered across a geographic area that dwarfed most of Western Europe. Most of Pennsylvania was still the “frontier” when Benjamin Franklin set up his first printing press. Even late in the 1760s, Boston, New York and Philadelphia had the raw potential of young cities.

The economic potential of this new era was not lost on the American born children and grandchildren of the first colonists. But the men and women of 18th century colonial North America were driven by much more than a desire for money.

Colonials of the 18th century did not have a common religion. (Most were probably some type of Protestant, but the defining characteristic of the Protestants was that they were schismatic in the extreme.) They did not have a common ethnic identity, a common language or even a common legal status. The “English” colonials of the coast may have been English speaking, but they were not all ethnically English. Instead they were a disparate group of English, Scots, Welsh, Scots-Irish and Irishmen. New York —originally New Amsterdam— was still, in its bones, more Dutch and Mohawk than it was English. (To be fair, even in the 21st century at least half of all Manhattan land deals probably still involve someone with a Dutch name. In a political sense the Dutch government lost power in North America fairly early, but the ethnic Dutch never went away.) Pennsylvania was a hotbed of religious dissidents from every possible Western European ethnic background —Philadelphia had become even odder by becoming the city that young strivers from Boston wanted to move to. New England was less strictly Puritan than it had been half a century before, but it was still inhabited by people who had the radical courage to put more faith in God than Government.

Bostonians may have fallen far from the Puritanism of the 1630s, but they still believed that their city had the potential to be what John Winthrop called a “city on a hill”—a state of mind and an ideal rather than merely a city.

The Southern Colonials were more likely to be Anglican than their northern neighbors. Economically they were also more likely to be tied to Europe than a Northern farmer. The cash crops of the South —tobacco, indigo, sugar and rice— fetched big money in Europe. The great planters of the South lived like brutal miniature potentates in their own right. (The small planters, the freedmen and the men who owned no slaves, lived much less luxurious lives… but also often lives marked by a bloody contempt for any outside authority and a savage willingness to fight.)

The Colonials had, superficially, very little in common with each other. The separate colonies were separate colonies. Massachusetts was not Virginia. Even Maryland was not Virginia. Legal codes varied from colony to colony. Religious practices differed too. The colonies were, legally, separate entities.

However, although the Colonials of the 1760s were so very different from each other, it was their differences from the “mother country” of Britain that would help to unite them. Much as Colonial North America had almost accidentally developed a free press in the 18th century, the colonials of the 17th century had almost accidentally developed a sense of personal freedom tempered by a social responsibility that was almost unknown in Europe.

Diversity of religion in Europe had led to brutal wars, political upheaval and bloody riots. By contrast, in the 13 Colonies, extreme religious diversity seemed to primarily encourage the devout to look within themselves, recommit to their own faith and, perhaps, learn to define their faith better. (Yes, there would be minor acts of religiously motivated violence in what would become the United States. But, by the standards of contemporary Europe, religious violence in the colonies would be minor, erratic, and not really part of a cohesive story.)

The great irony of the 1760s is that a group of people who had learned to fight primarily with words about religion —when in Europe religious dissent fractured society and led to some actual wars— would stumble almost inevitably into a shooting war over a political principle that very few people in Europe seemed to understand.

The American Revolution shocked western Europe. (Its impact would have been profound if it had not quickly been overshadowed in Europe by the far bloodier French Revolution.)

Even in the golden era of monarchs, the great leaders of Europe faced political turmoil in the 18th century. Sometimes it was a simple matter of succession, in Britain the battle between the House of Stuart and the House of Hanover was anything but simple. However, rebellion did not become revolution in early 18th century Europe. Prior to the 1760s there was no successful European model for an ideological and political revolt on the American model.

In the tumultuous 1760s Americans stumbled towards war without a model. Americans knew what war was… individual Americans had served Britain in the 7 Years War or endured the nameless bloody conflicts of life on the Frontier. But none of those wars had truly been ideological. Not for the people on the ground anyway.

The American Revolution would be different. The people on the ground —the people who fought, who did without, who marched through the snowy winter, who endured— cared deeply about their reasons for fighting and were willing to make real sacrifices, not symbolic sacrifices.

In the end the rebels would become revolutionaries because they endured. They endured the Winter at Valley Forge, they endured a winter march from the outskirts of Philadelphia to New Jersey. (That march, not particularly far... was a brutal endeavor. The men who made it to Trenton were true "Winter Soldiers" and those ninety days may have been the ninety days that forged America.) The Swamp Fox, George Washington, General Von Steuben, Ethan Allen and Lafayette were genuine military heroes. Each a genius in his own way. But the genius of the rebellion, the success of the revolution, the existence of the United States, is not rooted in the blood of battle. The battle of ideology was already won before the shots were fired. Americans had already begun to believe that they had a different path, a different destiny. That in the end we answer to a God in heaven and not a King on Earth. (Or, worse yet, a bureaucrat appointed by a King.)

The revolution would not have succeeded without the bloody sacrifice of a long war, but the revolution would have died as a mere rebellion without the ideological revolution that had already reshaped the shared American mind before the first shot was fired.

Americans had already taken the first steps towards ideological independence over a century before the war for independence began.

Centuries later we still find our freedom, our heart, our courage, in our free speech. As Americans we can say what we think and think what we want. That is precious. Worth fighting for. Worth speaking up for. Without free speech --free speech protected regardless of how unpopular or offensive it may be-- we risk tyranny. That is the choice Americans face in 2020, free speech or tyranny.

So... if you believe in free speech, if you believe in the unique precious ideal of America speak out, raise your voice. Have courage. Share your ideas. Talk to a neighbor. Your children, your spouse, your friends. Have the courage to share something on the internet. Are you on Facebook? Twitter? Whatever? Do you write letters to the editor? Talk... think... share your ideas. Share things that matter to you. Do something crazy... Share this article. Share an article about the exceptionalism of America. Read, think, write, share, talk.... You have freedoms, revel in them. Have courage... you don't have to dig in for a Winter at Valley Forge, but you may be defending the values that emerged from that frozen winter. America has a choice, you have a choice. Free Speech or Tyranny? Because if we give up free speech we will bend our necks beneath the yoke of tyranny.


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