American democracy is different because it has always been about people and ideas, not mobs and ideologies. Our Republic, from the first inkling of rebellion in the 18th century, was about individuals making choices. It was about the individual having a voice.
When I think of American democracy I think of people, not monuments. The Capitol, the Whitehouse, all the iconic monuments of our country are beautiful. Every state capitol in this country is impressive. But our people, our citizens, our concept of citizenship is more impressive than any building.
Now, in 2020, our rights as citizens are under attack just as our monuments are under attack. Our freedoms are under attack. Our freedom of speech is under attack. Our freedom of religion is under attack. Our freedom of association is under attack, our freedom to make our own way in the world is under attack.
Those freedoms mean something. Those freedoms actually mean everything.
For me the most extraordinary part of being an American is that as a citizen my voice, my individual voice, matters. The First Amendment guarantees our rights to freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom of association. These aren’t negotiable rights. These aren’t rights granted to us by a monarch or politician or two-bit bureaucrat. These are constitutional rights endowed by our creator. These are radical rights. They are the rights that make us American. And they are not rights that should be thrown away cheaply. These rights have been fought for and bled for on battlefields whose names few people today remember. But these rights are also maintained every day by ordinary Americans who stand up and speak out.
Back in school I was taught the story of Nathan Hale. Nathan Hale was executed by the British in 1776. He was a soldier of the American Revolution. Captured by the British, legend has it his final words were, “I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country.” 1776 was a long long long time ago. I’d like to think that Nathan Hale would be impressed by the country he died for. The grand language that Nathan Hale used is out of fashion now, but I’d like to think his ideals and sentiments are not out of fashion. For two hundred plus years it is the individual voice that has kept the flame of liberty alive in America. Ordinary people standing up and speaking their piece, that is the moment when American free speech comes alive. Our monuments are beautiful, but the most iconic place in America is probably some dull little town council building during a public hearing. That moment when any citizen can stand up and speak for two or three minutes, that is the moment that is the true monument to American free speech. And that is the moment we are losing in 2020.
Shut-down means our political process at a local level is now virtual or digital. Town councils zoom. The citizens can’t stand up before their fellows in a room of folding chairs and speak and be heard. Instead petty bureaucrats tell the citizens what to do. And that isn’t the American way. It shouldn’t be the American way.
I live in California in a town that was beyond the furthest reaches of the Spanish Empire when Nathan Hale was executed. Revolutionary history isn’t a big thing in California. The bronze statues dedicated to Nathan Hale are all thousands of miles to the East of me. Op-Ed columnists say it is no big deal to pull down a statue or deface a building if they “no longer reflect who we want to be” but I pray that every single one of the bronzes dedicated to Nathan Hale stand forever. I don’t want to live in a “re-imagined” country where free speech isn’t part of “who we want to be.” We are Americans and free speech is our birthright. Our constitutionally protected right.
So what are we without town council meetings? What is democracy and free speech today? For me, free speech is about the individual not the mob. Last week a mob gathered around a hospital where two injured L.A. County Sheriffs’ deputies fought for their lives. Outside the mob chanted for them to die. Mob rule was never what America was supposed to be about. Mobs and monarchs alike hate the individual. For me the Nathan Hales of today are women with clipboards. California is what we call a “re-call” state… we can re-call our politicians. If you are elected by the public the public can hit the streets with clipboards and gather signatures to petition for a recall. When our voice is stifled, when we are shut out of public hearings, that is what we have. We have our clipboards. Right now an army of unpaid volunteers is attempting to recall the Governor of California. It may work, it may not. It is hard work being out on the asphalt with a clipboard. Some people are excited to sign. Some people shout curses at us. That is their right. It is rude, but it is their right. But the thing is, it is our right to have our opinions heard. And this is what we have. Clipboards and volunteers. Eventually, the ballot box.
That is the way American public life should be. Maybe we argue. Maybe we disagree, but one side shouldn’t get to shout down another side. One side shouldn’t get to assault the other side. One side shouldn’t be chanting for death or throwing Molotov cocktails. Free speech is free speech. Free speech is fundamentally American. Free speech is about making your case with words, not bricks and bullets. Free speech is about the individual, not the mob. And free speech is NOT something we can afford to re-imagine. If we give up free speech, we give up America. When free speech is under attack, America is under attack. And we will need more than an army of lonely women with clipboards to defend us.