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“When the government’s boot is on your throat…”

A  mourner, believed to be Air Force Reserve Captain Teresa Dutcher lays at the grave of Corporal Michael Avery Pursel at Arlington National Cemetary in Arlington, Virginia.  She visits the cematery at the conclusion of the "Flags In" on May 24, 2012.   Each year for the past 40 years, the 3rd U.S. Infantry or "Old Guard" honors America's war dead by placing American flags at the gravestones of service members buried at Arlington National Cemetery prior to Memorial Day weekend.   The tradition, known as "flags in," is conducted annually by the 3rd U.S. Infantry, the Army's official ceremonial unit. Every available soldier in the 3rd U.S. Infantry participates, placing a small American flag one foot in front and centered before each grave marker over a three-hour period.  During this time, the soldiers place flags in front of more than 260,000 gravestones.

“When the government’s boot is on your throat, whether it is the left boot or the right boot is of no consequence.”

It is an interesting truth in the United States that in large majority Americans agree what characterizes us as a nation is liberty, but that the definition of liberty is so contested that it is in a practical sense meaningless. I’m bringing that up today because this weekend is a time of reflection and remembrance of those who died fighting America’s wars. We like to lull ourselves into a comfortable warm fuzzy by spouting platitudes that they died for our liberty. But I doubt very many of us have spent much time thinking about what liberty means beyond the freedom to pursue our own selfish interests unmolested.

We like to think of ourselves as a wholly enlightened people. We are obsessed with the idea of radical individualism, but at the same time we are prone to every fad of public opinion. And we are not critical enough to realize that often public opinion is manufactured by those who have interest in profiting from it.

Nothing is more dangerous than promoting an opinion as righteous just because the majority agree. It should not be forgotten that the majority public opinion in Germany in the 20s and 30s leaned to agreement with Hitler’s insane and racist ideologies. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that everything Hitler did, propped up as it was by majority public opinion, was legal, and that everything those who courageously opposed him out of principle did was illegal.

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1788, during the great debate over the ratification of the Constitution, its principle theorist and author James Madison wrote:

Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our Governments the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the Constituents. This is a truth of great importance, but not yet sufficiently attended to…. Wherever there is an interest and power to do wrong, wrong will generally be done, and not less readily by a powerful & interested party than by a powerful and interested prince. …[1]

What Madison is saying, and warning against, is this same tyranny of the majority. If the majority can enforce its will on the minority, it is in essence mob rule. True liberty safeguards the rights of the minority, even a minority of one.

The Founders produced a document that was wiser than the passions of those who wrote it. Is it possible that their definition of liberty was freedom of each to define liberty in their own way, as long as it did not infringe on anyone else’s liberty? When we look at the range of ideology among those who wrote and contributed to the Constitution, we must conclude something like that had to have happened.

It is probably telling that much of our public debate occurs on the bumpers of cars. There is a bumper sticker that has been popular for several years now that spells the word “coexist” in the symbols of various faiths and ideologies. People put it on their cars, I think, to show the world how enlightened and tolerant they are. I am all in favor of coexistence. That is the price of living in a pluralistic society. But I think we have collectively mis-defined what it means to be tolerant or to coexist. Coexistence doesn’t mean that all ideas are equal. It certainly doesn’t mean deciding what’s right and wrong by majority popular opinion. It means more than anything else granting to others the right to blissful error.

At the end of the Constitutional Convention the ratification of the document they had created was still very much in doubt. The convention itself had been the scene of passionate debate and irreconcilable differences. Benjamin Franklin, delegate of Pennsylvania, who was by then too old and feeble to stand and speak, and who himself had serious reservations about the document, had a colleague stand and read a statement urging its ratification.

I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present; but, sir, I am not sure I shall never approve of it, for, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise…. On the whole, sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.[2]

Franklin’s courageous gesture called upon his colleagues to acknowledge that others might be wrong, but at the same time to concede that they themselves were not infallible. To allow their fellows and themselves the freedom to be wrong.

There are millions of graves filled with the remains of mostly young men and women who gave up their youth and their future to defend and extend liberty. If we could ask them, I am convinced they would not all agree on the meaning of liberty they died for. But in the grave they are all equal, and each is consigned to the justice of death. We must conclude that the only thing they certainly held in common was the right to be wrong. They died so that we could be wrong. We dishonor them all when we dishonor each other.

[1] James Madison, The Writings of James Madison, comprising his Public Papers and his Private Correspondence, including his numerous letters and documents now for the first time printed, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900). Vol. 2. [Online] available from http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1934; accessed 5/24/2015; Internet.

[2] Bryan, William Jennings, ed. The World’s Famous Orations. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1906; New York: Bartleby.com, 2003. www.bartleby.com/268/. May 24, 2015.

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