Independence, Empire Don’t Mesh

by , July 06, 2009

I have learned enough surprising things about American history that I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be more one of those comforting myths than undisputed history, but when I was a schoolboy I distinctly remember hearing that it used to be the custom on the Fourth of July in towns across America for people to gather in the town square or park for patriotic band music and family picnics, highlighted by some prominent citizen reading aloud the Declaration of Independence. I never experienced it myself, though I suspect I am of a vintage earlier than many Antiwar.com readers. But I grew up in a smallish town in Southern California rather than in the Midwest. In high school in the 1950s I played in the town band during the summer, and we did rousing marches, 19th-century operetta overtures and patriotic medleys, but nobody read the Declaration, though I think the mayor gave a brief talk lauding America.

Assuming that this practice was once widespread, I wouldn’t be surprised if it began to die out not only as America became more urbanized, but as America grew into what the late Gen. William E. Odom (I’m so grateful I had a chance to meet this delightful man before he died), called an "accidental empire," though historians differ as to how intentional it was. If I am correct, while there may not be a direct cause-and-effect relationship, there is quite likely a relationship. For the kind of relationship between people and government envisioned in the Declaration is rather different from the kind of relationship the proprietors of an empire prefer. In an empire it is a bit awkward to be reminded that the rights – and extensive rights at that – of the individual person exist independently of and both temporally and morally prior to any claims the government might make.

After the stirring language about "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," the Declaration goes on to posit that "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men." Government’s job, in the eyes of those who signed the document, was to secure rights, which were seen as vulnerable in an ungoverned condition. And if it failed to do the job competently or overstepped its boundaries, it was the right of the people to "alter or abolish it." Just governance stemmed from the consent of the governed, and the founders seemed to have in mind a more active than passive consent.

The Declaration of Independence has been called the most revolutionary public document in human history. Jefferson (or perhaps Tom Paine, playing a significant writing role behind the scenes, as some students believe) may have simply captured a consensus at a moment that had been building for quite some time, but he expressed it especially clearly and eloquently. Human beings are not simply vassals or serfs or slaves or conscripts in the schemes and battles of the powerful, as most had been treated through much of human history, but proud bearers of rights bestowed by "Nature and Nature’s God." Rulers are expected not to govern by whim or arbitrary preference, but in the service of protecting the rights of the people. Government is the servant, not the master.

Or as Jefferson put it in another context, it is not the case that some people are born with saddles on their backs and others are born to ride them.

And what a felicitous phrase is "pursuit of happiness." The formulation of Locke-influenced English "liberals" was "life, liberty, and property." "Pursuit of happiness" is a much more expansive concept. The founders all believed property rights were essential to a properly functioning free society, but Jefferson intuited that there was a more fundamental reason to secure property rights: to facilitate the pursuit of happiness. The concept is at once open-endedly idealistic and realistic. We aren’t guaranteed happiness in this life, and some of us may never find it. But we have the right to pursue it in our own way and in accordance with our own values – and we have the obligation to respect the right of others to pursue happiness in their own way, however it might differ from ours.

But servants sometimes turn on their masters, and if the servants are essential to the running of a household or a continent because they know things the putative masters can’t be bothered with – how to fix the plumbing, how to create an economic bubble that benefits one’s friends – they become de facto masters. Americans still remember the language of unalienable rights, and court decisions even give the idea a modicum of respect. But how many actually believe that facilitating their own "pursuit of happiness" – whether in the simple, commonplace understanding of doing what actually gives you pleasure or in the more elevated sense some philosophers propounded, arguing that true happiness develops not just from sensual, temporary pleasures but from an active effort to understand the world and develop a sense of meaning for one’s life – is government’s primary and perhaps only job?

An imperial power does not want such "selfish" or self-centered citizens. It wants subjects who can be made to believe that their willingness to serve the designs of their rulers and betters, even to the point of dying in some faraway land whose inhabitants resent their presence, is the most glorious and righteous way they can pursue happiness. It wants people who believe they have consciously assented to the notion that the only alternative to an increasingly strong and intrusive presence of the state in their lives is murderous chaos and the conquest of the country by one of the innumerable foreign hobgoblins our masters keep warning us about.

An imperial power, to deal in the mundane, wants people who believe that the old customs I learned as a child regarding fireworks – some are too dangerous to mess with, as my father (and every father of whom I was aware) emphasized, and all have an element of danger, especially in a part of the country likely to be hot and dry around July 4, so keep a bucket of water handy and don’t fire rockets in a way that you can’t tell where they might land – are unspeakably barbaric and horrible to contemplate. Better to gather people into stadiums to ooh and aah over their bread-and-circuses fireworks show conducted by certified experts licensed by the state. The very idea of having children learn a certain kind of responsibility through experience and sometimes by being hurt is just too retrograde.

Truly independent people who take their rights seriously are unlikely simply to respond "Oh, is it my turn?" when their betters tell them it is time to join up and practice utter obedience in a regimented and hierarchical organization designed to maximize the efficient killing of other human beings. People who believe their own version of the good life is not only worthy of respect but has a legitimate right to protection by the powers that be just might ask whether a religious fanatic living in a cave is more of a danger to them than a government determined to treat us all as children unable to make responsible decisions ourselves.

A republic wants citizens vigilant to look out for their own rights and interests. A free society wants people who believe freedom is the crowning glory of the human story. An empire wants subjects, people so propagandized or intimidated that they believe that sacrificing themselves for the greater glory of the ruling class is noble and desirable, and whose relatives are willing to maintain the fiction when their loved ones are killed or maimed in the wars of the imperial rulers.

Despite Obama’s determination to engage in extensive "nation-building" in Afghanistan, I believe the U.S. empire is in the process of winding down, pulling in its wings, and prioritizing its ambitions. (This need not be the end of the world: former imperial capitals like Rome, Vienna, Paris, London, Tokyo, and Moscow are still vibrant and fascinating cities, in some ways more appealing for the fact that they no longer have to worry about sustaining an empire.) Perhaps we will know that the process is complete when it is once more fashionable to read the Declaration aloud in public places at every appropriate opportunity.

Read more by Alan Bock