“Which member of your family are you ok to lose?”
“Are you more worried about the economy or my health?”
“Don’t be so selfish. This virus is going to kill millions. What’s another couple of months of lockdown?”
The saddest and most frustrating thing to me during this disaster – I’m done calling it a crisis, it’s a multi-headed hydra of a disaster – has been how easily we seem to have been perfectly willing to forget our basic freedoms and rights granted to us by God and etched in our national DNA by the Constitution.
I decided to do a little reading about this. Look, I love history. I especially love American History. One could even say I’m a bit of a geek about it. I’m an unabashedly proud American. (False Choice debunking #1: You can be an unabashedly proud American and still be an intellectually curious and enormously appreciative student of the world and all its cultures.) But, let’s face it. Sometimes you start to forget the details of things you learned long ago if you don’t revisit them from time to time.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Emphasis mine.)
So, here are our unalienable rights, given to us by God. Our government was designed, above all else, to protect and defend those rights of its citizens. It’s the “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” part that is straining at the seams now for me. Not because of the leaders and representatives we’ve elected – if we don’t like what’s going on, there are plenty of levers to pull for change for those folks. This disaster has shown a bright light for me on how much of our government complex actually just continues to do whatever the hell it wants, unabated and unbridled by anything or anyone, accountable to no one. Emboldened by a seemingly willing and complicit or ignorant press. “Consent of the governed” indeed. How do you recall people, or even in fact, entire institutions, that were never elected in the first place? Maybe we owe it to ourselves in this time of quarantine and social distancing, to take this weekend and get back to basics.
We all know the names of our founders: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, et al. But how many of us remember the names John Locke and William Blackstone? There is enough to write entire blogs about both of these gentlemen. But, to break it down, the writings of these two are among the most influential to those who shaped the foundations of the American government.
Locke is a tremendously interesting study. Just look him up! The guy has influenced everything from psychology, religious theory, property rights, to monetary theory…and he was a physician, too! He’s definitely worth revisiting and there are tons of books and articles about him online. Many of his beliefs, which seemed radical in his time, like the necessity of the absolute separation of church and state and the right to acquire property and wealth as a result of labor, are cornerstones of our founding documents. As with any radical thinker, there are controversies with some of his thinking and writing, which definitely evolved over time. In light of our situation today, I was drawn to this quote:
What worries you, masters you.John Locke
Well, isn’t that the truth?
William Blackstone was an English lawyer, judge, and politician. He’s best known for his book, “Commentaries on the Laws of England.” In it, he wanted to make the laws of England which were written in formal, flowery and archaic language, accessible and understandable to the common man. This particular passage stands out when we think of his work and how it informed our founders:
“This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God Himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all the countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this, and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.”
So, in his mind, if any law is contrary to the law of nature and the God-given rights to mankind, the law is invalid. Whooo boy, what would old Blackstone be thinking about the mess we are in today?
Blackstone was a huge influence on Alexander Hamilton, in particular. Hamilton built on Blackstone’s premise in a pamphlet he authored and distributed in 1775 called “The Farmer Refuted.”
Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind: the Supreme Being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beatifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which, to discern and pursue such things, as were consistent with his duty and interest, and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty, and personal safety…The Sacred Rights of Mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the Hand of the Divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power. (Emphasis again mine.)
I’m powerless right now to do much more than to feel what I feel and try to understand why. So, this weekend, I’ll be reading a lot about Mr. Locke and Mr. Blackstone, and revisiting why what they said was so fundamental to our founders. Because that is what is in conflict for me right now. We were designed to be self-governing, based on the belief that we would behave in the best interests of ourselves and our fellow men.
When did we lose that belief in ourselves as a nation? Since when did we just decide to roll over and let our “governors,” both elected and unelected, tell us what we were and were not free to do, or think, or believe? When did we decide that just creating millions of “wards of the state” with $1200 checks would be just as good as doing real, meaningful work for which we are paid? When did we become so afraid? I know we were already angry as a nation. But afraid, too? That’s a toxic combination.
A wise friend of mine this week said that “fear and anger are rationality debilitating emotions.” He also reminded me that “when faced with complexity, people tend to think in simplistic, binary terms.” False choices. On/Off. Right/wrong. Issues like what we are facing today require holding many different and opposing thoughts at the same time. We can be scared of a virus but more scared of losing our freedom. We can be educated enough to know about the dangers of the virus and the importance of a sound economy. We can understand in our hearts that in this situation what we are doing to preserve lives is also costing them. And most importantly, we can understand that it is ok, even necessary to question authority. To question everything. To question numbers. To look beyond the numbers. To look at multiple sources of information.
Because what is going on right now is in conflict with our “rational mentalities.” Our very God-given rights are in danger of being erased or obscured by mortal power.
And the question is, can we hold the understanding that in our attempt to vanquish the potentially unvanquishable, we are actually in the process of alienating the unalienable?