Posts Tagged ‘Tyrant’

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 7)

March 28, 2020

In addition to the past and the present, the attempt to remove a sitting political office holder may be motivated by the future—that is, by anticipation of what he or she will do. This may seem unjust; and were impeachment a legal proceeding it would be, since we would be punishing someone for something he or she has not in fact done. But removing a leader is not a legal act, but rather a political one. That is not to say justice and morality are irrelevant, but only to say they are different.

From the time he was elected, before he had taken office, Obama faced calls for his removal based on acts he was expected to take. He would impose Sharia law. He would confiscate all firearms, in violation of the Second Amendment. He would arrest all observant Christians. He would imprison his political enemies. He would abolish capitalism and impose a communist system. He would impose black supremacy and strip white people of their rights as citizens. He would throw open the borders and allow immigrants from Mexico and other southern countries to pour in unimpeded and uncounted, to collect Social Security and to vote in our elections. And in fact, these fears motivated some people to extreme actions. A white woman carved a B into her own face, claiming to police that she’d been attacked by black men saying that now Barack was president and they could do whatever they wanted; she was caught because she’d used a mirror and therefore carved the B in her face backwards.[1] The Republican governor of Texas called for the Texas State Guard to watch the U.S. Army’s “Jade Helm 15” exercises because of widespread fears that Obama was going to declare martial law and imprison his enemies in abandoned Walmarts.[2] These fears about Obama’s plans, and the rhetoric and action they provoked, led liberals to give the whole phenomenon its own name: Obama Derangement Syndrome.[3] The thinking here was that large numbers of otherwise sane and well-informed people (as well as many who weren’t) were particularly prone to believe conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama, and sometimes even to act on those fears.[4] Conservative politicians sometimes encouraged these beliefs, by saying that they “understood” these concerns, or by threatening armed resistance against the U.S. government if it carried out its alleged intentions; other conservative politicians denounced these beliefs and conspiracy theories.

Donald Trump, also, faced calls for his impeachment “from Day One” and beyond, at times based on things that he would do. It was alleged that he would use his office to enrich himself, that he would appoint corrupt and/or biased officials to important posts, that policy would be dictated by political agendas and flattery of the President rather than by science or competence, that hate crimes would rise, that the U.S.A. would become an international laughingstock, that Russia and other foreign powers would use money and favors to promote policies that weakened the United States, that religious groups other than Evangelical Christians would be discriminated against, that the environment would be degraded, that taxes on the rich would be slashed and then, citing budget shortfalls, programs such as Social Security would be gutted, that national immigration policies would be dictated by racism rather than morality or facts, and so on. Mr. Trump’s defenders in turn began to denounce “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”

We could even say that this sort of prognostication has made it into the official record of the United States Senate. Adam Schiff, arguing for Donald Trump’s removal from office, did not appeal only to his past and present actions, but also to his future acts if he continued to hold the reins of power. He said:

 

 

 

“We must say enough — enough! He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again,” Schiff, D-Calif., told the Senate. “He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again. You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is. Truth matters little to him. What’s right matters even less, and decency matters not at all.”[5]

 

 

 

Rep. Schiff was arguing, essentially, that based on his past behavior and expressed intentions, Donald Trump will commit acts that break the law, violate the Constitution and endanger the nation. Therefore, he should be stripped of political power not only because he has abused his office, but even more because of what he will do in the future.

The future, by definition, has not and does not exist; it is only possibility. Therefore, any action undertaken based on future events is problematic. But as Locke points out, sometimes it is necessary. To tell people they can only resist tyranny when the tyrant has seized power and clapped them in irons is at best pointless, if not sheer mockery. It would be like telling passengers who find that the ship they are on is taking them to the slave market in Algiers that they can do nothing because, after all, the captain is the captain, you must trust his judgment and authority, and that if you believe he is abusing his power then you can exit the ship just as soon as it reaches its destination and choose a ship with a new captain. At the same time, to mutiny three days out of dock, just because the ship was heading south and the captain has dark skin like an Algerian slaver, would also be insane. Locke, true to his empiricist philosophy, says we should base our judgment on observation and induction. If the captain repeatedly aims towards Algiers, despite repeated obstacles and repeated assurances that he’d never do such a thing, then it is reasonable to draw conclusions regarding his true intentions and to act on those conclusions. And if a politician with executive power should repeatedly act against the laws of the nation, against the expressed wishes of the people, putting his or her personal interests ahead of the general welfare, deceiving and suppressing liberty, it is reasonable to assume that he or she is actively seeking tyrannical power over the nation, and to act to stop this.

The reasons why conservatives were so convinced that Obama had tyrannical intentions were always a mystery to those of us who don’t watch Alex Jones or listen to Rush Limbaugh. Many of the anti-Obama (and later, anti-Clinton) charges seem insane, such as Pizzagate and the claims about NASA pedophile camps on Mars. The actual record of Obama, the actual evidence of his intentions, came largely from his bibliography and his having attended a UCC church led by the Afrocentric theologian Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The publicly available facts were that Barack Obama’s father was African, Muslim and anti-colonial; however, he had relatively little to do with raising Barack, who was instead brought up by his mother after his father left them. She was white, and while she was progressive for her time she had worked more intensely to insure her son was raised with so-called “middle class” values like education, hard work and caring for his fellow Americans than many conservative parents can boast. Aside from his skin, name and having spent part of his childhood in foreign countries, he had a childhood that many conservative politicians would have envied. He was attacked for having been a community activist, which conservative pundits claimed showed he was a radical revolutionary; but George H. W. Bush famously praised individual activism as “a thousand points of light” shining the way for the nation. And while Rev. Wright’s rhetoric can be fiery, as a freshman senator Obama’s behavior was not particularly shocking. Returning to Locke’s analogy, it was as if the new captain had said, “I’ve heard the climate in Algiers is nice this time of year, and they have some beautiful buildings,” but then had sailed a normal course. Maybe you’d want to watch him, but there’d be too little real evidence to make a reasonable claim that he was sailing to Algiers. And as President, the evidence was even more mixed: while there were certainly policy disputes and power struggles with the Congress whose leadership had declared that its top priority was to make him a one-term president, he never attempted to impose Sharia, confiscate all guns, or carry out any of the dire predictions made of him. He complied with court rulings regarding Congressional subpoenas, made his Secretary of State and other officials available for multiple public and private hearings, and generally behaved as we had always expect a president to behave. He never declared opposition to the Constitution, which he had taught and studied before becoming president; and his actions were mostly consistent with his words.

Donald Trump had a much longer public record, being both much older and much more famous before his election. He had said that he was genetically superior to most Americans, who lack his intelligence and industriousness and therefore allow themselves to be led by the superior men like himself.[6]   He attributes his success, and the failures of people like coal miners, to his own natural superiority and their inferiority.[7] To many, this sounds far more ominous than Obama having said he liked Rev. Wright and then hearing that Wright had said God should “damn America” for the sins of racism and the slave trade. After all, Obama didn’t explicitly endorse this claim by Wright; but Trump does endorse eugenics, which disturbs some people.[8] Claims by his ex-wife that he owns and reads a collection of Hitler’s speeches also raises concerns.[9] Add to that his divorces and bankruptcies, which together imply a lack of commitment to his promises, his legal history including lawsuits by employees and business partners he’s refused to pay, fines for racial discrimination at his properties, multiple acts of sexual assault, accusations of fraud at Trump University and other cases, most of which he settled rather than take to trial, and many people had serious doubts about his character. The Mueller Report and impeachment hearings revealed a pattern, witnessed and sworn to by many people, of obstruction of investigations which were lawful but he deemed “unfair,” as well as calling for investigations of people he disliked without any legal grounds, all to help his career. Furthermore, millions of dollars of taxpayer money have been spent at his properties, suggesting ongoing corruption; and his repeated claims that he deserves a third term and his complaints that various aspects of the Constitution are bothersome strongly suggest that he is not particularly devoted to the Constitutional limits on his power. These are some of the points of evidence that lead Congressman Schiff, and millions of others, to fear that Donald Trump is at best a compulsive, serial crook with unwitting or unreflective tyrannical tendencies, and at worst a full-blown authoritarian seeking to undermine our democratic institutions so he can add the United States of America to his business empire as one more hostile takeover.

By Locke’s standards, then, there was little ground to remove President Obama, and it is not surprising that he was not impeached and that he won reelection. The claims that he was an usurper, or that he had otherwise committed crimes that were disqualifying, were proven untrue by the standards we generally use to prove any historical fact. In other words, if we don’t know Obama was born in Hawaii, we really can’t say we know anything that happened which we did not actually see. Historical documents, eyewitnesses, and the coherence of evidence all testify that the Holocaust was a terrible crime, that the American Revolution led to the United States of America being formed from the thirteen British colonies, and that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii and thus legally fit to hold office as President of the United States. Continued denial of these or any other facts backed by evidence of like quality is akin to psychosis.

Acts done during his presidency were occasionally challenged and denounced, but none were shown to warrant impeachment. His use of executive orders and his power struggles with the Congress headed by an opposing party were consistent with what we have seen in the past, and less extreme than what we witnessed during the Reagan administration and some other recent presidencies.

As to removal due to his future acts, these proved to be the most baseless. He never claimed any intention to do much of what conservative politicians and right-wing media said he was certainly planning to do, and in fact he never did. He never grabbed our guns, imposed Sharia, shuttered Christian churches, ceased deporting illegal immigrants, never arrested political opponents, never declared martial law, never sought to ban private health care or “socialize medicine,” nothing. While it is easy to see why many might have been alarmed at the rhetoric of Rev. Wright, the fact is that the American people did not elect President Jeremiah Wright; they elected President Barack Obama, who proved to be a steady, calm, clear communicator willing to talk to and listen to all sorts of people. And if there was any thought that he would betray the U.S. to the terrorists or wasn’t committed to fighting terrorism because he wouldn’t use the words “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” those fears were largely dispelled when he ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden.

By contrast, many (not all) of the concerns about Donald Trump have turned out to be well-founded.   He was fined for racist discrimination in his rental properties and admitted racist statements towards employees.[10] He bragged about committing sexual assault, then denied it, then threatened to sue the dozens of women who accused him of rape, groping, barging in on them while they were changing at the beauty pageant he owned, in short accused him of the very behavior he had boasted, but he never sued at all or testified under oath about their claims. He paid fines relating to various charges of fraud, including Trump University, a breaking scandal during the election for which, as soon as the election was over, he agreed to pay fines and damages. His campaign was accused of having improper connections to Russia and other foreign governments; since the election multiple campaign leaders and close Trump advisors have pleaded guilty or have been convicted of these charges. The Mueller report concluded that while there was no actual “conspiracy,” that was largely because the Trump campaign was too inept and too rent by personal rivalries among his staff to effectively conspire, and his administration was too weak to deliver on promises made to Russia because they feared looking like they were beholden to Putin—which, apparently, they were. Mueller also described ten separate instances of obstruction of justice carried out by Mr. Trump, intended to block investigation of Russian assistance to his campaign. Thus there were instances in the past that suggest that he was morally and psychologically flawed, and unlikely to be a good president. There is even some evidence that his campaign might have been illegal. In the end, though, there is nothing in the Constitution that says a lying, neurotic criminal can’t run for President. Even one with business ties to hostile foreign dictators can run, though he is supposed to be forbidden from actually holding presidential power while receiving income from foreign investments (U.S. Constitution Article 1, sect. 9, clause 8). So in that sense, the charges against Donald Trump were never as disqualifying as those against Obama; if the charges against Obama had a shred of truth in them, they could have barred him from even running for office. The charges against Trump were therefore less serious, in that sense; they were more serious in that they were put forward by people who meant them seriously—that is, who actually believed them and had evidence and reasons for those beliefs, rather than simply making baseless accusations to try to score political points by playing to paranoid delusions.

The evidence that Donald Trump is an usurper is weak; there has been no solid evidence that any votes were changed to get him elected, and even if his campaign did conspire with foreign governments the prescribed penalty would be a fine, not removal from office. The evidence that he is now a full-blown tyrant is also weak, being largely a matter of interpretation; he may be a corrupt authoritarian who is openly trying to rig his reelection and abusing his power in the process, but his abuses do not strike most people as directly barring them from what they want to do. But the evidence that he wants to exercise tyrannical power, wants to subvert representative democracy and undermine the other branches of government, is abundant and glaring. His words, his actions, the testimony of his confidants and aides all point towards this, just as if the captain should persistently steer towards Algiers. Even though, when circumstances or protests dissuade him, he might temporarily set another course, he always returns towards his original destination. It is therefore permissible, and I would say it is morally necessary to oppose him, before he can deliver the entire “ship of state” to the port of bondage. The only real question is what sort of resistance is required or allowed.

[1] “Cops: McCain Worker Made Up Attack Story;” CBS News October 24, 2008 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cops-mccain-worker-made-up-attack-story/)

[2] Jonathan Tilove, “Abbot Directs State Guard to Monitor Operation Jade Helm 15 in Texas;” Statesman September 25, 2018 (https://www.statesman.com/NEWS/20160923/Abbott-directs-State-Guard-to-monitor-Operation-Jade-Helm-15-in-Texas) also Matthew Yglesias, “The Amazing Jade Helm Conspiracy Theory, Explained;” Vox May 6, 2015 (https://www.vox.com/2015/5/6/8559577/jade-helm-conspiracy)

[3] Ezra Klien, “Obama Derangement Syndrome;” Vox February 23, 2015 (https://www.vox.com/2015/2/23/8089639/obama-derangement-syndrome)

[4] Algernon Austin, “How Being an Obama Hater Warps Your Mind;” HuffPost October 21, 2015 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-being-an-obama-hater_b_8347142)

[5] Dareh Gregorian, “Schiff’s Powerful Closing Speech: ‘Is There One of You Who Will Say, Enough!’?” NBC News February 5, 2020 (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/trump-impeachment-inquiry/closing-argument-democrats-say-not-removing-trump-would-render-him-n1128766)

[6] Caroline Mortimer, “Donald Trump Believes He Has Superior Genes, Biographer Claims;” Independent September 30, 2016 (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-president-superior-genes-pbs-documentary-eugenics-a7338821.html)

[7] Nate Hopper, “Donald Trump Once Worried About Coal Miners Getting ‘Black-Lung Disease’ from ‘Damn Mines’;” TIME June 1, 2017 (https://news.yahoo.com/donald-trump-once-worried-coal-215437514.html)

[8] Marina Fang & JM Rieger, “This May Be the Most Horrible Thing that Donald Trump Believes;” Huffington Post September 28, 2016 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/donald-trump-eugenics_n_57ec4cc2e4b024a52d2cc7f9)

[9] Marie Brenner, “After the Gold Rush;” Vanity Fair September 1, 1990 (https://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2015/07/donald-ivana-trump-divorce-prenup-marie-brenner)

[10] Michael D’Antonio, “Is Donald Trump Racist? Here’s What the Record Shows;” Fortune June 7m 2016 (https://fortune.com/2016/06/07/donald-trump-racism-quotes/)

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 6)

March 21, 2020

I wrote this before the COVID-19 outbreak, and therefore it does not address this rapidly-changing situation.  It may seem like a lifetime ago that we were discussing impeachment and abuses of power.  However, these are still important questions; besides, I hate loose ends and I have time on my hands, so I want to go ahead and finish.

A president (or other executive) might also be removed based on the present facts; not that he or she is an usurper, but rather that he or she is acting as a tyrant. Obama faced repeated calls for his impeachment, not only by FOX News and other conservative opinion makers but also by Republican lawmakers such as Darrell Issa and Tim Scott. The more substantive arguments alleged abuse of power, in that Obama’s executive orders were said to either go beyond Congressional authorization or to refuse to enforce Congressionally-passed laws. However, none of these claims ever really went anywhere, and it is debatable whether even the people making these charges really believed them; there was a general pattern of calling for Obama’s impeachment during the election season, and dropping the topic once the election was over.

Donald Trump likewise faced calls for his impeachment based on abuse of power; or in Locke’s terms, that he was exercising power which neither he nor anyone had a right to, and thus was acting as a tyrant. A partial list of these reasons include:

  1. Violations of the Constitution’s “Emoluments Clause,” which states that a President may not receive income from foreign persons, powers or properties while in office. Unlike past presidents, Trump has held onto his extensive business empire including business dealings with Russia (which he sought to hide, according to the Mueller Report), investments in Turkey (which even he admits cause “a little conflict of interest”[1]), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and many other countries, as well as domestic properties that receive much of their income from foreign nationals and governments.
  2. Ten acts of obstruction of justice, as this is defined in law, and as documented in part II of the Mueller Report.
  3. Obstruction of Congress and solicitation of foreign interference in our nation’s elections, violating election law and soliciting a bribe. These last two actually resulted in articles of impeachment being passed by the House of Representatives.

So whereas Obama faced continuous calls for impeachment which never materialized, Trump was in fact impeached based not on past disqualifications but on his present actions. What was the difference?

Locke points towards an answer with his chapter “Of Prerogative.”[2] Locke accepts that no legal system could possibly predict all contingencies, and therefore assumes that a civil government will allow its magistrates to exercise their power at their own discretion. He even accepts that a judge, sheriff, or even a king (or president or other chief executive) might violate the letter of the law. What matters to Locke is the motivation behind this act. Locke distinguishes between proper perogative and abuse of this power by citing the welfare of the people, writing:

 

 

 

But since a rational creature cannot be supposed, when free, to put himself into subjection to another, for his own harm; (though, where he finds a good and wise ruler, he may not perhaps think it either necessary or useful to set precise bounds to his power in all things) prerogative can be nothing but the people’s permitting their rulers to do several things, of their own free choice, where the law was silent, and sometimes too against the direct letter of the law, for the public good; and their acquiescing in it when so done: for as a good prince, who is mindful of the trust put into his hands, and careful of the good of his people, cannot have too much prerogative, that is, power to do good; so a weak and ill prince, who would claim that power which his predecessors exercised without the direction of the law, as a prerogative belonging to him by right of his office, which he may exercise at his pleasure, to make or promote an interest distinct from that of the public, gives the people an occasion to claim their right, and limit that power, which, whilst it was exercised for their good, they were content should be tacitly allowed.[3]

 

 

 

Since the legislature cannot predict every contingency, some leeway must be granted to the executive. The local or national government may act without direct mandate from the law or even seemingly against it. For example, Locke says that if tearing down the house of an innocent man is the only way to stop a fire from spreading and destroying the city, the executive authority on the scene may do so. This is because the people form and assent to government for their own good, and particularly for the preservation of the lives of every one of them. If strict adherence to the law, or inaction until the legislature can convene and issue a relevant law is to lead to the death or suffering of people, then the executive branch of the government must act immediately. Likewise, Locke argues, there may be a person who is technically guilty of breaking the law, but has acted for the good of all and in fact deserves reward and honor rather than punishment; in this case, Locke says, the executive is empowered to pardon this person.[4] Always, the test is whether the act of prerogative is performed as a service to the people and for the good of the community as a whole, or as a right of the executive to act according to his or her own welfare and desires.

Obama faced repeated calls for his impeachment based on his actions at the time, which we call “executive orders” and Locke would define as “prerogative.” Often these calls came from extremist websites and pundits such as InfoWars, but at times the threats came from elected officials or former officials within the Republican party. One particular flash point was immigration.[5]   During the Obama administration there was a rise in border crossings, including both asylum seeking and attempts to sneak across the border undetected. Obama raised the ire of many liberals by deporting large numbers of undocumented and would-be immigrants, even being called “Deporter-in-Chief” by some. However, he issued one of his most controversial executive orders when he announced that the so-called “Dreamers,” children of undocumented immigrant parents who had perhaps lived in this country since infancy, would not be deported. Essentially, the Obama administration announced that it would prioritize deportations, seeking to remove criminals first, and deporting last (if at all) people who had lived in this country for years or decades and who had no part in choosing to immigrate since they were children at the time. This was claimed to be a failure to enforce the laws of the nation, and thus a violation of the Presidential oath of office; it was also alleged that this was done for partisan reasons since the immigrants would presumably vote Democrat. It was even alleged, without any proof and even against all evidence, that large numbers of undocumented immigrants would or had voted Democrat. However, these calls for impeachment may have been mere rhetoric, and in any case they failed to stir any serious impeachment attempt. Obama was able to argue, in courts and to the public, that it was a necessary part of his office to enforce the laws as he thought best for the American people, and that included prioritizing deportations of dangerous undocumented immigrants first, then the unproductive, rather than targeting those who were contributing to the welfare and economy of the nation and hadn’t even chosen to break immigration law in the first place. In Locke’s terms, this seems to be a legitimate exercise of prerogative; and the argument for this was reinforced by the fact that Obama was in fact vigorously enforcing immigration law overall. So long as he was seen as going after what would later be called “bad hombres” few people really cared if he ignored or protected “Dreamers.”

Donald Trump likewise faced calls for impeachment for some of his acts of prerogative. He has publicly suggested pardons for people under investigation for crimes allegedly committed on his behalf, such as Michael Cohen, so long as Cohen refused to cooperate with prosecutors. This is mentioned as one of the possible acts of obstruction of justice found by the Mueller investigation. As Locke says, a legitimate act of prerogative would be to pardon someone who acted against the law, but for the good of the nation; but in this case a pardon was offered for someone whose actions had no benefit for anyone but the president.[6] But while such actions as these were potentially impeachable, Trump faced actual impeachment and trial for his acts of prerogative in attempting to pressure Ukraine, an ally under attack by its stronger neighbor Russia, into doing political favors for him. He used the power of his office to delay promised aid and to withhold a public meeting that would signal U.S. support of Ukraine. Trump then attempted to hide what he was doing from Congress and the people. When the story finally came out, he defended himself by pointing out that Obama had also delayed aid to an ally, Egypt, so it was his right as President to do so. However, Obama had delayed aid because there had been a coup in Egypt; in other instances, there were concerns over corruption in the recipient country. In this case, all relevant agencies had determined that Ukraine needed the military aid promised by Congress, that it was meeting its obligations to fight corruption so the money would be properly spent, and that the aid was urgently needed. The only reason to delay the aid, it seems, was to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation of one of Trump’s political rivals in an attempt to help Trump’s reelection campaign.

The defense against this claim of abuse of power obliterates the distinction Locke drew between proper prerogative and acts of tyranny.[7] Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz argued that anything a president does for the good of the nation cannot be considered an abuse of power. Since every politician thinks his or her own reelection is for the good of the nation, anything a sitting public official does to aid his or her own reelection is thus for the good of the people, and a legitimate act of prerogative. While Mr. Dershowitz concedes that a President demanding a contribution to his personal bank account might be impeachable, his efforts to cover up or impede an investigation into this crime would not be; and in any case, demanding some other payoff such as a political favor would not be. While Locke, and our Founding Fathers guided by Locke’s philosophy sought to distinguish between prerogative done for the good of the people and abuses of power done for the benefit of a corrupt politician, the Trump Party has said there is no difference since whatever is done to benefit the political office holder is by definition “for the good of the nation.” Or, as an earlier politician put it, “L’état, c’est moi.”

[1] Russ Choma, “Reminder: Trump Has a Massive Conflict of Interest in Turkey;” Mother Jones Oct. 7, 2019 (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/10/reminder-trump-has-a-massive-conflict-of-interest-in-turkey/)

[2] Locke, Chapter XIV

[3] Locke, sect. 164

[4] Locke, sect. 159-61

[5] Erika Echelburger, “These 7 Conservatives Would Impeach Obama Over Immigration;” Mother Jones November 14, 2014 (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/11/obama-executive-order-immigration-republican-impeachment/)

[6] Bart Jansen, “Trump Repeatedly Tried to Impede the Russia Probe, Mueller Report Says. Was it Obstruction?” USA Today, July 23, 2019 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/04/18/mueller-report-evidence-for-and-against-obstruction-president-trump/3405039002/)

[7] Charlie Savage, “Trump Lawyer’s Impeachment Argument Stokes Fears of Unfettered Power;” The New York Times January 20, 2020 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/30/us/politics/dershowitz-trump-impeachment.html)

Commentary Upon the Declaration of Independence

July 4, 2018

Have you ever read the whole thing?  Take a few minutes and do it now:  http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/

Of, if you aren’t into reading, listen:  https://www.npr.org/2018/07/04/623836154/a-july-4-tradition-npr-reads-the-declaration-of-independence

I don’t want to try to do a line-by-line commentary, but over the years teaching ethics and American religion I have come back to these words many times.  I have often heard them quoted or misquoted with reverence  but also at times with malice towards other Americans for whom these words were also written; for these words were written not just for those few alive to hear them the first time, but for all nations and all ages. 

In these times, I want to offer my own commentary, and what these words say to me now.

When in the Course of human events it become necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

These are often treated as throwaway lines, like the instrumental introduction to a favorite song, and we only start paying attention when the “real” text starts with “We hold these truths….”  That is a shame.  There is a lot in this paragraph that helps us understand what comes next.  First, they are clearly speaking to the world, not just other Americans.  It’s a big deal.  People didn’t just declare independence willy-nilly.  We’ve gotten rather blasé about redrawing lines on a map, but in 1776 this was seen by some to be tampering with the order of Creation.  God established the nations and fixed their boundaries, and the royal families inherited their right to rule through Adam.  Locke’s First Treatise on Civil Government was devoted to refuting this claim, which would not have been necessary if it were not powerful.  And even if that sort of absolute “divine right of kings” was not always fully embraced by the English, there was still a strong reverence for the established borders and political powers.

The Declaration states that the former English citizens will “…assume…the separate and equal nation to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…”  This shows the deep roots our nation has in John Locke’s philosophy, so it is worth the time to unpack it.  Locke belongs to that political tradition known as “social contract theory.”  It asks us to imagine all people as free and independent individuals, for that is what each of us is essentially even if we’ve never actually lived as free creature outside of a social structure.  What would life be like?  What is it about living as citizens in a society that makes it better than living in anarchy?  What is it that we can be asked to give up in order to be citizens of a civil state or commonwealth, and what is it that the state owes us citizens?  We are. Locke says, essentially free and equal, separate from one another unless we choose to be part of a community.  That is how Nature and Nature’s God created us.  “Nature” and “Nature’s God” are, for Locke, and for Jefferson (the primary author of the Declaration), and for most of the founding fathers, more or less the same thing.  Jefferson, like many of the Founding Fathers, was a religious liberal.  Some were liberal Christians, while others were more Deists.  Deism believed that God created the world to be good and rational, and that everything we needed to know about God could be found through using our human reason to understand the world that God created.  Deists like Jefferson and Franklin did not see any good from supposing that God regularly rips open the Heavens to help His favorites with miracles, that a guy dying on a cross could pay for your moral failures, or any of that supernatural stuff.  Study Nature, and you will understand Nature’s God.  Live a moral life as your human reason reveals it, guided by the religious and philosophical heritage of Moses and Jesus but also Socrates and Plato and (for Jefferson) even Mohammed and other sages, and you will do what God wanted you to do.  God gave us what we needed to live in the world, and left us and it to work things out.

Not everyone who signed that Declaration agreed with Jefferson’s liberal religion.  Thirteen were Presbyterians and one even a Presbyterian pastor, and the British referred to the Revolution as “that Presbyterian revolt.”  But that is who the Founding Fathers were:  religious liberals and conservatives, seculars and devout, aristocrats and plebeians, North and South, joining together despite their differences to risk their lives for a common cause. 

“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—-“  If they were “self-evident,” it wasn’t to everyone, or there wouldn’t have been a war.  Later peoples have wondered how Jefferson could have written these words while himself owning slaves, and while in fact women were legally little better than slaves themselves with no right to own property, to vote, or to pursue most of the activities we assume are natural for adult citizens without male permission.  The fact is, he was deeply conflicted.  His original Declaration included attacks on slavery, which were stripped from the final version to get Southern colonies to sign on.  Some, like John Adams’ wife Abigail, urged that women’s rights be respected, but it took another 145 years for that to happen.  To many, it seemed “self-evident” that nonwhites and non-males were NOT “created equal.”  History has slowly moved to catch up with the true promise of Jefferson’s words.

“That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—-“ Again I say, “Creator” does not mean “The God of Moses.”  It is Nature and Nature’s God that gave us these rights, not a supernatural voice thundering from a mountaintop; these rights are discovered by the light of Nature and Reason, not from reading them off a stone tablet.  That’s what he meant, and if you disagree that’s fine but don’t quote this document to back you up.  “Unalienable rights:”  what does that mean?  It means that you have certain rights that you CANNOT ever be said to have given up.  You always have those rights, even if you think you don’t.  Among those is the right to liberty.  “Liberty” is the right to live as you want.  You may voluntarily agree to limits on your freedom, but only in ways that enhance your overall ability to do what you want.  For example, you can agree to live according to laws and to let courts punish those who wrong you, but only if those laws protect you and others equally and only if you had a part in making those laws by voting for legislators who would write them and vote on them.  By agreeing to live as part of a group, each individual agrees to respect the will of the majority; if you don’t like it, you should leave if it is intolerable, or stay and try to persuade the majority to change its mind if you possibly can. 

This is a vitally important point today.  There is a powerful movement today called “Christian Reconstructionism.”  It was founded by Rousas Rushdoony in the early 20th Century, and had profoundly influenced Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the so-called “Religious Right,” as well as many conservative politicians such as Mike Pence.  It believes that this was a Christian nation, that its laws were not discovered by natural reason and natural religion but supernaturally revealed by God, that Christians should run it and should use the tools provided by democracy to overthrow democracy, denying most people the right to vote (and thus denying most of them their basic liberty) so that only fundamentalist Christians who endorse laissez-faire capitalism should be allowed any voice in government.  This violates the principles of the Declaration on several fronts.  As we’ve seen, it distorts the words “Creator” and “Nature’s God” to mean something they did not mean in the original document; it denies the idea that “all” people are created equal, since only Christians who subscribe to a particular theology which was not endorsed even by the most conservative Founding Fathers; and it treats liberty as something that is in fact “alienable,” capable of being lost or given away.  And this assault on everything for which our Founding Fathers fought is said to be justified because we were “endowed by our Creator”!

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—-“  Governments are human institutions, established by humans, for humans, according to human reason and traditions.  It might surprise you to hear that even the great Christian theologian John Calvin, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion was the most influential theological treatise of the Colonial period, said the same thing.  In his view, while Israel received its laws directly from God, other peoples were taught general moral principles by God but left to work out the details of justice and social welfare according to their own understanding and historical heritage.  Ultimately, the signers of the Declaration of Independence say, all governments derive their power and legitimacy from the consent of the governed, not from the endorsement of a small body of clerics or hereditary nobles.  And because government is justified by the will of the people, it can be deposed and replaced by those same people.

What are the reasons for taking this extreme action now?  As the Declaration says, people generally will endure a lot of abuse from their government, rather than take the risk (not only of war but also lawlessness) of overthrowing it.  (This again is straight out of Locke’s political writings.)  Things must be pretty awful to make a large group of people rise up in rebellion, throwing aside the law-and-order of their established government to try to hopefully replace it with something better.  After all, until the revolution succeeds, there is really nothing in its place but the absence of government:  so what makes the government of King George III worse than nothing?

“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good…  He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance…”  Who could imagine such a thing?  Would any government, say, criminalize the use of marijuana, a naturally-occurring plant, even when the people and governments of a state think it would be wholesome and necessary for the public good to legalize and tax this substance?  Would any tyrant refuse to allow a state to require non-medical “abortion counselors” to tell their patients truthfully that they are not doctors or medically trained, but merely religious advocates for a peculiar and untraditional interpretation of Christianity?  Would any despot pledge to overturn laws established for forty-five years, even when a vast majority of the people support those laws? 

“He has endeavored to prevent the population of the States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, ….”  The Founding Fathers fought against King George III because he restricted immigration!  That may sound like a total non sequitur, but one of the common justifications for limiting immigration is because “Democrats” just want to import voters who will vote a certain way.  Or, to put it another way, we need to restrict immigration to prevent the increased populations even if, or especially if the people who live in that area now want those immigrants, just because the despot and his party want to limit the numbers of people who aren’t partisans of their group.  The Founding Fathers thought that particular regions and local governments should be allowed to recruit new residents if they wished. 

“For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:  For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment of any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of the States…”  LIke, say, Philando Castile?  We may not have “soldiers” living in our homes, but we do have armed people in neighborhoods who are not answerable to the people who they are sent to control, who kill some who are unarmed, unresisting and sometimes not even breaking any laws, and often those killers are acquitted in what seem to the people to be sham trials; and when the national government is asked to intervene to help prevent these killings, they refuse and even support the right of the armed forces to kill at their discretion.  And when some peacefully protest in an orderly manner by kneeling during the National Anthem at a commercial sporting exhibition, the tyrant calls them “sons of bitches” and says they should be stripped of citizenship and deported.  It’s not exactly the same as quartering soldiers in people’s homes, but it must feel the same for those who feel threatened and abandoned by their leaders’ abrupt reversal of policy from protecting unarmed people to protecting the armed ones

“For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:”  This is the important one.  This is the biggie.  This is the one that could quite likely lead to civil war.  Our country was literally founded on the principle that while taxes are acceptable and even in a sense good, they MUST be made with the will of the people.  And ever since leading Republican activist and leader Paul Weyrich said over thirty years ago that the conservative cause was better supported by stopping people from voting, the GOP has pursued a concerted, conscious and deceptive strategy of stopping as many American citizens from voting as possible.  It has done this by voter ID laws that refuse to look at the identifications that are known to be carried by young people or nonwhites, while accepting other forms of identification (such as gun licenses) that are more likely carried by conservatives.  In North Carolina the state legislature quite openly discussed what sorts of ID black people were likely to have, so they could ban those.  Conservatives have talked about raising the age required for voting and have said quite openly that it’s because they think young people don’t vote conservative.  There has been talk of taking voting rights away from people to protest in favor of “liberal” causes or who were once immigrants but have become citizens.  And our Declaration of Independence makes it clear:  when a government takes your money without giving you the right to vote for the people who write the laws to raise those taxes or decide how the money is spent, that is tyranny and you have a right, even a duty, to fight back.  Conservatives had a right to vote, they lost in 2008 due to their own incompetent destruction of the economy, and they still threatened to take up arms because they didn’t like the Democratic government chosen by the majority.  Now, thanks to gerrymandering and voter suppression laws, we have a government that received a minority of the votes imposing taxes on the majority, not helping even when some are murdered, praising the killers as “very fine people” while protestors are “sons of bitches,” cutting taxes for a small minority of wealthy people while the vast majority either are seeing their taxes rise or are seeing insignificant cuts at best.  If the majority is being taxed without consent, that is a recipe for revolt.  Now, many in the minority party which controls the government are talking about cutting Social Security, which was paid for with payroll taxes paid only by working people, to pay for the tax cuts given to rich people who don’t draw a paycheck and have never paid payroll taxes.  That would mean that the payroll taxes are being collected to give to the rich employers, not to the employees who were counting on using those to retire. 

  “For depriving us in many cases of, of the benefit of Trial by Jury…” Increasingly, people are finding themselves forced into binding arbitration to settle not just civil disputes but even criminal cases.  During the Iraq War an American contractor was gang-raped by several of her male coworkers, and told that she could not sue them under the terms of her work contract; the case had to be resolved through arbitration.  (https://www.thenation.com/article/kbrs-rape-problem/)  The company was well-connected, having previously been led by the then Vice President of the United States.  People who are injured or killed while on the job are regularly stripped of their legal protections by a government that is more concerned with protecting employers from bad publicity. 

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us…”  I went to school in Charlottesville.  Having out-of-state neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate paramilitary thugs supporting the tyrant parade through the city where my children were born, having them kill one and injure many more people, and having to listen to them being praised and defended as “very fine people” by someone who is paid by my tax money despite receiving fewer votes than his opponent is beyond offensive.  If anyone can be said to have encouraged and excited domestic insurrections among the American people, it is the despot who praises murderers and who attacks professional journalists while praising and being interviewed by right-wing agitators who urge their followers to take up arms against “liberals” whom they accuse, with total disregard for the truth of their words or the consequences of their deeds, of plotting civil war, child molestation or other nonsense—-while the supporters of the tyrant have been shown again and again, to have actually engaged in those deeds.

As Jefferson said, breaking away from one’s government is not a matter to be contemplated lightly, and thus prudence dictates that we should seek every possible other remedy first.  I am not calling for the violent overthrow of the American government, as some conservative governors and other politicians did when Obama was elected.  Despite the fact that the current occupant of the White House has hinted that he would delay national elections and a majority of his party said they would support him, that has not yet happened, and thus there are still peaceful ways to dissent and to struggle for justice.  But the stated goals, the policies and the actions of the Republican Party in its local, state and national chapters has for thirty years been to subvert the election process, to block legal citizens from voting if they seemed likely to vote Democratic, to oppose the rights of cities and states to enforce their own laws regarding marijuana, immigration or weapons if those conflicted with the desires of the GOP donor base, and generally to seek to undermine democracy under the guidance of pastors and politicians who have stated their goal of imposing a “fundamentalist” Christian theocracy.  It is ironic that a fictional television program about a Christian patriarchal dystopia should be so popular when millions of people are so intent on imposing it in reality, and when, with the financial and political support of foreign adversaries, they are so close to achieving their long-held goal. 

Today, the Fourth of July 2018, is the day that the insurrectionist agitator Alex Jones said that “liberals” intended to launch a second Civil War.  This was, of course, a lie.  Other lies told by Jones have led to the parents of murdered children being harassed and threatened.  Jones pushed one of his followers to fire a gun in a pizza parlor by repeatedly claiming that the DNC ran a pedophile ring in the basement.  The restaurant doesn’t even have a basement, much less a pedophile ring, but Jones didn’t care so long as some liberals got killed.  He promotes lies about racial crimes that have pushed his white Christian male listeners to massacre black church members and others.  And this insurrectionist and traitor is heavily promoted and praised by the tyrant occupying the White House.  He “warns” his followers that “liberals” will start a civil war to encourage them to attack the liberals first——and to spend money buying weapons and other products sold by his advertisers, thus making a multimillion dollar profit by “exciting insurrection amongst the people” with the support of the Despot of DC.  People could die from this.  It is as irresponsible and criminal as a mullah calling for jihad, except that the paramilitaries and insurrectionists who agitate for violence against “liberals” and against “feminists” and against ethnic or sexual minorities have the full support and backing of the Republican Party and the Religious Right.  We are on a road that leads to civil war, and the Republican Party is pushing hard on the accelerator.  There are still exits from this highway to disaster, but we the people need to take them. Start right now by making sure you are registered to vote.  You can check online and register in 37 states (https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote).  While state and local governments have made it more difficult in recent years to try to discourage people’s participation in their government, it is still legal and possible.  Remember that your parents and grandparents in some cases risked their lives so you could have this chance.  For others, like myself, the fight was further back, but my mother was in the DAR.  My family fought for freedom.  Now there are people who have sworn to take it away.  Let’s not let them.