Being Brave in the Home of the Free

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I have heard and read many claims suggesting that “liberals” do not support the US Constitution. Unfortunately, this sentiment has become too ubiquitous to require reference.

I want to take a rare moment and say sincerely that I am deeply committed to the First Amendment for all Americans. The right to free speech is the proverbial Rosetta Stone to interpreting the intersections of our distinguished law of the land.

To that end, to speak out and express political concerns is about the most “American” thing that We the People can do. Often, speaking out takes bravery.

Hanging Lake Trail

A couple of years ago, my partner and I were in Colorado for holiday.  It was around Thanksgiving and we decided to take a hike up to Hanging Lake; part of the national forest around Glenwood Springs.  The weather was frigid and the hike was about one mile with a couple of thousand feet of relief.  Essentially, this trail was straight up.  Most people were wearing crampons, or ice spikes, on their shoes for traction.  The climb was perilous and, on several occasions, we considered turning around.

We came upon a steep section of switchbacks, when a parent with a child was making the arduous descent.  The child fell and, in that moment before starting to cry, looked at the parent who responded, “If you are going to be brave, you have to be tough.”

The child then picked herself up and started back down the path slightly battered.  We reflected on that lesson of bravery for the rest of our trip back then, but it has become especially salient over the past weeks since the election.

When they came…

American politics have always hung precariously between the interest of capital and participatory democracy.

Conservatives have not always, but sometimes, employed exclusionary tactics to prioritize their capital interests.

Liberals, generally speaking, attempt to lean toward the inclusive side of capital and hang on to some form of egalitarian democracy.

Institutional power does not acquiesce to broadening inclusiveness very often.  To this end during our current political moment, perhaps it would be a good time to remember Martin Niemöller’s poem entitled, “First they Came.”

(A few points are important to remember. This poem was written retrospectively and outlines the cowardice of German intellectuals during the rise of fascism.  It is also worth the gentle reminder that Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor, like the rest of the protestant white working class, originally supported Hitler as an anti-communist.)

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

Employing Niemöller may tilt this argument toward liberalism in this political moment. However, given the material, political, and social exclusionary arc of returning to the “greatness” of the mid-twentieth century (an era riddled with hyper political exclusion, red scares, union busting, and resistance to civil rights), this retrospective wisdom cannot be overused.

Consider the current rhetoric against immigrants, women, communities of color through metaphors of law & order, and emerging stances against access to education.

The theme to reflect on this holiday season should be about inclusion rather than reaching some political goal of exclusion.

The First Amendment is about Inclusion

The First Amendment guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. It forbids Congress from both promoting one religion over others and also restricting an individual’s religious practices. It guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely. It also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government.

The First Amendment contains a blueprint and legal space between individual and collective concerns.

I recently spent five years in the deep Midwest. One of the more notorious groups around the region in which I taught is the Westborough Baptist Church.

While students would often try and argue that they were closer to terrorists than a special interest group, I defended them adamantly—because they are Americans exercising the foundational, nay the very first, right that our Constitution awards us as the People: the right to protest, to march, and to make political statements with the state on our side.

But I do not want to just focus on a national agenda. That also has exclusionary limits.

This country used to lead the world toward voicing our diversity and commitment to human rights. Eleanor Roosevelt’s United Nations address toward human dignity for everyone comes to mind—also acknowledging limitations therein.

In light of statements and suggestions or thoughts in this brief essay, humanity should not be left out of the conversation.

We are, and do belong to, one nation, which is and has been diversely stratified, and regardless of interpretation, interdependent upon every community of people in the hope of greatness.

We are not like other countries.

We are malcontents, often violent and stubborn hearts—suspect of any consolidation of too much power in any direction. And I love that about this massive country we call united.

The history of democracy is not as simple as cherry trees and unwavering honesty. It is a history of bumps, argument, violence, tragic divisions and protest.

The next four years may be considered only a brief period—someday—but it is promising to be steep and arduous much like our adventure to Hanging Lake. Like the little girl who fell and hurt her knee, if you are going to be brave, you have to be tough.

As a country, we seem to be hinting at another period of profound disagreement. If you, as an individual are committed to egalitarian democracy, then remember everyone’s voice is toward what the US Constitution was conceived, penned and constructed; beyond social injustices riddling that and this time and place. That is why it’s the First Amendment in the Constitution, even for liberals.

 

Written by Edward Green, Ph.D., Roosevelt University

**Special thanks to Heather Branham and Kevin Steinmetz for the suggestions and critiques.

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