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July 04, 2006

Inequality, Justice & Protecting Liberty: A 4th of July Welcome to PaulsJusticeBlog


“Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Brandeis: “They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty” (Whitney v California, 274 US 357, 1927). The radicals who founded this country were not only brave enough to fight, but were not afraid to articulate their belief in the importance of freedom and argue it through to the logical conclusion of a government dependent on The People, who were free to change it. They wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It’s a commonly known irony that many of those talking about liberty and equality were slave owners, leading some to wonder exactly how “self-evident” these truths really were. Indeed, the Declaration contains a list of grievances against England to justify violent rebellion, and the original Declaration attacked the King for waging “Cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither” (in Christianson 1998, p 66). The passage had to do with the British policy of transportation, whereby convicts – as well as poor people kidnapped for cheap labor – were put on boats bound for Australia or the American colonies. At the request of slave states, this passage was deleted and replaced with the more general “long train of abuses and usurpations.”

The founding fathers not only had slaves, but also prohibited all women and many poor men from voting for a government supposedly “of, by and for, the People.” But it is easy to be overly cynical, and Supreme Court Justice Douglas reminds us that: “The enduring appeal lay in two of its conceptions: First, that revolution can be a righteous cause, that the throwing off of chains by an oppressed people is a noble project; and second, that all men have a common humanity, that there is a oneness in the world which binds all men together” (1954, p 3). We hope that a more modern expression of that sentiment would more explicitly include women, but the basic sentiment is correct and shapes the contours of this book. Specifically, we believe in social justice, a concept that will be developed throughout the book, and we strongly value the ideals of freedom and equality. Yet at the same time, we are all too aware of the numerous current inequalities and ways in which the U.S. is not living up to its ideas, as well as the intense struggles it took to get the country from the limited notions of equality at its founding to the much more expansive understanding today.  

So begins the second edition of Class, Race, Gender & Crime that I wrote with Gregg Barak and Jeanne Flavin. (Information for the first edition is on my other website; I'll be posting the introductory narratives from all the chapters here later this summer as the book approaches its publication date.)

My hope in writing what's above was to provde a(nother) reminder that the 'love it or leave it' patriots 'patriots' have missed the real spirit of the Revolution. It's also not about corporate consumerism, for example buying a product marketed as revolutionary (Nike sneakers) or somehow linked to liberation (cigarettes for women). Instead, revolution is a messy and chaotic project based on valuing dissent and overcoming oppression. Those sentiments not only inform the book, but also this blog.

[continued below the photo] 

 

detroit fireworks 2006
[Click for a larger version]

 

Justice Brandeis' comments in Whitney were written in a concurring opinion about the free speech rights of Communists. He used the occasion not only to stand up for minority free speech rights, but set out a larger understanding of liberty and government:

Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties... They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law - the argument of force in its worst form.

No doubt many may like the rhetoric, but feel it's idealistic (even quixotic) in a time of terrorist threats. President Bush, among many others, has made this case: wanting to curtail a range of liberties and expand presidential power in the name of protecting freedom. But Justice Douglas, writing in his Almanac of Liberty, reminds us:

Short cuts are always tempting when one feels his cause is just. Short cuts have always been justified on the ground that the end being worthy, the means of reaching it are not important. Short cuts, however, are dangerous. If they can be taken against one person or group, they can be taken against another. Our greatest struggle has been to provide procedural safeguards that will protect us against ourselves and make as certain as possible that reason and calm judgment will not be swept away by passion and hysteria. (1954, p 69)

Happy 4th of July...

 

Listening to

For Further Reading

greenday-americanidiot.jpg

Christianson, 1998: With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America

Douglas, 1954: An Almanac of Liberty

The Sept 11 section of StopViolence has a July 4 entry for an earlier year 

PS - the photo is of the fireworks here in Detroit in 2006. Many thanks to the people at the Linguist list at EMU and Wayne State for the viewing party.

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