David Lesh, a colorful self-promoter, posted on Instagram a photo of himself defecating into a hitherto pristine Colorado lake, crowing about the wonderful feeling of freedom he got from it. Then, when faced with charges, he claimed that, actually, he had faked the photo. As he put it to a reporter, “I want to be able to post fake things to the Internet. That’s my ******* right as an American.”
We Americans love our freedoms.
One of the major themes of this fraught time is the often-heard complaint that government is trying to take away our personal liberty, as, say in requiring masking or closing down businesses to prevent the spread of covid-19.
An Arizona state rep questions the legality of a virus-related curfew in Tucson: ”I fully support the personal choices and efforts made by individuals to help curb the public spread of the coronovirus…But I absolutely reject government mandates that erode personal liberty.” As if our choice of government that can make such rules in behalf of public health were not a personal liberty itself.
The basic concept underlying such complaints is that government is an alien intrusion into our personal lives. That individual liberty and government tend to be natural enemies.
It’s not a new idea and in fact was apparently already prevalent enough even 220 years ago, in our nation’s babyhood, that George Washington, our first president, made it the subject of his Farewell Address to his fellow countrymen upon retiring from the presidency in 1796.
Styling himself “an old and affectionate friend” of the people, Washington warned his fellow citizens: don’t forget that government, this hardwon revolution of ours is not the enemy of your freedom but its source and only guarantee in a world in which governments are usually organized otherwise. “The unity of government which constitutes you one people . . . is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity, of that very liberty which you so highly prize. . . . Our nation starts with a profound paradox: individual, personal rights only exist when asserted and protected by a democratic government.
Washington and the other founding revolutionaries did not risk their lives to declare freedom from government but from an undemocratic, oppressive form of government in favor of one whose legitimacy comes from the consent of the governed.
The revolution was not just in the war but in the founding of that new sort of government.
Washington warns that the revolution is kept alive only in the continuing appreciation of that paradox: that the constraints of government are the only guarantee of real, realized, freedom. “It is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness; “
The freedom of which Washington speaks is not the Janis Joplin “Bobby McGee” sort, “another word for nothing left to lose,” but an attainment of government with everything to lose. Things can go wrong. If we are not careful, “cunning, ambitious , and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government…”
Probably Trump”s delight in freedoms such as grabbing women or bragging about what he could get away with as a celebrity, his contempt for all parts of government besides himself no doubt endeared him to many of his supporters. Such liberty is close kin to David Lesh-style freedom from government and a danger to the sort of liberty Washington was talking about.
Washington’s sober advice to the nation was that the liberties guaranteed by our new government were ours to lose. And that we would lose them if we didn’t actively appreciate the essential revolutionary paradox.
It would seem that, given the last four years and the sort of liberty exhibited on January 6, that paradox is an idea in dire need of a renaissance of understanding.