The Idea of America
There are occasions in American life — and they come too often these days — when you want to scream: “what the heck has happened to this country?!” Everyone encounters events that strike a particular nerve, some egregious violations of the norms for a free country that cut very deeply and personally.
We wonder: do we even remember what it means to be free? If not — and I think not — The Idea of America: What It Was and How It Was Lost (hardcover and Kindle), a collection of bracing reminders from our past, as edited by William Bonner and Pierre Lemieux, is the essential book of our time.
I’ll just mention two outrages that occur first to me. In the last six months, I came back to the country twice from international travel, once by plane and once by car. The car scene shocked me. The lines were ridiculously long and border control agents, clad in dark glasses and boots and wearing enough weaponry to fight an invading army, run up and down the lines with large dogs. Periodically, US border control would throw open doors of cars and vans and let the dogs run through, while the driver sits there poker faced and trying to stay calm and pretending not to object.
When I finally got to the customs window, I was questioned not like a citizen of the country but like a likely terrorist. The agent wanted to know everything about me: home, work, where I had been and why, and whether I will stay somewhere before getting to my destination, family composition, and other matters that just creeped me out. I realized immediately that there was no question he could ask me that I could refuse to answer, and I had to do this politely.
The second time I entered the country was by plane, and there were two full rescans of bags on the way in, in addition to the passport check, and a long round of questioning. There were no running dogs this time; the passengers were the dogs and we were all on the agents’ leashes. Whatever they ordered us to do, we did, no matter how irrational. We moved here and there in locked step and total silence. One step out of line and you are guaranteed to be yelled at. At one point, an armed agent began to talk loudly and with a sense of ridicule about the clothes I was wearing, and went out of his way to make sure everyone else heard him. I could do nothing but smile as if I were being complimented by a friend.
Of course these cases are nothing like the reports you hear almost daily about the abuse and outrages from domestic travel, which now routinely requires everyone to submit to digital strip searches. We have come to expect this. We can hardly escape the presence of the police in our lives. I vaguely remember when I was young that I thought of the police as servants of the people. Now their presence strikes fear in the heart, and they are everywhere, always operating under the presumption that they have total power and you and I have absolutely none.
You hear slogans about the “land of the free” and we still sing patriotic songs at the ballpark and even at church on Sunday, and these songs are always about our blessed liberty, the battles of our ancestors against tyranny, the special love of liberty that animates our heritage and national self identity. The contrast with reality grows starker by the day.
And it isn’t just about our personal liberty and our freedom to move about with a sense that we are exercising our rights. It hits us in the economic realm, where no goods or services change hands that aren’t subject to the total control of the leviathan state. No business is really safe from being bludgeoned by legislatures, regulators, and the tax police, while objecting only makes you more of a target.
Few dare say it publicly: America has become a police state. All the signs are in place, among which is the world’s largest prison population. If we are not a police state, one must ask, what are the indicators that will tell us that we’ve crossed the line? What are signs we haven’t yet seen?
We can debate that all day about when, precisely, the descent began but there can be no doubt when the slide into the despotic abyss became precipitous. It was after the terrorists hit on 9/11 in 2001. The terrorists wanted to deliver a blow to freedom. Our national leaders swore the terrorists would never win, and then spent the following ten years delivering relentless and massive blows to liberty as we had known it.
The decline has been fast but not fast enough for people to be as shocked as they should be. Freedom is a state of being that is difficult to recall once it is gone. We adapt to the new reality, the way people adapt to degenerative diseases, grateful for slight respites from pain and completely despairing of ever feeling healthy and well again.
What’s more, all the time we spend obeying, complying, and pretending to be malleable in order to stay out of trouble ends up socializing us and even changing our outlook on life. As in the Orwell novel, we have adjusted to government control as the new normal. The loudspeakers blared that all of this is in the interest of our security and well being. These people who are stripping us, robbing us, humiliating us, impoverishing us are doing it all for our own good. We never fully believe it but the message still affects our outlook.
The editors of The Idea of America are urging a serious national self assessment. They argue that freedom is the only theme that fully and truly animates the traditional American spirit. We are not united in religion, race, and creed, but we do have this wonderful history of rebellion against power in favor of human rights and freedom from tyranny. For this reason the book begins with the essential founding documents, which, if taken seriously, make a case for radical freedom not as something granted by government but as something that we possess as a matter of right.
The love of liberty is rooted in our Colonial past, and it is thrilling to see Murray Rothbard’s excellent account of the pre-revolutionary past printed here, with followups to make the point by Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine. Lord Acton makes the next appearance with a clarifying essay about the whole point of the American Revolution, which was not independence as such but liberty. He forcefully argues that the right of secession, the right to annul laws, the right to say no to the tyrant, the right to leave the system, constitute great contribution of America to political history. As you read, you wonder where these voices are today, and what would happen to them if they spoke up in modern versions of the same thoughts. These revolutionaries are pushing ideas that the modern regime seeks to bury and even criminalize.
The voice of the new country and its voluntaristic themes is provided by Alexis de Tocqueville, along with the writings of James Madison. As Bonner and Lemieux argue in their own contributions, the idea of anarchism, that is, living without a state, has always been just beneath the surface of American ideology. Here they bring it to the surface with an essay by proto-anarchist J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur, who said of America: “we have no princes for whom we toil, starve, and bleed: we are the most perfect society now existing in the world.”
The anarchist strain continues with marvelous writings by Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, Volairine de Cleyre, plus some court decisions reinforcing gun rights. The book ends with another reminder that America is an open society that is welcoming to newcomers. The final choice of Rose Wilder Lane’s “Give Me Liberty” is inspired.
The value of this book is dramatically heightened by the additional material from Bonner, whose clear prose and incisive intellect is on display here both in the foreword and the afterword, as well as Lemieux, whose introduction made my blood boil with all his examples of government gone mad in our time. Bonner in particular offers an intriguing possibility that the future of the true America has nothing to do with geography; it exists where the free minds and free hearts exist. The digitization of the world opens up new opportunities for just this.
The contrast is stark: what America was meant to be and what it has become. It is hard to take this kind of careful look. Truly honest appraisals of this sort are rare. Adapting, going along, pretending not to notice are all easier strategies to deal with the grim situation we face. But this is not the way America’s founders dealt with their problems. This book might inspire us to think and act more like we should.
We should prepare.
In the words of Thomas Paine:
O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. — Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.