As commemorated in the documentary of the same name.
The recent SCOTUS declaration on the Hobby Lobby case, and its ensuing controversy, have strengthened my conviction that the American experiment has decisively failed.
Classical Liberalism, the philosophy that gave our nation birth, could be summed up without disastrous oversimplification as a belief in self-rule. This is more than just democracy as opposed to monarchy. Liberalism emerged out of the statist, absolutist governments that became popular during the Renaissance (themselves heirs of the gradual centralization of governments during the High and Late Middle Ages), which enjoined -- or, more precisely, took for granted -- a strictly hierarchical view of society and a supremacy of the state over its own laws that allowed it to meddle in nearly every aspect of life, just like it does today. The Enlightenment saw many political and economic philosophers reacting against what they declared to be tyranny, insisting by contrast on freedom of religion, freedom of speech and press, freedom of trade, and the equality of all men before the law.*
The turning of the tide against these ideals did not begin with the song SexyBack, though I dare say Mr. Timberlake did nothing to stem it. If you talk to a Leftist (or what most Americans think of as a Leftist), the Patriot Act may well be cited; if you talk to someone on the Right, the New Deal may be weighed and found wanting. I don't propose here to try and get to the bottom of that discussion. I would, however, point to a few essential elements of classical Liberalism that I think are simple statements of justice, whether Liberalism as a whole is right or not, and that I think our culture has lost touch with -- and must recover as central components of an American identity, if being an American is to be a noble thing.
1. The presumption of innocence. The crumbling of this belief at a popular level, within my own short lifetime, is a shock that I still haven't gotten over. It was, I feel, exemplified with a startling and unpleasant clarity in several recent instances, such as the Secretary of State's recent appallingly stupid remarks about Edward Snowden, or the employment of drone strikes against American citizens who, however criminal, were in that act deprived, by state fiat, of the right to trial by a jury of their peers. The trials of Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman displayed it, too: popular sentiment against the defendants was so high, people seemed somehow to forget that they were not being tried by the media -- or by a lynch mob -- and that the law which makes any reasonable doubt grounds for a verdict of Not Guilty is an integral, an indispensable, assumption of the American spirit. Whether they were in fact guilty is, in a sense, neither here nor there: what mattered was that there was not adequate evidence to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt, and therefore, the court was obligated to release them, and acted rightly in so doing.**
One would think (or hope) that a nation whose memory includes the disgraceful hysteria of the witchcraft trials of Salem, among the shabbiest collections of judicial mob-murders in history, would be a little more scrupulous about the presumption of innocence. Nor is the parallel of the witch-finder out of place; especially when we consider our country's disposition toward evils like pedophilia or terrorism, for, like the witch, the pedophile and the terrorist sleeper agent look like everybody else, allowing the most versatile phantasmagoria to project itself onto the screen of our half-conscious imagination. It may perhaps be said in defense of the witch-finder that, if we thought as he did that there were men and women vowing themselves to the Devil and using powers granted by him to wreck the economic infrastructure and kill those who displeased us, we'd probably behave no better than he.
The title page of Wonders of the Invisible World, a work on witchcraft and particularly on the Salem Witch Trials, by the execrable and impenitent Reverend Cotton Mather, who facilitated the ridiculous admission of spectral "evidence."
This belief, like most beliefs that are worth bothering with, cannot be derived from an examination of what is expedient; the presumption of innocence does not get results. It is a belief which elevates the protection of the innocent over the punishment of the guilty, and it therefore necessarily involves letting the likely, yet not manifestly, guilty person go free, not infrequently. A frightened or vindictive society will have no truck with that. But I do not care to live in a frightened or vindictive society. I assert that it is better to live and to die with a noble and a free soul, than to try to salvage one's bodily life for a while at the cost of such a soul. It is of course open to anybody to maintain that trying to salvage one's bodily life is worth sacrificing the bodily lives of others for, so long as they might possibly be guilty; but I for one am unwilling to countenance such a price.
It may be that, as imperial adviser, my friend Marsilius is better than I, but as inquisitor I am better. Even better than Bernard Gui, God forgive me. Because Bernard is interested, not in discovering the guilty, but in burning the accused.
-- Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, p. 394
2. The equality of men. It may sound odd to describe this belief as having deteriorated, in an age when equality is a universal rallying cry, especially equality between the sexes and equality of marriage rights. Be all that as it may, I feel I sense this most of all with the wealthy and the politically powerful.
This will appear first of all to mean CEOs and Senators, and that isn't untrue. The fact that we not only tolerate but expect special treatment for such people (to say nothing of the bizarre cult of celebrities) is a far cry from the more fully democratic attitude of the First French Republic, in which, for all their other faults, statesmen like Robespierre (as Chesterton pointed out) were poor when they might easily have been rich. That was a bold statement of the real equality of rulers with ruled, and I don't know that it has been seen since.
A little while ago certain doctors and other persons permitted by modern law to dictate to their shabbier fellow-citizens, sent out an order that all little girls should have their hair cut short [to prevent lice]. I mean, of course, all little girls whose parents were poor. Many very unhealthy habits are common among rich little girls, but it will be long before any doctors interfere forcibly with them. ... As is common in most modern discussions the unmentionable thing is the pivot of the whole discussion. It is obvious to any Christian man (that is, to any man with a free soul) that any coercion applied to a cabman's daughter ought, if possible, to be applied to a Cabinet Minister's daughter. I will not ask why the doctors do not, as a matter of fact, apply their rule to a Cabinet Minister's daughter. I will not ask, because I know. They do not because they dare not.
-- G. K. Chesterton, What's Wrong With the World, pp. 191-192
But the wealthy and politically powerful also means, more simply, America. That is, ourselves. We are not the only wealthy and politically powerful country in the world, obviously, but we're up there. And, while you could tell that we're rich and powerful from our immigration policies, you sure couldn't tell that we're a nation composed of more than ninety-nine percent immigrants from them. Or, if we were trying to discern the costs of war from (say) the media and popular objections to war, we could easily tell that war kills Americans, but I don't know whether it would be equally clear that war kills everybody else, too. Nor would it be clear whether we care about the latter, especially given our now persistent tradition, since the close of the Second World War and exemplified in both the Bush and Obama administrations, of not only excusing but defending war crimes.
Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with
their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.
-- Gaudium et Spes, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, para. 80
3. The primacy of conscience. The poutrage over the Supreme Court's really extremely narrow ruling in the Hobby Lobby case -- I say narrow because it excused only a certain class of business owners from paying for contraceptive coverage, and excused them only over certain contraceptives -- has been very intelligently analyzed by Ross Douthat of The American Conservative.*** The thing that I find disappointing and alarming about it is the contempt of conscience it has manifested.
Advocates of the HHS mandate as originally drafted have proclaimed, loudly and quite correctly, that an employer's religious views have no place in an employee's bedroom. It has been drily pointed out that it seems a little unfair in that case to insist that an employer's wallet does have a place in an employee's bedroom; and, little love though I have for employers' wallets, I tend to agree. Insofar as, moral or immoral, boning is generally a freely chosen behavior, and it is for the sake of that freely chosen behavior that contraceptives are mostly used, insisting on contraception as not only a right but something that somebody else ought to be compelled by law to pay for seems to me to be rather tasteless (and not solely because I entertain no great hopes of the quality of state- or business-funded orgasms, based largely on my experience of other state- and business-funded services).
What leaves me baffled is the idea that the state not forcing people to act against their consciences is somehow tyrannical. I admit that my own views on the subject are, on our current spectrum, fairly extreme -- as that, for instance, I would strongly resist the idea of compelling a business owned by Jehovah's Witnesses to cover medical procedures that require blood transfusions, not because I think their beliefs at all reasonable, but because they do in fact hold those beliefs; and I don't think anyone should be compelled to violate their own conscience on someone else's behalf. But even if that view is refused as being too radical, contraception as such is not a vital good or service -- i.e., people do not need contraceptives for their physical well-being**** -- and it therefore still seems to me to be inappropriate to force an employer to pay for it.
Given that there is a state-funded option for health insurance, one might have supposed that, you know, having people sign up for that instead of employer-provided health insurance was a neat and obvious way of allowing for unusual convictions. But who wants that.
And the point is not simply about health insurance: it's about the conscience as set against the concerted mass of the state. Except for a rare few individuals, like Gandhi or Solzhenitsyn or Dorothy Day, the pressure even of an ostensibly liberal and enlightened state will be more terrible than the pangs of conscience. The First Amendment was not written simply to ensure that religious or political minorities did not wake up in prison while their houses of worship or printing presses were torched. It was written to assert that the conscience itself is the foundation of all law, and that it is the state which must kowtow to us, not the other way around. As Blessed Cardinal Newman said, conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ; and every human person is a throne to that invisible apostle, which the state should not dare to desecrate. It may be answered, and truly, that some of these aboriginal Vicars bear upon their heads a blasphemous name, but by the same token, the angels themselves do not take it on themselves to rebuke one another.
And the servants of the master of the house came to him and said, "Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?" He said to them, "An enemy has done this." So the servants said to him, "Then do you want us to go and gather them?" But he said, "No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them."
-- The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 13.27-29
H. L. Mencken (a glib and quotable misanthrope of the last century) said that "We must respect the other fellow's opinion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." He meant it in its negative application, of course, but I feel that its positive application ought to be observed as well: we need not respect, in the sense of agreeing with, the other fellow's opinion; but we must absolutely respect his opinion in the sense of not forcing him to say or do things that involve him in the premise that his wife is ugly and his children stupid. Not even if they are.
Don't weed out the ugly and stupid yourself; let raptors do it.
*The pesky little problem of slavery did not at first deter them, given that they had conveniently defined humanity in such a way as to exclude the enslaved. Christianity is well-known to have cooperated in this bitter wrong -- although three significant facts tend to be left out of treatments of that problem today: first, that some communions, notably the Catholic Church, rather tolerated slavery as an evil that they could see no practical hope of eradicating and attempted to ameliorate, than enthusiastically supported it (though still falling short of the heroic Abolitionism of the Quakers); second, that while the pro-slavery movement did shamefully contain Christians as well as non-Christians, Abolitionism, so far as I understand, was an overwhelmingly Christian movement; and thirdly, that slavery does still exist today, and indeed exists in this country -- we just call it "illegal immigration," and not only underpay our slaves but occasionally kick them out of the country after they do the manual work that we are too busy or too lazy to do for ourselves.
**The presumption of innocence may be best, if indirectly, explained by the TVtropes page on Genre Savviness -- especially on the point that a genre savvy character is more likely than others to allow that things aren't always as they seem. I should think anybody who has lived through adolescence must know that things aren't always as they seem, even if things are as they seem with uncomfortable frequency.
***My anti-statist tendencies, to say nothing of my pacifism and my opposition to capitalism, prevent me from fitting in nicely with conservatives on the whole, but I've found TAC in general and Douthat in particular to be quite winsome. Of course, my anti-statist tendencies are equally out of place among liberals, as are my trenchantly pro-life views.
****I failed to be quite clear on this point in my last: I realize of course that some medicines that are in fact contraceptive have important health applications. Insofar as they are being used for those purposes, their contraceptive effects are (in my judgment) neither here nor there, and should indeed be covered by health plans, because if they're being used as medicine on the grounds that they, um, are medicine, then that's what a health plan is for. But this is not what anyone is even claiming the discussion of contraceptives is about. It is, explicitly, about contraceptive availability as a dimension of sexual liberation -- otherwise they wouldn't be bringing up the objection that their employer has no business in their bedroom (unless the boss is banging his secretary, I guess) in the first place.