I’ve mentioned before that one reason I blog is that it helps me to learn. It would be more fun if there were more people commenting, so that a dialogue might develop, but I learn something about myself just from writing — and sometimes from re-reading — my blog entries, even if no one else does. For years, before blogging software was developed, I did the same thing on paper and for the same reasons.
Blogging not only helps develop my thought, but it creates snapshots of where I’ve been, in terms of my philosophy of various aspects of life. This allows me to go back and see how I’ve changed…and sometimes to see how I need to change.
Since yesterday, I’ve been thinking again — and, as happens not infrequently, it was Abi who started it — about discourse.
As I noted yesterday, Abi posted a haiku that said,
Save us from those who
Looking at an opponent
See an enemy. — Abi Sutherland, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment. (It’s part of my ADD.) And in Chapter Seven, I found this:
Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad. — Anthony Lewis, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment. (1992) Vintage Books.
The quote is attributed to James Madison, in a letter sent to President Jefferson on May 13, 1798.
Aha! Sounds just like good ol’ George Bush and his group, I thought, using Iraq as an excuse to strip civil liberties from us today. But another thought pushed its way through…
…”America survived that.”
Sure, for a period of time — like its modern distant relative, the USA PATRIOT Act — the Sedition Act made certain civil liberties technically unavailable. And some people were persecuted and prosecuted under the Sedition Act and sent to jail, just as some have been persecuted and prosecuted under the USA PATRIOT Act.
That’s not all that hasn’t really changed. It’s funny, too, to see that even most of the players are the same. Lewis goes on, after the Madison quote, to point out:
[The] truth [of Madison’s quote] has been demonstrated again and again in American history as politicians used the fear of foreign ideology and power to justify the suppression of freedom. The fear that prevailed when Madison wrote was fear of France.
France had supported the American colonies in their war with Great Britain. But gratitude for that help gave way to growing alarm as the French Revolution of 1789 was followed by the Terror of the guillotine. Americans, especially those of conservative bent, came to see France as the home of a malevolent ideology that it would try to send across the Atlantic. Then came war between France and Britain. The United States proclaimed its neutrality, but in Jay’s Treaty of 1794 it accepted Britain’s claim of the right to seize neutral vessels carrying cargo for France. As a result, in 1796, French warships began attacking American merchant ships bound for Britain.
Anti-French feeling was brought to a boil in April 1798 by the XYZ affair. Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, refused to receive a special American diplomatic mission sent to Paris to try to ease relations. Three agents of Talleyrand demanded a large payment as the price of opening negotiations. The Americans rejected the demand and went home, sending a dispatch ahead to President Adams on what had happened. Adams informed Congress of the business in a message that concealed the names of the offending French agents by referring to them as X, Y and Z. Adams quoted Y as saying that France did not fear U.S. diplomats’ breaking off their mission because “the French party in America” would soon repair the breach.
Adams supporters in Congress and the country used “the French party in America” as a reference to the President’s political opponents, Jefferson and his supporters. Political parties were just beginning to be formed then. The Framers of the Constitution had not envisaged this development; they provided for the President to be chosen not by popular election but by an august Electoral College….
The Adams supporters were the Federalist party. The Jeffersonians, ancestors of the modern Democratic party, called themselves Republicans or Democratic Republicans. Two hundred years later, it is not so easy to see why the two parties fought each other so bitterly. Both included signers of the Declaration of Independence and delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Alexander Hamilton, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, the great exposition of the Constitution, was a Federalist; his principal co-author, Madison, was a Republican. But the differences were passionately felt, as the use of the damning phrase “the French party” indicates. The Federalists tended to be the propertied class, more concerned about order in society; they wanted a strong federal government and felt close to Britain. The [Democratic] Republicans spoke, often in populist voice, for farmers and the less affluent; they were suspicious of federal power. Of course those generalities yielded to circumstance: When Jefferson became president, he was by no means timid in the assertion of federal power. But at the time, each saw the other in exaggerated terms. To [Democratic] Republicans, the Federalists favored centralized authority and English manners so much that they really wanted to introduce a monarchy. To Federalists, Republicans were Jacobins who if they took office would install a French-style terror. Abigail Adams, the President’s wife, wrote a friend in 1798 that the French party — the [Democratic] Republicans — were busy all over the country “sowing the seeds of vice, irreligion, corruption and sedition.” — Anthony Lewis, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment. (1992) Vintage Books (emphasis added).
In this atmosphere, Lewis notes, the Sedition Act of 1798 became law. Federalists were in complete control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency, but were worried about the possibility of losing that control. Their best bet, they thought, was to silence their critics. And the best way to do that was to pass laws forbidding them to criticize the government.
As I said, there is an ironic hope in this. The United States survived the Sedition Act, which was ultimately repealed…struck down into the dirt whence it had arisen.
There was also a bit of a warning. Today, the Bush Administration doesn’t pass laws that so expressly abrogate the right to criticize the government. They do, however, malign critics as unpatriotic haters of Christianity and morality — or as Abigail Adam’s put it in 1798, “sowing the seeds of vice, irreligion, corruption and sedition.” And isn’t it just a little bit ironic that conservatives today have impliedly accused liberals of belonging to “the French party”?
And while that goes on — while both sides malign the other as solely driven by evil intentions to destroy freedom — there is a real danger that America’s recovery will be long and painful.
For what is ultimately needed is the recognition that mostly good people exist on both sides of the Great Divide springing anew — re-springing, if we recognize the lessons from Lewis’ book — and while we may disagree with one another, we are all Americans.
I personally believe — and I do not find this to be contrary to what I’m saying above — that Bush and his Administration are doing things which have greatly damaged our nation. I believe those things must be stopped and reversed. And while I harbor serious doubts about what drives Karl Rove and sometimes also Bush, I recognize that on some level they believe that what they’re doing is right. They believe they’re doing what’s best. It’s very difficult for me to believe that they are so totally corrupt that they are aware that what they’re doing is purely for their own benefit; I doubt they believe they’re really hurting America. (Admittedly, I sometimes wonder.)
The biggest failing, though, in my opinion — and it’s a failing for all Americans and not just the Bush Administration — is a growing inability to talk to one another and an increasing dislike for the idea of compromise.
If we are to survive as the great pluralistic nation we have been for more than two centuries now, we will need to resolve both those character flaws.
As Abi put it,