Ernest Renan, a nineteenth-century French philosopher, noted, “Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.”
This truth has profound implications, chief among which is that the cultural and political trajectory of a nation is determined not only by its past, but also – and to a greater extent – by the stories it tells itself about its past.
The United States’ founding myth rests on the idea that suppressed Americans fought for liberty against some tyrannical and foreign “other”.
The fact that Americans still enjoy more freedoms in practice than nearly all other citizens on the planet owes much to the good fortune that the one piece of the country’s founding myth that is true happens to be the most important fact about the nation’s founding: that it arose, broadly, out of a fight for liberty. Indeed, thanks to the way the Founders Constituted the nation, America became the freest and richest nation in the world in a very short time. They understood so much that even at the rate at which our civil liberties are presently being impinged upon, we are still ahead of much of the world in our everyday experience of freedom and prosperity, and the average American’s deep sense of entitlement to liberty, by virtue of no more than humanity, means that the Establishment, despite its efforts to concentrate power, still has much hard and covert work to do before it can fully control the citizenry.
But what about the second part of the myth – that American liberty was in some way crafted in opposition to the colonial power that it had shaken off? Not only is that wrong: it is dangerous, because believing American liberty started with our nation’s founding is to remain ignorant of the very tradition of liberty on which our Founders depended when they formed these United States. The United States represent not a rejection of this liberal Anglo-tradition, but a distillation of it.
This tradition of liberty, began exactly 1000 years ago this very year, in February of the year 1014, as I am sure the Founders understood very well. This year therefore is the most important political anniversary that any living American will see in his or her lifetime.
Exactly one millennium ago, Anglo-Saxon leaders invited former King Ethelred to become king again, following the death of King Sweyn, who had defeated him a few months earlier and taken the English throne. They imposed, however, certain conditions on the returning monarch, for they had grievances against him from his earlier reign, concerning high taxation and extortion for political ends. So they forced the would-be monarch to govern within rules that had been asserted previously in the interests of the citizenry and to agree that he would govern according to the will of the people. This was “established in compact, on either side”, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where, as the historian David Starkey, said, “is the text of the agreement between the king and his people. It is the Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta, but as it’s 200 hundred years earlier, it is the true foundation of our political liberties”.
Hatton Sumners, Democratic Congressman from Texas observed at the beginning of the last century that “a straight road [that] runs from Runnymede to Philadelphia”, when he explained how “our Constitution came up from a self-governing people.”
Runnymede is, of course, the place where the Magna Carta, was signed. That a copy of the Magna Carta sits under glass in the same room as the Constitution at the National Archives is wholly proper, and no doubt, next year, there will be significant celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of its signing.
The celebrations this year should be so much the greater: the road to Philadelphia certainly ran through Runnymede, but its true beginning was two hundred years earlier.
Today, there is a movement of Americans who advocate and agitate for liberty in the face of declining representation and rising tyranny in Washington. They will struggle to succeed without the intellectual humility and curiosity to look back to those who faced, over a millennium, many of the same threats to liberty as we face today. Those historical figures who negotiated, intrigued, strategized, psychologized, disobeyed, sacrificed, politicized, or simply listened for as long as it took, not just to overcome those threats, but to do so in a way that turned the ratchet of liberty one more notch in the right direction, can teach us much of what we must learn today. As Mark Twain famously said, “history does not repeat itself – but it does rhyme”.
The year 1776 was the beginning of our nation, but it was not the beginning of the purpose of our nation, which is liberty under Law. In the history of that ideal, it was a great – perhaps the greatest – milestone, but one of many. In that year, newly declared Americans were heirs to a 762-year tradition that they made more sublime. Those who would keep that tradition alive today must learn its rich history – not so much of its ideas as of its political actors and their activities.
Every milestone along the road from the compact of Ethelred to here arose from a messy process that has involved leaders and commoners; thinkers and actors; victims and victimizers; martyrs and heroes – all of whom have more to teach about how liberty is won in practice than can be captured by some neat theory in the mind any one of us. No single step toward freedom in this 1000-year journey was as large or simple as many in the modern liberty movement seem to be holding out for. If we are serious about saving liberty in these United States, then we must learn how it was won in practice, and, therefore, what it is in fact – rather than being satisfied with an easy myth that allows us to marvel at the beauty of the edifice but stops us from understanding its true foundation.
Simply, if the purpose of America is to secure individual liberty, then America’s history is the history of liberty in the Anglo tradition.
So the Provisions of Oxford of 1258, which abolished absolutist rule and institutionalized permanent representation of the people, are American history, because they are part of the history of liberty . Similarly, the Petition of Right of 1628, which forbade taxation without consent or the quartering of soldiers, is American history. The Grand Remonstrance of 1641, against “subverting the fundamental laws of government” is American history. The Declaration of Breda of 1660, in which King Charles II agreed that the rights of a king exist to protect the rights of the citizens, is American history. And the Glorious Revolution and the original Bill of Rights, signed by King James II, are American history.
Each of these events was a huge step in the political realization of the ideas of a Constitutional liberty (or, if you prefer, a liberal Constitution). And each feeds directly into the American Declaration of Independence, Constitution or Bill of Rights. The Founders could not have done what they did without a deep historical sensibility, and it is, therefore, no surprise that when the patriots had won this second civil war of the Anglosphere, the country that they founded was Constituted by a series of documents that drew mostly – and in critical parts, directly and even verbatim – on the Constitutional documents of the motherland, and the classical liberal philosophy that had been nurtured and realized over centuries there.
Santayana may have been right when he said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. But he was only telling half of the story, for those who do not learn from history are also condemned to being less able to make it – perhaps not entirely limited to bloviating but much less able to make lasting political impact.
The Founders were no “armchair libertarians”. It was their understanding of history that enabled them to defeat a rising tyranny and then elevate our nation in liberty . In 2014, the year that Constitutional Liberty turns 1000 years old, our task – of resisting an increasingly remote and controling governmental power that has forgotten the tradition whose job it is to protect – is not very different from theirs.
Let us celebrate this magnificent anniversary by proclaiming it in every Capitol in every state, teaching it in every school, and sticking it on the bumper of every car. Most of all, let us honor it by learning the history that our Founding Fathers knew and, like them and the many before them on whose shoulders they stood, use that knowledge to increase liberty for all Americans alive today and those yet to be born – even for a thousand years.
There is really only one argument in support of mass surveillance by the State: increased security can be bought with reduced privacy.
That claim begs the question: “how much liberty buys how much security?”
It is almost impossible to imagine how two completely different abstractions – security and liberty – could be compared, when idiomatically, we can’t even compare apples and oranges, so we should be very uneasy that an entire political age has been built on just that comparison.
But, since our leaders insist on making it, and it is the only one they ever make for extinguishing our civil rights, and in particular our privacy, let’s run with it …
To the defenders of the surveillance state, security means “saving American lives”. That is why Feinstein and her ilk justify governmental surveillance with statements like, “the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata might have prevented 9/11”.
That only makes sense as a justification if the privacy of all Americans is of less value than 2996 innocent American lives. Of course, it’s not just our privacy that has been sacrificed: our freedom of speech and our right to due process have been sacrificed by the same laws, and with the same justification, that paved the way to systematic and secret violation of privacy. So what the likes of Feinstein are really saying is that the American way of life has less value than 2996 innocent lives.
Moreover, most of the same people in government who advocate sacrificing the American way of life (liberty) to save American lives (security) support the sacrificing of American lives to save the American way of life.
This inconsistency goes beyond the moral: it verges on the mathematical.
To date, the American government has, in the War of on Terror, sacrificed nearly 7000 American lives and somewhere between a hundred thousand and a million non-American lives to protect (we are told) the American way of life. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_on_Terror)
Assuming Feinstein and friends are not being deliberately disingenuous, what she must really mean is that the surveillance state, and the War on Terror of which it is a part, would not just have saved 2996 Americans on 9-11, but that they are saving more American lives than -
(a) all the Americans we have lost through fighting “the War on Terror”, plus
(b) the non-American lives taken by our actions (presumably and somewhat sickeningly weighted by some factor that makes each one worth less than a “saved American”), plus
(c) whatever value we might give to the American way of life, which includes our privacy (measured, for mathematical consistency) in terms of a number of lives.
Indeed, precisely this ability to quantify is assumed when Obama tells us of the need to “balance” or “weight up” our security against our liberty.
Since no one is arguing that killing innocent foreigners makes us any safer, but our government has killed huge numbers of them, it is apparent that the more closely an innocent non-American life is valued to an innocent American one, the more American lives must be saved by the sacrifice of liberty to reach this so-called balance between liberty and security.
Our leaders keep getting away with this nonsense because, as far as I know, not one politician or journalist has yet asked two obvious questions on which this entire trade-off of security and liberty depends. 1) How many American lives is the American way of life worth, and 2) how many innocent non-American lives have the same value as an innocent American life?
There is only one pair of answers that is mathematically and morally consistent with the Bush/Obama/Feinstein case for eliminating basic civil rights, including privacy, as part of the War on Terror: the value of a non-American life must be de minimus, and the value of American liberty must be approximately zero.
Either the math is wrong. Or the morality is wrong. Or both.
So much for the variables. What about the logical inconsistency: if liberty must be sacrificed to save American lives, how can sacrificing lives for liberty possibly be justified? If there are mathemagical numbers that can resolve that paradox, let’s have them.
Denis Diderot, one of the most famous thinkers of the Enlightenment, rightly remarked, “In order to shake a hypothesis, it is sometimes not necessary to do anything more than push it as far as it will go.”
An internally inconsistent hypothesis doesn’t need to be set up against a competing one to be shown to be false. It simply collapses under the weight of its own contradiction when examined closely. So let’s push the buy-security-with-liberty hypothesis as far as it will go.
And because I believe in competition, I’ll offer up my own base-case strategy for preserving American liberty and lives.
It’s in two parts, and it’s really complicated.
1) Don’t give up any liberties. 2) Don’t put Americans in harm’s way.
Now, I am aware that this kind of extremist politics may not keep all Americans safe in a utopia of liberty: after all, 9-11 happened. But I do know that if you don’t give up any of your liberty, then you still have all of your liberty (I’m definitely going to beat Feinstein and Obama on logic) and that making others feel secure does more for one’s own security than doing the opposite.
Perhaps I am wrong – and if I am, the NSA will be the people to prove it.
At many times in the history of the Anglo people, the abuses of liberty by Power (capitalized to indicate the official power of the centralized State and those close to it) have produced such resistance by enough normal men and women who felt their lives directly changed by those abuses, that real political change of historic importance was the result.
There has probably never been a year – perhaps not even a day – when Power did not, through policy or the political process, expand itself at the expense of the liberty of someone, somewhere. In normal times, the process of Power’s self-aggrandizement is mostly political: laws get made, agencies get established – but the effect on the everyday experiences of normal people is small enough that the culture generates no resistance.
In the United States, since 9-11 especially, some of the chattering classes (this writer included) and a few concerned citizens have been complaining about the brazenness of the 21st-century approach to the abuse of citizens by the State, its agents and its friends. The stripping of individual rights has been in this millennium extensive and fast (habeas corpus, due process, privacy, rule of Law (as enacted by elected and accountable officials rather than appointees of the Executive) etc.).
Until recently, however, these abuses have remained mostly political, rather than cultural. That is to say that Americans’ loss of rights have had not much of an impact in the culture because they did not affect the everyday experiences of a significant section of the population.
For example, the loss of the right to due process did not create per se a reaction against Power because most people don’t experience due process in their everyday lives; the loss of privacy does not cause a reaction against Power because the violation of privacy, if undetected, doesn’t change our everyday experiences; and the farming out of law-making power to unelected agents of the State is unperceived as long as we don’t know when our behavior is being regulated by agents of the Executive and their rules, or by Law, properly made in Congress.
However, that is now changing. And the change is historic, in the literal sense of the word. Every few generations or even centuries – Power begins to impose drastic changes that are felt immediately in the everyday lives of normal people. At such times, the People immediately feel that Power has made their tomorrows very different from their yesterdays, in ways that offend their most basic sensibilities, notions of justice and even consent to being governed. Most importantly, Power’s offenses against liberty are resisted not out of any particular political belief, but because they are felt immediately as impingements on normal life. Throughout history, liberty movements have succeeded in forcing political change when Power has given them such moral, emotional and cultural justification.
Indeed, in the Anglo tradition, the re-establishment of liberty against a wayward State is typically not typically triggered by the most egregious denials of liberty, but by those most easily felt.
We have ample examples in America today. For instance, by most measures, the loss of a healthcare plan that you liked and its replacement with a similar one of a higher price (from which this writer has suffered) is less of an abuse against your liberty than is your loss of privacy, the elimination of right to due process or even the funneling of your taxes to connected corporations – but you feel the loss of your healthcare plan much more immediately in your life than you feel any of those other things.
With respect to the issue of privacy, Edward Snowden didn’t tell Americans anything that many liberty-loving commentators have not been warning Americans about for years – but his actions turned a political abstraction (a Constitutional right to privacy is being violated) into a felt change in our everyday lives (this call I am making to my family member is being listened to by people who have essentially deceived me about doing so) and all of a sudden, the political class is responding as bills are written and votes are taken to limit the abuses.
Or perhaps your thing is gun rights. The fact that people who wish to purchase a gun must go through a few more checks than before is much less an abuse of your freedom than the fact that the government now believes it can assassinate you without a trial, but the prospect of those regulations generate much more upset, because one’s enjoyment of one’s firearms, or the sense of security they provide, is part of the cultural experience of many Americans – something that provides part of their identity, and perhaps happy memories at the range with their sons.
When Power’s abuses against Liberty remove from us not just the rights that we have, but the rights that we actively enjoy in our daily lives, we take them personally and respond to them more viscerally – more as human beings than as political beings. When the everyday expectations and experiences of enough people – rather than the ideas of a group of people with one political ideology or another – are challenged, political change that is not possible in normal times becomes possible. That change is, in the proper sense of the word, democratic.
The word “democracy” comes from δημοκρατία (dēmokratía), which combines demos (people) and kratos (power). In its full sense, it means much more than pressing a few buttons on a voting machine every couple of years.
According to our Declaration of Independence, the power of the American government is the power of the people – the kratos of the demos – delegated. In that respect, at least, our nation is a democracy, and that democracy is not only inconsistent with our Constitutional Republic, it constitutes it. And by that same Declaration, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it” – the ultimate democratic act.
Constitutionalists and libertarians are quick to point out that the USA is not a Democracy but, rather, a Constitutional Republic. Their point is that in a pure Democracy, a majority can remove the rights of the minority, including the smallest minority – the individual – and that so doing goes against America’s very raison d’etre. They are not wrong – and, in fact, much of what ails us now has happened in just that way, albeit mediated by the poor decisions of our representatives.
But if we Constitutionalists and libertarians are going to succeed in shrinking the State and undoing its most outrageous offenses against Liberty (as we must), then we must know that we are engaged in a deeply democratic process, just as were the Founders: only the kratos of the American demos can push back the kratos of the state far enough that it will result in substantial political change.
Whereas in normal times, individual liberty protects the citizen against the tyrannies of both Democracy and the State, when the State becomes sufficiently tyrannical, democracy fights on liberty’s side.
That is how it has always been. Paradoxical as it may appear at first glance, it was just such a democratic process that created this Constitutional Republic in 1776: enough people were moved by felt injustice (not some new political ideology) that they resisted their own political establishment (which is what the British state was at the time). The movement that became the American Revolution began among the people, and ended in a political change that altered their relationship with Power to the benefit of the liberty. The other Bill of Rights – the English Bill of Rights in 1689 – came up in just the same way: the kratos of the demos crystallized in resistance to abuses of Power that were perceived in the lives of common men, and the political result (the Bill of Rights, itself) was the end of the process. Before that was the Grand Remonstrance of 1641, and before that was the Petition of Right of 1628, each crystallizing in the political realm popular disquiet in response to direct experiences of the abusive exercise of power – not ideological dissatisfaction. And yes, although the farther we go back the smaller is the demos with any power to exert against the state, the same argument can be made for the Magna Carta, too.
All of these political achievements – each one a roll-back of state Power in response to offence against liberty, felt in culture rather than seen in Law – were the end of processes that began among people, whose power, aggregated, was set against the State, motivated by a sense of injustice mostly unmediated by any political ideology.
For lovers of liberty and of the Founding principles of America, this is our time, and each new abuse of our Rights by the State that is our latest, best weapon.
To respect the importance of democracy is to respect history, and to embrace the tool without which liberty has never been won back from Power that would trample on it. The liberty movement must take care before setting democracy up as a foil to liberty, because it can be Liberty’s servant too.
I talk about the role of the First Amendment as much more than just a recognition of your right to speech, or just the press… It is the recognition of your right to believe, say and tell others whatever you like.
We are only days away from the official end of our Kickstarter campaign. As you may know, over 4,000 people backed the project to the tune of over $250,000!
Those funds will not be available to us through Kickstarter and those who have pledged WILL NOT be charged for those pledges. That is why we are asking those who have backed us on Kickstarter to take one more step. To donate that same pledged amount via PayPal or by check. You can find the information on how to do either right now at http://benswann.com/contribute/ or look on the right hand side of the homepage.
If you make that donation before midnight July 27, 2013, you will still receive the reward promised at Kickstarter.
Thank you again for your support and having the courage to stand with us.
Many people have been asking about this Truth in Media Project Live Event in New Hampshire on July 26th. What is this event all about? This will be a night to remember as we lay out in detail our plans for the Truth in Media project, results of our crowd sourced efforts and what our long-term goals will be.
The event also includes guest speakers who will talk about the importance of truth in media. Over the next few days we will be announcing our lineup. Today, I am so excited to announce the first. Carla Gericke, the President of the Free State Project, will be with us on the 26th to talk about New Hampshire’s push for a state of liberty minded activists.
I have no doubt that many of you have heard of the Free State Project but some may not be fully aware of what the FSP is working to do. Above teaching ideas of individual liberty to friends and coworkers in New Hampshire, the Free State Project is recruiting more than 20,000 pro-liberty activists to move to the Granite State. According to its website, participants have pledged to “exert the fullest practical effort toward the creation of a society in which the maximum role of civil government is the protection of life, liberty and property.”
I am very excited to have Carla join us on July 26th to share her vision for New Hampshire and the Free State Project. If you can’t make it out to New Hampshire, you can watch a live stream of the event here: http://benswann.com/ben-swann-live-events/
Stay tuned, more speakers will be announced this week.
“Ben Swann is the former Fox19 TV news man who everyone’s talking about. Ben is the only man to basically ask Obama to his face “Why do you kill Americans without a trial” and live to tell the story.
Ben and Neema Vedadi yack about the sorry state of mainstream media, where independent media is headed, and the future of liberty in America and the world. It’s more of a conversation than an interview, and it’s fairly darned amazing…”
On this July 4th holiday I hope that you will take a moment to truly consider the sacrifices made by so many generations of Americans that have made us free. I would like to share with you an idea from our nation’s birth that may have been forgotten by many. No doubt you have heard of a group that paved the way to the American Revolution known as the Sons of Liberty?
What you may not know is that this group of patriots started small as a group of agitators known as the Loyal Nine. The name came from the fact that this group consisted of only nine men, committed to agitation of the Stamp Act. The Loyal Nine began in the summer of 1765, eleven years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Within one year, their number would grow to over two thousand men known as the Sons of Liberty. Possibly, they are best remembered for their role in the Boston Tea Party and in the tarring and feathering of Stamp Tax collectors.
The true role of the Sons of Liberty however, was most influential not only in those dramatic acts of defiance against British tyranny but in their role in media. Yes, in media!
If you are unfamiliar with the Stamp Act, it was a direct tax by the British Parliament specifically on the colonies of British America. The Stamp Act required that many printed materials in the colonies be produced on stamped paper produced in London, carrying an embossed revenue stamp. These printed materials included legal documents, magazines, newspapers and many other types of paper used throughout the colonies. Like previous taxes, the stamp tax had to be paid in valid British currency, not in colonial paper money.
A great many of the Sons of Liberty were printers and publishers themselves, and even those who were not were sympathetic to the cause. It was they who would pay the most as a result of the Stamp Act. Nearly every newspaper in the colonies carried daily reports of the activities of the Sons. Accounts of the most dramatic escapades spread throughout the colonies. In one most remarkable incident, an account of the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions was printed far and wide. The ultimate effect of such reporting was to embolden both citizens and Legislatures in every colony.
When the Stamp Act became effective on November 1st of 1765, nearly all of these papers went right on publishing without the required Stamp. One of the direct goals of the Stamp Act was to crack down on free speech by these colonial newspapers. Why was the work of the Sons of Liberty so important to the coming revolution? Because the newspaper printers of the colonies were the original American alternative media. These newspapers were able to speak against propaganda pushed by the British authority.
Today, we commonly use words like “liberty” and “freedom” to describe our lives and our nation without considering the cost of those words. It is easy to discuss these things when the majority of people in our nation embrace the language. Today as you celebrate this Independence Day, whether it be with a family BBQ or a fireworks display, consider for moment that at one time the idea of independence was not accepted by the majority of people in the colonies until a faithful few- like the Loyal Nine- stepped out and did the work of a patriot. Speaking out against tyranny, even when the majority would not do so. Perhaps it was the work of the Loyal Nine and the Sons of Liberty that inspired another patriot, Samuel Adams, to write:
“It does not take a majority to prevail… but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.”
Welcome to BenSwann.com . This site is an opportunity to impact our culture and I am so glad you are here. Over the past three years, I have been inspired by the passion that so many of you have shown for changing the trajectory of our nation. As you will see on this site, we are using BenSwann.com to launch a three step platform to inform, engage and activate. That can only happen with your help. I want your voice to help shape this site; your input, your articles, your ability to inform us and others about problems in the culture as well as where things are being done the right way.
I hope that BenSwann.com will become your home for powerful information and a community that desires to be more than just those who hear but those who DO!
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