The author and political consultant revisits American history to learn more about one of the country's founding ideals: liberty. Wolf says that action beyond e-mailing Congress needs to be taken to make the country what it once was. An excerpt.
The summer before last, I traveled across the country talking about threats to our liberty. I spoke and listened to groups of Americans from all walks of life. They told me new and always harsher stories of state coercion.
What I had called a "fascist shift" in the United States, projections I had warned about as worst-case scenarios, was now surpassing my imagination: in 2008, thousands of terrified, shackled illegal immigrants were rounded up in the mass arrests which always characterize a closing society; news emerged that the 9/11 report had been based on evidence derived from the testimonies of prisoners who had been tortured — and the tapes that documented their torture were missing — leading the commissioners of the report publicly to disavow their own findings; the Associated Press reported that the torture of prisoners in U.S.-held facilities had not been the work of "a few bad apples" but had been directed out of the White House; the TSA "watch list," which had contained 45,000 names when I wrote my last book, ballooned to 755,000 names and 20,000 were being added every month; Scott McClellan confirmed that the drive to war in Iraq had been based on administration lies; HR 1955, legislation that would criminalize certain kinds of political thought and speech, passed the House and made it to the Senate; Blackwater, a violent paramilitary force not answerable to the people, established presences in Illinois and North Carolina and sought to get into border patrol activity in San Diego.
The White House has established, no matter who leads the nation in the future, U.S. government spying on the emails and phone calls of Americans — a permanent violation of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment. The last step of the ten steps to a closed society is the subversion of the rule of law. That is happening now. What critics have called a "paper coup" has already taken place.
Yes, the situation is dire. But history shows that when an army of citizens, supported by even a vestige of civil society, believes in liberty — in the psychological space that is "America" — no power on earth can ultimately suppress them.
Dissident Natan Sharansky writes that there are two kinds of states — "fear societies" and "free societies." Understood in this light, "America" — the state of freedom that is under attack — is first of all a place in the mind. That is what we must regain now to fight back.
The two societies make up two kinds of consciousness. The consciousness derived of oppression is despairing, fatalistic, and fearful of inquiry. It is mistrustful of the self and forced to trust external authority. It is premised on a dearth of self-respect. It is cramped. People around the world understand that this kind of inner experience is as toxic an environment as is a polluted waterway they are forced to drink from; it is as insufficient a space as being compelled to sleep in a one-room hut with seven other bodies on the floor.
In contrast, the consciousness of freedom — the psychology of freedom that is "America" — is one of expansiveness, trust of the self, and hope. It is a consciousness of limitless inquiry. "Everything," wrote Denis Diderot, who influenced, via Thomas Jefferson, the Revolutionary generation, "must be examined, everything must be shaken up, without exception and without circumspection." Jefferson wrote that American universities are "based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." Since this state of mind is self-trusting, it builds up in a citizen a wealth of self-respect. "Your own reason," wrote Jefferson to his nephew, "is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but the uprightness of the decision."
After my cross-country journey, I realized that I needed to go back and read about the original Revolutionaries of our nation. I realized in a new way from them that liberty is not a set of laws or a system of government; it is not a nation or a species of patriotism. Liberty is a state of mind before it is anything else. You can have a nation of wealth and power, but without this state of mind — this psychological "America" — you are living in a deadening consciousness; with this state of mind, you can be in a darkened cell waiting for your torturer to arrive and yet inhabit a chainless space as wide as the sky.
"America," too, is a state of mind. "Being an American" is a set of attitudes and actions, not a nationality or a posture of reflexive loyalty. This tribe of true "Americans" consists of people who have crossed a personal Rubicon of a specific kind and can no longer be satisfied with anything less than absolute liberty.
This state of mind, I learned, has no national boundaries. The Tibetans, who, as I write this, are marching in the face of Chinese soldiers, are acting like members of this tribe; so did the Pakistani lawyers who recently faced down house arrest and tear gas in their suits and judicial robes. Nathan Hale, Patrick Henry, and Ida B. Wells, who risked their lives for liberty, acted like "Americans." When the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya insisted on reporting on war crimes in Chechnya, even though her informing her fellow citizens led — as she knew it well could — to her being gunned down on her doorstep as she went home to her fourteen-year-old daughter, she was acting like an American. When three JAG lawyers refused to sell out their detainee clients, they were being "Americans." When Vietnam vet David Antoon risked his career to speak out in favor of the Constitution's separation of church and state, he was being an "American." When journalist Josh Wolf went to jail rather than reveal a source, he was being an "American" too. Always, everywhere, the members of this tribe are fundamentally the same, in spite of the great deal that may divide them in terms of clothing and religion, language and culture. But when we quietly go about our business as our rights are plundered, when we yield to passivity and switch on the Wii and hand over our power to a leadership class that has no interest in our voice, we are not acting like true Americans. Indeed, at those moments we are essentially giving up our citizenship.
The notion that "American-ness" is a state of mind — a rigorous psychodynamic process or a continued personal challenge, rather than a static point on a map or an impressive display in a Fourth of July parade — is not new. But we are so used to being raised on a rhetoric of cheap patriotism — the kind that you get to tune in to in a feel-good way just because you were lucky enough to have been born here and can then pretty much forget about — that this definition seems positively exotic. The founders understood "American-ness" in this way, though, not at all in our way.
And today, I learned as I traveled, we are very far from experiencing this connection to our source. Many of us feel ourselves clouded within, cramped, baffled obscurely from without, not in alignment with the electric source that is liberty. So it is easy for us to rationalize always further and more aggressive cramping and clouding; is the government spying on us? Well. .. Okay ... So now the telecommunications companies are asking for retroactive immunity for their spying on us? Well ... Okay ... Once a certain threshold of passivity has been crossed, it becomes easier and easier, as Benjamin Franklin warned, to trade liberty for a false security — and deserve neither.
What struck me on my journey was how powerless so many Americans felt to make change. Many citizens I heard from felt more hopeless than did citizens of some of the poorest and youngest democracies on the planet. Others were angrier than ever and were speaking up and acting up with fervor. I felt that all of us — the hopeless and the hopeful — needed to reconnect to our mentors, the founders, and to remind ourselves of the blueprint for freedom they meant us to inherit. I wrote this handbook with the faith that if Americans take personal ownership of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they can push back any darkness. The first two sections of this refresher guide to our liberties recall what America is supposed to be; the last third is a practical how-to for citizen leadership for a new American Revolution.
There are concrete laws we must pass to restore liberty and actions we must take to safeguard it. You will find them in the last third of this handbook. But more crucial than any list of laws or actions is our own need to rediscover our role as American revolutionaries and to reclaim the "America" in ourselves — in our consciousness as free men and women.
Do we have the right to see ourselves this way? Absolutely. Many histories of our nation's founding focus on a small group, "a band of brothers" or "the Founding Fathers" — the handful of illustrious men whose names we all know. This tight focus tends to reinforce the idea that we are the lucky recipients of the American gift of liberty and of the republic, not ourselves its stewards, crafters, and defenders. It prepares us to think of ourselves as the led, not as the leaders.
But historians are also now documenting the stories of how in the pre-Revolutionary years, ordinary people — farmers, free and enslaved Africans, washer-women, butchers, printers, apprentices, carpenters, penniless soldiers, artisans, wheelwrights, teachers, indentured servants — were rising up against the king's representatives, debating the nature of liberty, fighting the war and following the warriors to support them, insisting on expanding the franchise, demanding the right to vote, compelling the more aristocratic leaders of the community to include them in deliberations about the nature of the state constitutions, and requiring transparency and accountability in the legislative Even enslaved Africans, those Americans most silenced by history, were not only debating in their own communities the implications or the ideas of God-given liberty that the white colonists were debating; they were also taking up arms against George III's men in hopes that the new republic would emancipate them. Some were petitioning state legislatures for their freedom; and others were even successfully bringing lawsuits against their owners, arguing in court for their inalienable rights as human beings. This is the revolutionary spirit that we must claim again for ourselves — fast — if we are to save the country.
When Abraham Lincoln said that our nation was "conceived in Liberty" he was not simply phrasemaking; our nation was literally "conceived" by Enlightenment ideas that were becoming more and more current, waking up greater and greater numbers of ordinary people, and finally bearing on our own founders, known and unknown, with ever-stronger pressure.
Key Enlightenment beliefs of the colonial era are these: human beings are perfectible; the right structures of society, at the heart of which is a representational government whose power derives from the consent of the governed, facilitate this continual evolution; reason is the means by which ordinary people can successfully rule themselves and attain liberty; the right to liberty is universal, God given, and part of a natural cosmic order, or "natural law"; as more and more people around the world claim their God-given right to liberty, tyranny and oppression will be pushed aside. It is worth reminding ourselves of these founding ideas at a time when they are under sustained attack.
The core ideals, the essence, of what the founders imperfectly glimpsed, are perfect. I am often asked how I can so champion the writing and accomplishments of the better-known founders. Most of them were, of course, propertied, white, and male. Critics on the left often point out their flaws in relation to the very ideals they put forward. John Adams was never comfortable with true citizen democracy. "Jefferson's writings about race reveal that he saw Africans as innately deficient in humanity and culture." When a male slave escaped from Benjamin Franklin in England, Franklin sold him back into slavery.
But the essence of the idea of liberty and equality that they codified — an idea that was being debated and developed by men and women, black and white, of all classes in the pre-Revolutionary generation — went further than such an idea had ever gone before. It is humanity's most radical blueprint for transformation.
More important, the idea itself carries within it the moral power to correct the contradictions in its execution that were obvious from the very birth of the new nation. An enslaved woman, Mum Bett, who became a housekeeper for the Sedgwick family of Massachussetts, successfully sued for her own emancipation using the language of the Declaration of Independence; decades later a slave, Dred Scott, argued that he was "entitled to his freedom" as a citizen and a resident of a free state. The first suffragists at the Seneca Falls Convention, intent on securing equal rights for women, used the framework of the Declaration of Independence to advance their cause. New democracies in developing nations around the world draw on our founding documents and government structure to ground their own hopes for freedom. The human beings at the helm of the new nation, whatever their limitations, were truly revolutionary. The theory of liberty born in that era, the seed of the idea, was, as I say, perfect. We should not look to other revolutions to inspire us; nothing is more transformative than our own revolution. We must neither oversentimentalize it, as the right tends to do, nor disdain it, as the left tends to do; rather we must reclaim it.
The stories I read and reread of the "spirit of 1776" led me with new faith to these conclusions: We are not to wait for others to lead. You and I are meant to take back the founders' mandate, and you and I are meant to lead. You and I must protest, you and I must confront our representatives, you and I must run for office, you and I must write the opeds, you and I must take over the battle. The founders — the unknown as well as the well-known Americans who "conceived" the nation in liberty — did not intend for us to delegate worrying about the Constitution to a cadre of constitutional scholars, or to leave debate to a class of professional pundits, or to leave the job of fighting for liberty to a caste of politicians. They meant for us to defend the Constitution, for us to debate the issues of the day, and for us to rise up against tyranny: the American who delivers the mail; the American who teaches our children; ordinary people.
In my reading, I went back as if to contact our mentors. I looked for practical advice and moral support from those who had stood up for the ideal. We need a strategy for a new American uprising against those who would suppress our rights; we need what Lincoln would have called "a new birth of freedom." As readers of Tom Paine's Common Sense had to realize, we are not declaring war on an oppressor — rather, we have to realize that the war has already, quietly, systemically, been declared against us.
Today we have most of our rights still codified on paper — but these documents are indeed "only paper" if we no longer experience them viscerally, if their violation no longer infuriates us. We can be citizens of a republic; we can have a Constitution and a Congress; but if we, the people, have fallen asleep to the meaning of the Constitution and to the radical implications of representative and direct democracy, then we aren't really Americans anymore.
So we must listen to the original revolutionaries and to current ones as well, and explain their ideas clearly to new generations. To hear the voices of the original vision and the voices of those modern heroes, here in the U.S. and around the world, who are true heirs to the American Revolution is to feel your wishes change. "[Freedom] liberated us the day we stopped living in a world where 'truth' and 'falsehood' were, like everything else, the property of the State. And for the most part, this liberation did not stop when we were sentenced to prison," wrote Sharansky. "I was not born to be forced," wrote Henry David Thoreau. "I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest ... they only can force me to obey a higher law than I." You want to stay in that room where these revolutionaries are conversing in this electrifying way among themselves. It feels painful but ultimately cleansing and energizing. You want to be more like them; then you realize that maybe you can be — then finally you realize that you already are.
Our "America," our Constitution, our dream, when properly felt within us, does more than "defend freedom." It clears space to build the society that allows for the highest possible development of who we ourselves personally were meant to be.
We have to rise up in self-defense and legitimate rebellion. We need more drastic action than e-mails to Congress.
We need the next revolution.
Excerpted from "Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries." Copyright 2008 by Naomi Wolf. Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.