It is alarming how few Americans will exercise their right to vote. On November 6th, if the historical trend persists, less than 40% of the Voting age public will make the decisions for all of us. Abraham Lincoln said, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

In the larger picture, the distinguishing characteristic of the United States is not that we have democratic elections or distinct branches of government — most nations do. Historically, many have not exercised such elements of government as well the United States and we, of course, are not without error. But the biggest difference is that our rights were not granted. They were not given to us by a monarch, a council, a church, a politburo, a dictator, a majority or even our own government. 

The true genius of the founders was their recognition that our rights are inalienable. Our government did not grant them and cannot take them away. That is what inalienable means. Our rights exist and the purpose of our constitution is to protect them. This includes the right to vote. The protection of voting was clarified and expanded in the 15th, 19th, 24th and 26th amendments.

Notice that the constitution does not contain an affirmative statement that says we have a right to freedom of speech. Rather, speech is an inalienable right and the constitution specifies that it shall not be violated. There is a powerful subtlety in the phrase, “shall not be infringed”. This keeps congress out of the business of granting rights and charged instead with the important work of protecting them.

Yelling at your television may influence your family but it will not influence government. The first and best way to counteract the influence of voters with whom you disagree is for you to vote as well. Every uncast vote increases the value of the votes that are. Even if your candidates and causes do not prevail on election day, the winners must take any credible showing for the opposing views into account. If we do not use our rights we run the risk of losing them. 

I strongly suspect people who will not participate on November 6th are unlikely to read this post or any material encouraging them to vote. If you are still reading this  then, you are probably one of the 40%. Exercise your freedom of speech. Find one of the 60%. Persuade him or her to learn about the candidates and and make a choice on election day.

Ideas Cannot Be Defeated With Guns

I believe the rights in the U. S. Constitution apply to all people, not just Americans. The Declaration of Independence does not say all citizens of our country are created equal. It says, “…all men are created equal.” I interpret the word “men” to mean all of humanity regardless of gender. Although there is still work to be done, we are fortunate to live in a country with a government whose purpose is to preserve and defend these rights.

Many in the world are not as fortunate. However, we should not and cannot be the world’s police. Our attempts to force regime change with military strength have never worked. Not once has a nation become free that its own citizens did not lead the charge. We regularly underestimate the aspirational example we are to the world as an enormously successful nation whose citizens are free. Remember the Arab Spring? It is not over. Other people in the world really do aspire to the rights and freedoms we too often take for granted.

It seems to me that the spread of freedom in the 20th century was attributable more to our example than to our guns and diplomacy. Make no mistake, we need guns and diplomacy, but the example we set as a free people is our most powerful weapon. It is a weapon of persuasion, not coercion. For it to remain so in the 21st century, we must strengthen the ideas of freedom, not weaken them. None of us can see what will happen in the coming decades and absent sufficient knowledge of the future, we must rely on our principles to guide our actions.

Ideas, good or bad, cannot be defeated with guns. Yes, terrorists need to be stopped and the world will sacrifice a great deal of blood and treasure to do so. But guns, especially ours, will fertilize the hatred militant jihadis have for the west. Bad ideas and hatred will grow in the hearts of people that lose a child, parent or any loved one in a war with the west. Undoubtedly, the United States has the military might to defeat the terrorists but doing so alone would be a mistake. It would fertilize toxic ideas and a new crop of radical jihadis would grow. Haven’t we learned this lesson yet?

We dim the beacons of liberty and human rights when we torture prisoners, grow the surveillance state or attempt to spread freedom with guns and collateral damage. America’s behavior matters more to the citizens of the world than to its leaders. And it is the citizens of the world that will ultimately determine the outcome of our struggles and the kind of world we will live in.

Our government is not perfect, but I do believe our founders did the best job in human history. This doesn’t mean it can’t be made better. In fact, we should aspire to do so. What distinguishes the United States from other countries is not that we have elections — most nations do. It’s not that our government has distinct branches with checks and balances. The biggest difference is that our rights are not granted. They are not given to us by a monarch, a council, a church, a politburo, a dictator, a majority or even our own government.

The true genius of the founders was their recognition that our rights are inalienable. Our government did not grant them. Our rights exist and the purpose of our constitution is to form a government designed to protect them.

This idea is so powerful that men of Japanese descent whose families were unjustly confined to internment camps fought for it because they believed such liberty would one day apply fully to them and their descendants. This idea is so powerful that American Indians forced to endure hardship, whose ancestors were slaughtered by European immigrants, fought for it and helped raise the American Flag at Iwo Jima. This idea is so powerful that men mistreated under Jim Crow, whose ancestors were enslaved for 12 generations fought for it because they had  “ …a dream, that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…” — Martin Luther King Jr.  I Have a Dream, 1963

I want to live in Gene Roddenberry’s universe. Warp drives and transporters would be nice but for me Roddenberry’s universe means no poverty, no hunger, unlimited education and so on. Freedom of speech is an inalienable right but freedom from want is an aspiration. The only real question is how much of Roddenberry’s Universe can we afford? I worry that buying too much of it now could undercut our economy enough to prevent us from achieving the prosperity required to sustain it.

All of us should set the best example we can for our country and the world. We should expect the same from our leaders. It is imperative that we abide by and seek to improve our founding principles. The good ideas that made us free and successful are far more powerful than our guns.

Ultimately, bad ideas can only be defeated with good ones. Is there some doubt that liberty, inalienable rights and equal treatment under the law are good ideas?

Our good ideas cannot defeat bad ideas if we do not live by them.

Rights are what our Flag Stands For

Colin Kaepernick is the in the news again and being criticized in ways inconsistent with freedom.

For us to enjoy free speech we must protect that right among people with whom we disagree. Justice Hugo Black once said, “The freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment must be accorded to the ideas we hate or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish.”

I respect our flag and National Anthem, but I respect the right to protest more. After all, it is because of our rights that our flag deserves respect. The soldiers that served, were wounded or died, did so for the freedoms our flag represents. Protesting is what we do instead of flying planes into buildings. A country that requires respect of the flag sounds more like North Korea than the United States.

For too many, the principles signified by our flag remain an aspiration rather than reality. If one believes there is sufficient evidence some police officers overstepped the bounds of justifiable homicide I have to ask myself, who has violated the principles of liberty and disrespected our flag more — the officer who takes the life of an unarmed person or the player that kneels during the Anthem?

To be clear, not all shooting incidents sensationalized in the media are unjustified. No matter how unfortunate the outcome, if a person waves a gun around and refuses to disarm themselves then officers are justified to fear for their lives and should take action. During incidents of imminent danger, an officer only has a split second to decide and act. If an officer acts rashly out of fear or hate, scrutiny is warranted. If scrutiny is absent or insufficient then protest is warranted. If a protest does not provoke thought and debate it is of little to no consequence.

I do not have all the answers, but I do know the plural of anecdote is not data. Yes, there is still racism in the United States. Yes, the overwhelming majority of Police officers are good people doing a very risky job and deserving of our respect. Yes, there are bad police officers out there and plenty enough evidence to merit scrutiny of law enforcement systems.

We should constantly examine police practices anyway. It is folly to believe we have ever done enough or designed systems so perfectly that no one ever does anything wrong. We do not know everything we should about the causes, prevention or responses to criminal activity and should therefore always seek to improve the systems we have. In a free society, civilian oversight of law enforcement is warranted by the very nature of the undertaking.

I believe everyone deserves equal treatment under the law. Murder, unreasonable search and seizure, and excessive force are already illegal so we may not need more laws. If police or anyone evades the law then the system of accountability needs scrutiny also.

I submit that what needs changing is not the laws of men (or women of course), but the conscience. That is something that can only be changed by conversations like this one. If a person is racist, history clearly demonstrates we are unlikely to change their mind by law or decree. We might change their behavior, but not their mind. That, they must do themselves. For them to do so requires some persuasive effort on our part. It is unlikely a mind will change in one sitting and even less likely that systems or culture will change by simply being told to do so. Concerned people may have to repeat themselves many times in debates such as this before a thinking person has enough to gnaw on. More minds are changed by gnawing than by hearing anyway. Citizens and good officers must apply persuasive efforts on bad officers in the hope that bad ones change themselves from inside or are removed from the job.

I do not think of myself as shrill and try to avoid it. However, shrill Americans still have a persuasive influence. After all, the shrillness of those opposed to slavery and Jim Crow definitely contributed to their demise.

Respect for government, the flag and the anthem should not be required, it should be earned. Every day. To do otherwise is to saw on the limb we stand on.