The new $10 bill in the U.S. has emblazoned across its face in red script letters to the right of the portrait of Hamilton, We The People. Those are, of course, the three words that begin the U.S. Constitution.
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.This opening is a long sentence that is focused on political ideals, not identification as “the people.” You might argue that there is nothing wrong with shortening this historic political statement to a three-word rallying cry. I would disagree. The problem with rallying cries (and the modern global communications equivalent, the sound bite) is that they are intended to drive people emotionally, to disengage their minds and convince them that their “belief” will carry the day.
In this case, the words “We the people” implies, for one thing, being set apart and special in all the world. We the people who have a democracy. We the people who God has favored. We the people who have achieved a level of civilization that is the envy of the rest of the world.
We the people who have taken the lead in arrogance and hubris for the twenty-first century.
It is taken as axiomatic by far too many people I talk with that the citizens of the U.S. are more free than the citizens of any other country. I admit, there are places on the Big Blue Marble where speaking your mind can land you in prison or worse, or where the government intrudes on the lives of citizens by opening their mail, tapping their phones, tracking their spending habits and keeping dossiers on them. For example, one of those countries would be...well, the U.S.
It could be argued that there is hardly as single human rights violation that this government is not guilty of. It is currently thumbing its collective nose at the Constitution and spying on its own citizens under the pretext of taking anti-terrorism measures. It has arrested hundreds of people and kept them locked up without formal charges being leveled. It has waged an illegal and aggressive war against a country powerless to defend itself, blatantly lying to its own citizens in the process about the reasons for the war.
One reason all of this has stood, so far, is the belief in “We the people.” Other empires have come and gone. Even tiny Portugal was an empire, once upon a time. Yet, that won't happen to us, we assure ourselves. We are “the people.” The middle of the 20th century saw a democratically elected president of Germany stoke the fires of nationalism and fascism and turn their democracy into a dictatorship under the pretense of fighting terrorism. But that won't happen here, we are sure, because we are “the people.” How can “We the people” suffer the fate of those others who were “them” not “us?”
Talking with a coworker the other day, the conversation managed to turn toward politics for a brief moment (normally a taboo subject in the workplace). His politics tend toward the left, so I felt pretty comfortable espousing my own opinion that this government is attempting a repeat performance of the Nazification of Germany here in the good ol' U.S. of A. His response was typical. He said, “I'm a cynic, but I'm not that cynical.”
I could have asked him what was cynical about coming to the conclusion that when a government follows essentially the same steps the Nazi party took to seize absolute control over Germany, they might be working toward the same goal? Rightly or wrongly, I didn't press the matter because I figured I already knew the answer. “We the people” love freedom too much. “We the people” are special and destined to lead the world to democracy and liberty. “We the people” have faced difficulties and always risen above them.
Of course, we haven't risen above anything really. We have become progressively less educated, more enslaved and less able to decide our own fates. Rather than rising above, we have learned to justify, rationalize and call each loss of freedom part of the evolving nature of our government. Subjugation to the whims of authority becomes the rule of law, virtual indentured servitude to corporations becomes economic opportunity and unlawful surveillance and detention of citizens becomes nation security.
The problem is one of belief, at least at one level. I don't mean to say that this is the whole or our problems, but it is at the root of them, I think. We believe that evoking the magic words, “We the people,” will make everything alright. The system might be going through a difficult time right now, but it will correct itself. It always has.
That begs the question, exactly how will the system correct itself? If the system is made up of “We the people” and we are not taking responsibility for the corrections, what form will those corrections take? The answer is, the system will correct itself in accordance with the desires of those who are putting energy into it. An apathetic “We the people” who are satisfied with accepting the direction and decisions of those in positions of authority will get a form of government that consists of those in authority making all the decisions. In other words, our belief in “We the people” means nothing when our actions are more in line with “They the power.”
The system will correct itself and it will do so in the way we deserve, based on our actions. If “We the people” choose apathy and self-absorption, allowing all manner of atrocities and human rights violations to be carried out in our name as long as we remain well fed and left relatively alone, we will become the slaves we are already acting like. And, if we think we are going to pull it together at the last minute and save our beloved democracy and freedom in a Hollywood-esque, “save the day” moment, think again. That makes for a nice feel-good ending to a movie, but it is wishful thinking.