Friday, January 16, 2009

Freedom and Democracy

I spent five days in Philadelphia at the end of December. It was quite remarkable. I stood in a the house where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, saw the first congress where that same declaration was read and signed, and the constitution was ratified. I stood at Ben Franklin's grave, and at Washington park, sight of revolutionary war battles, and now a burial ground for soldiers who fell in that war.

Two words - constant in American rhetoric - haunted me: "freedom" and "democracy". I think we use those words too cheaply, to vaguely, without sufficient meaning.

Democracy is government by the people, a government where the rights of everyone are legally protected, and all have power to have their voice heard by government. Democracy is far more than the right to vote and free speech. Democracy is nothing less than the freedom to matter, to make a difference. to have one's voice heard, one's life and interests protected, one's worth affirmed.

Likewise with freedom. We cannot simply proclaim that we believe in freedom. We must say what freedom means. Freedom from what? Freedom to what? Freedom for whom? How much freedom? what kind of freedom? Freedom to be simply left to ourselves? Or freedom that requires the help of others?

The founding fathers of our nation were flawed and faulty men, but they did create something quite remarkable. They did give us a democratic republic.

But it is not sufficient merely to wave our flags and chant stock phrases. Let's ask ourselves what democracy and freedom really mean, what liberty really consist in, what rights really are. What is this gift that the founding fathers tried to provide us?

If we do not come to understand what these concepts really mean, then we will lose them. Even now we are not really fully free, not really fully democratic ... and how could we be, if we don't know what it means to be free and democratic?

Food for thought as a new administration comes to power.

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