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The Spirit of Independence: How Culture Drives Politics

To a first approximation, American political history before the 18th century is British political history. As most American schoolchildren know, in the 17th century, John Locke crystallized the idea that human law should reflect Natural Law, but the idea that Law must serve the well-being of the people on whom it is imposed goes back at least to the Anglo-Saxons.

Since tyranny must shape to itself both the law and the political institutions of its day, it stands to reason that when a governing elite has gone too far in abusing its power, the fight back for liberty by the people at large does not start directly in the political realm or in legislation, itself.

Throughout history, changing a country's politics and statutes has been the final goal of forceful popular attempts to contain power, but mass-refusal to accept political abuses has always begun in the culture. "Culture" is a vague term so let us define it as the sum of actions of the citizens of a country, the attitudes that drive their responses to events, their expectations of what they may do and the memories of what they, and perhaps their ancestors, have always done.

The founding of the United States is just one example of this process. In 1776 (American Independence), as in 1689 (the original Bill of Rights), 1628 (Petition of Right), 1215 (Magna Carta), and even 1014 (Anglo-Saxon Charter), freedoms that citizens already believed they had were codified and concretized to shape political institutions. And in each case, this shaping of political entities with the purpose of increasing or protecting the rights of free individuals that were already recognized in the culture has been invariably triggered by the over-reach of the country's governing elite (or, at least, part of it).

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Seen in this light, the American Revolution was not so much an American Revolution as a British evolution - another turn in the ratchet of Anglo political liberty, driven by the kind of cultural conservatism that all liberals should celebrate.

As William Pitt the Elder, statesman and former British prime minister, said as he spoke against the Stamp Act in the year of the American founding.

I rejoice that America has resisted. Three million people so dead to all feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest[of us].

This reflects the interesting fact that the attitudes that drove American Independence were found not only among the colonists. They were as prevalent among their British compatriots in the "motherland", born from and into the same Anglo culture.

Pitt's use of the word "feelings" is telling. Feelings are not defined in law or carved over the doors of our most important state building. Rather, as Pitt was acknowledging, they are the sentiments that drive political change, reflective of the prevalent attitudes and expectations in society.

In fact, in the Anglo tradition, the political elite has explicitly recognized that the feelings and expectations of the people are the ultimate limits on its power, and has conceded as much when it has had to negotiate with the people that it governs. The Magna Carta, various coronation declarations going back even as far as a millennium, the Petition of Right etc., all refer explicitly to the "customs" of the people - those freedoms that the people have a right to expect simply because they are commonly asserted and have been enjoyed for so long. These customs exist in the minds of the people, defining, albeit fluidly, the boundaries in which (earlier) kings and (now) politicians must confine themselves if they are not to risk a popular backlash that makes governing impossible.

The modern liberty movement must take heed of this lesson of history: large-scale popular movements against power are triggered not when enough people see in that an abstract right has been taken from them - but when enough people actually experience their everyday lives as being impinged upon.

Put another way, it's when Power offends our cultural freedoms - not our political liberty - that we rise up against it.

Why else have both the Left and the Right in our time sat relatively silent as our rights to due process, privacy, and free speech have been removed by such legislation as the Patriot Act and the NDAA, and yet become very vociferous over our right to smoke weed (on the Left) or own guns without restriction (on the Right)? The answer, at least in part, is that smoking and/or guns are part of the culture for many Americans, so government overreach into those areas actually feels like a personal infringement. In contrast, removing your right to due process doesn't feel like anything until you need due process, and invading your privacy doesn't feel like anything if you don't know that it is even happening.

Independence Day make many of us feel patriotic. That term originally meant loyalty not to a cause of separation from Britain, but to the very ideas of liberty, worked up through an Anglo tradition of many hundreds of years, distilled marvelously in our Constitution. These ideas, filling coffee-shop conversations everywhere, even in the 18th century, constituted a kind of cultural norm, and were shared by Britons on both sides of the Atlantic.

True patriots today are committed to the same ideas. That subset who can fairly claim the spirit of American Independence are the few who will put their own well-being at risk to defend them.

One of them is Edward Snowden. His revelations have altered American political discourse by changing the everyday American experience of sending an email or a making phone call from one of privately communicating with a loved to one of sharing one's life with the State. Mr. Snowden's importance is less that he has told us anything new about the massively invasive power that government has assumed for itself since (at least) 2001. (There are myriad accessible articles about the Patriot Act, NDAA etc. and their implementation that anyone could have read any time in the last decade.) He has, in fact, done something much more important: he has turned our government's violation of our political liberties, which most of us know only as words on a document, into a felt violation of our cultural ones, of which we can feel as we go about our lives.

And when enough people feel that way, drawing on their customs (attitudes and expectations) of liberty - not on their political institutions - they push back, forcing legislative and political lines to get redrawn in a manner that reclaims the liberties that have been lost. As per the list of dates above, it has happened throughout history. And it happened in 1776.

The Founders were not ideological revolutionaries. They were, every step of the way, acting in the Anglo tradition of liberty, a tradition that the British elite in that time was failing to respect, as our American elite fails to respect it now. Their "revolution" was therefore a culturally-rooted resistance to a violation of the customs of that very same culture, but its outcomes were, as intended and as always, profoundly political.

Until now, our government, or as they style themselves, our governors, have managed to take away so many of our political freedoms without too many people feeling a thing. Snowden's revelations are important inasmuch as they have helped turn the overbearing reach of Power from a legal and political abstraction to a felt reality in our lives.

On Independence Day, it is appropriate to let ourselves be inspired by the simple fact that Snowden is American. Snowden as much comes out of a culture of American Independence as he contributes to it. Don't think that the Chinese, Russians, Iranians and French states, for example, aren't doing all the things that the Americans are - or that, at least they would if they had American resources and power. But Edward Snowden isn't Chinese, Russian, Iranian, or French. Perhaps that is no accident. Perhaps it is worth celebrating the fact that there is still enough of the founding, independent, spirit of these United States left that caused one of its sons not just to hold to its founding values, but to do something about them.

The American liberty movement is understandably pre-occupied with law, policy and political institutions. All of these are of course profoundly important. But the real game is in people's minds. If we can strengthen our culture of freedom by telling the truth about where we stand today, contrasting it with our rich tradition of liberty, and thereby stimulating that healthy sense of "how dare they?", then the politics shall take care of themselves. Repealing a bill is hard for you or me to do. Getting people to care is not. Snowden has gotten many people to care. As Bill Clinton said, "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America."

Whatever else is true, Snowden is an Independent American whose principles are the principles of American Independence. And that is surely all that any Patriot is called to be.

On this Independence Day, God bless England, America's crucible; God bless Snowden and every other true patriot, and God bless the United States of America.



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Well written, Robin

And well worth pointing out. Glad you are here.

"Any government that is big enough to give everything you need is also strong enough to take it all away."

The Declaration of Liberty

The Declaration of Liberty
From Autumn 1986, Page 2, of The Libertarian Party NEWS

Would You Sign This?

Sooner or Later, the time comes when people find it necessary to reject the government that rules over them and demand respect for the sovereignty to which they are, by their very nature, entitled. Consideration for everyone affected compels them to explain the reasons for the change.

It is obvious that every individual is free and independent and has certain basic rights -- for example; the right to live peacefully and honestly, and to pursue whatever ends he (or she) sees as being in his own best interests so long as he doesn't interfere with the equal rights of everyone else. The only legitimate purpose of government is to ensure that no one violates anyone else's rights. Therefore, a just government can only serve those people who voluntarily support it. Whenever any form of government exceeds its legitimate authority and begins destroying the very values it was instituted to protect, it is the right of the people to either change it or abolish it, and to set up a new government designed in such a way that its power is strictly limited to its proper functions. Of course, common sense says such drastic steps should not be taken except in extreme circumstances. And, historically, people will tolerate a great deal of oppression rather than change a system with which they have grown familiar and comfortable. But, when a long series of abuses, invariably pursuing the same goal, demonstrates a plan to reduce them to virtual slavery, it is their right (indeed, it is their duty!) to reject such government and institute a new system to provide for their future security. Such is the situation in which Americans now find themselves and the reason they must, once again, demand emancipation from a dictatorial government. The history of the present government is a history of insidious and incessant erosion of rights which has resulted in an absolute tyranny over the lives and property of the good people of this country. The evidence is overwhelming:

• It has made absolute the power of the majority to rule over individuals, and by legislation, executive order, and judicial decree has created and encouraged a system which rewards indolence and penalizes productive effort.

• It has redefined fundamental rights as privileges and required people by regulations and licensing restrictions to obtain its permission merely to be left in peace to trade honorably in the marketplace.

• It has outlawed numerous peaceful, honest activities and occupations and, in areas not entirely prohibited, required free citizens to give up some of their rights in order to enjoy others – rights which are priceless to honest people and a danger only to despots.

• It has created a massive bureaucracy with unending reporting requirements in order to bury our people in forms and paperwork and, thereby, wear them down and beat them into submission.

• It has harassed, jailed, and murdered individuals who bravely resisted its invasions of their rights.

• In single-minded pursuit of its goal to reduce free people to abject slaves, it has failed utterly in its responsibility to protect people from criminal aggression.

• It has severely restricted the freedom of individuals living under other oppressive governments to move here to seek refuge and the opportunity to be freely productive and, thereby, contribute to the betterment of all.

• It has caused the judiciary to degenerate into a kangaroo court of arbitrary powers that is a mockery of justice.

• It has made its own courts arbiter of disputes to which it is itself a party.

• It has created innumerable new offices and administrative and regulatory bodies sending forth swarms of officers and agents to harass our people and devour the fruits of their labor.

• It has maintained, even in times of peace, a standing military force of frightening and wholly unnecessary proportions.

• It has made both military and police forces superior to and beyond the control of civilian authority.

• It has imposed upon us laws and edicts which are abhorrent to a free people:

 Maintaining large numbers of armed agents among us far beyond what is needed to assist individuals in their self-defense.

 Imposing the doctrine of Governmental Immunity to insulate its agents from responsibility for their wanton and reckless acts.

 Restricting our trade both among ourselves and with other people around the world.

 Imposing taxes without our consent.

 Undermining and finally destroying the jury trial – a free people’s last defense against a dictatorial government.

 Conscripting free individuals into involuntary servitude in the military to have life and limb wasted in pointless foreign wars.

 Abolishing the concept of private property and the rights implicit in self-ownership by arbitrary rules, regulations, ordinances, and codes in a relentless expansion of its domination and control over the lives of free people.

 Taking away our most cherished freedoms including the rights to life, liberty, and the peaceful, honest pursuit of happiness.

 Declaring itself invested with the power to legislate for us in all matters whatsoever, even including how our children shall be raised and educated.

• It has abdicated its responsibility by ignoring victims of aggression and, instead, naming itself complainant in criminal cases, all the while preying on honest people for its support by violence and extortion.

• It has plundered our wealth, corrupted our money, and far exceeded its income, creating a massive debt impossible to legitimately retire.

• It has raised up large armies of mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny already begun with a cruelty and ruthlessness scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous age, and totally unworthy of the government of a civilized nation.

• It has employed our fellow citizens to bear arms against us, to become the extortionists and executioners of their friends and families, or to fall themselves to government intimidation.

• It has caused domestic discontent and has recklessly challenged other dictatorial powers (such as the government of the Soviet Union whose known method of conquest is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions), threatening to bring nuclear annihilation down on us in defense of foreign governments.

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms. Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A government whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a dictatorship, is unfit to rule over a free people.

Nor have we neglected to admonish our fellow citizens. We have warned them many times of attempts by this government to extend an unjustified jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the principles which formed the foundation of this republic. We have appealed to their sense of goodness and justice, and we have begged them in the name of our common heritage to disavow this renegade government that is leading us inexorably to our doom. However, they have been deaf to the voice of reason and fairness. We must, therefore, of necessity, hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, until such time as they renounce the initiation of force and, thereby, demonstrate their peaceful intentions so that we may once again consider them friends in peace.

We, therefore, as sovereign individuals living in the United States of America, together and singly, relying on the justice of our cause, solemnly publish and declare that we are, and of right ought to be, free and independent people; that we are absolved from all allegiance to the United States Government, and that all political connection between us and the Government of the United States is, and ought to be, totally dissolved; and that as free and independent people we have the full power to defend ourselves, make alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent people may, by right, do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm belief in the inevitability of a social order whose highest value is the non-initiation of force, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

[Editor’s Note: Karl Hess]
As you have probably guessed by now, the document you have just read is a faithful paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence of the colonial states of America. It was prepared by a libertarian activist and freelance writer, Timothy J. O’Brien, of Troy, MI. (https://www.facebook.com/messages/tim.obrien.104203)
In past experiments, when the original text has been circulated to American audiences, the overwhelming response has been one of rejection. At an American airbase, for instance, most of the people who were asked to sign the declaration refused and gave as their reason their belief that the document was radical, revolutionary – and communist!

The paraphrased version, using more modern language and omitting clearly dated references or bringing them accurately up to date, undoubtedly would strike many people as downright treasonous. And, of course, when the original was published it was treasonous. Yet, think carefully about it: Isn’t it a valid, if extreme, statement of the way many citizens could reasonably be expected to view their own government these days? Is not that government, in many areas, literally at war with its own citizens?

To be sure, America remains the most free nation on earth. It remains for many people of the earth a steady and beckoning beacon of hope and freedom and opportunity.

But, on balance, wouldn’t it be prudent to revive the spirit of our original Declaration of Independence? And isn’t that declaration most perfectly reflected, these days, in the positions of the Libertarian Party, and in the principles of the libertarian movement?
How would your neighbors react to a request to sign the Declaration of Independence today – particularly our modernized version? Could this be a way to “feel out” politics in your area? Could this document be used as a support for your own libertarian statements if they are attacked as being too radical?

It is offered here for whatever uses you can make of it – or simply to test your own politics. Would you sign this document? Would you have signed the original? And aren’t these truly basic questions for any American?

Above all, this reminder of our American heritage is meant as a reminder also of the reflection of that heritage in the Libertarian Party and in the libertarian movement.

"The dearest ambition of a slave is not liberty, but to have a slave of his own."
Sir Richard Burton

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe