Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Thomas Jefferson and the Revolutionary Moment

"An enlightened people, and an energetic public opinion . . . will control and
enchain the aristocratic spirit of the government."

"Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day;
but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued
unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate,
systematic plan of reducing [a people] to slavery."

And my favorite . . .

"The tree of liberty must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of
patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."

Isn't it amazing how relevant Thomas Jefferson can still be, nearly 200 years after his Presidency? It's no wonder that he was sometimes heralded as the "Sage of Monticello." Sure, he had obvious flaws, particularly noticeable when one turns the microscope of historical analysis to his views on slavery and race. Jefferson himself even recognized the conflict in his own personal life. Yet as the quotes above suggest, Jefferson rarely exhibited ambiguity in his views on the more abstract concepts of liberty, "inalienable rights," and the necessity of periodic revolution.

Given our society's present anti-intellectual bent and its unnerving embrace of the "cult of celebrity," I'm deeply troubled by the implications of Jefferson's remark on the role of "an enlightened people" as a safeguard against tyranny. In 2007 the United States does not shelter an enlightened populace, at least in the context of matters of import. We're woefully ignorant of our history, and average citizens routinely display a shocking lack of knowledge or interest in current events, domestic or foreign. Instead, Americans are more apt to know what Paris Hilton had for breakfast or recognize "American Idol" contestants, than identify any of the Democratic or Republican aspirants to the White House. Even more troubling, the principal shapers of mass public opinion - television networks - have abdicated their journalistic role as reporters of serious news in favor of the more lucrative business of disseminating "infotainment."

Conservatives, of course, have long disdained the concept of an informed electorate. They prefer voters who are either disinterested or have had their opinions refracted through the prejudicial prism of the Anne Coulters and Bill O'Reilly's of the media. The Christian Right has proved equally adept at leading its adherents down the path of tyranny, preaching the apocalyptic hermeneutics of an Armageddon popularized in the scripturally unsound Left Behind series of books and movies.

An ill-informed electorate is a pliable electorate, susceptible to the politics of intolerance and violence. And, as a natural consequence, debate - Jefferson's "energetic public opinion" - is either limited or altogether stifled. Witness the dearth of public and governmental debate over the decision to invade Iraq. In an age so enamored of the printed word, Jefferson possessed a prescient understanding of mass communication and its ability to inform or misinform the public. The lessons of his era stand as sage examples for the 21st century.

As for Jefferson's proclamation that "single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day," I wish our current situation could be that innocently benign. Clearly, however, the behavior of the Bush administration highlights a much larger conspiracy to subvert the Constitution and destroy our traditional separation of powers. Although voters ostensibly rejected the Bush agenda in last year's elections, the result appears to have generated no appreciable change in course. At the crux of this assault on American liberty is a chief executive ideologically myopic and woefully limited in intelligence and a capacity for reason. Supplement stupidity with demagoguery, corporate greed, and chiliastic prophecy, and the United States sits poised at the abyss of fascism.

Of course, Jefferson's prescription for the threat of tyranny would be revolution. Witness to the revolutionary power of an informed - and ultimately enfranchised - citizenry, Jefferson observed first-hand the results of both violent conflicts (in the form of the American and French revolutions) and peaceful reformations (as embodied in his victory in the momentous presidential contest of 1800) . Although one might wish for a similarly "revolutionary" overthrow of the Bush world view, the monolithic corporatist structure of American society will prevent that course of action for the time being. As pessimistic as this might seem, the United States and its democratic institutions will continue to decay from within, compromised and weakened until a truly monumental disaster - whether natural or manmade - cripples the Republic so fundamentally that its citizens surrender to the siren song of totalitarianism.

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