Author, educator, and lawyer Teri Kanefield writes very smart posts about the law, books, and politics on her Teri Kanefield blog.* This morning she posted thoughts on why those who believe in democracy need to educate themselves on what it takes to keep that system of government. To use one of my favorite baseball metaphors, she hits it out of the park.
I’m working on a post that looks at different aspects of our history, but that makes essentially the same point as Kanefield:
“Many liberals and Trump critics have the idea that the United States has always been a liberal democracy — and then along came Trump, pulling the wool over his followers’ eyes and battering our democratic institutions.
In fact, America didn’t start to move toward a true liberal democracy until Brown v. Board, the 1954 Supreme Court case that declared racial segregation unconstitutional. Brown sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement, which in turn gave rise to the women’s rights movement. Liberals cheered these changes. Many did not.
Trump is riding the backlash from those changes.
For most of U.S. history, Americans lived in a hierarchy. Think of slavery, Jim Crow, and women’s place in the home. Until the modern Civil Rights movement, what we now call voter suppression was legal. For most of our history, only white men voted.
A person on Twitter told me, “Things have never been this bad.” People who think, “Things have never been this bad,” have probably never imagined what life was like for an African American woman in 1850. She didn’t even own her own body. Literally. So yeah, for a lot of Americans, things have been much, much worse.”
Kanefield’s entire post builds on the “what you know that just ain’t so” point of view of American history…but she aims her fire for those who believe in democracy. As she says so eloquently, what many see as an arc of history that is always rising, is instead, as illustrated above, a much more “two steps forward, one step back” arc.
Just go read her post. And if you are worried about the peaceful transfer of power next January, I also recommend her take on that issue in The Strongman Con.
Kanefield’s writing ties in well with what journalist and social critic Lewis Lapham wrote back in 1990:
“If the American system of government at present seems so patently at odds with its constitutional hopes and purposes, it is not because the practice of democracy no longer serves the interests of the presiding oligarchy (which it never did), but because the promise of democracy no longer inspires or exalts the citizenry lucky enough to have been born under its star. It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends. What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie?”
More to come…
*Kanefield notes that for the past few decades, “I’ve mostly written for two audiences: Appellate justices and young readers (middle to high school). Most recently I’ve written political and legal commentary for NBC Think Blog, CNN, Slate Magazine…and a six-book series of biographies (middle grade)….Writing for young readers is much like writing for appellate justices. I know that sounds a joke, but appellate justices want everything broken down and digestible. I won’t carry the comparison too far: Ninth graders are usually more open minded than appellate justices, and a lot more fun.“
” It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends.” Perhaps, but liberty has also been redefined in popular culture in ways which make it hard to understand why people should value it. “Liberty” used to mean “liberty for… [something]” — something like, freedom to develop one’s gifts and then to offer them in helping to shape a society. Today, freedom means mostly “freedom of choice” (by which its proponents mean freedom of consumer choice) and freedom from constraint. There is a world of difference between liberty to choose one’s obligations and liberty to ignore them all in favor of a an existence centered on self or, at most, on self and family.
Living, as I do now, in a society with a robust sense of mutual obligation and of the common good, the contrast is striking.
Deborah, I agree with your perspective on the redefinition of liberty in the popular culture. I liken it to the change in how our culture has redefined “public” and “private.” Public use to be a good thing, in that sense of the mutual obligation that you mention, and private was the bad thing centered around self and greed (e.g., public schools use to be seen as an important part of the greater good). However, the popular culture (and I would argue the right wing) made a conscious choice to flip those meanings, so now public refers to things that are given bad connotations (e.g., public housing, public bathrooms, and – yes – public schools) while private is positioned as a positive (e.g., private trainer, private schools, private clubs). I believe both of these redefinitions have been deliberate attempts by the authoritarian forces in our midst to focus on self gratification and to push against our sense of mutual obligations. Lapham, if I read his book correctly, thinks of liberty in that old fashioned way.
So glad to hear from you and to think of you living in your place in a society with that sense of the common good.
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