Quote of the Week: He who would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. –Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine’s words give us a lens with which to look at two diverging routes taken by American political forces. On the one hand, we have the conservative low road, sinking our nation to its lowest depths of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry, taking us ever further away from our shining City on a Hill and the establishment of a liberal community of prosperity and care. On the other, we have the liberal high road to the City, to using our wealth (as leading Americans since John Winthrop in the 1630s have urged us) to care for the poor, sick, and unemployed. Paine informs us that while the low road allows us to apply our Constitution and other national principles only minimally, and only for established American citizens, the high road to the City requires a liberal application of constitutionality to all human beings, regardless of national status.
We have too long allowed our government (even under President Obama’s moderate hand) to traverse the conservative low road. We have allowed our government to imprison, without charge and without any intention to prosecute, foreign nationals for an unlimited duration. We have allowed our government to encourage other governments to torture and to evade American principles of legality and morality through machinations like extraordinary rendition. We have allowed our government to target American citizens believed to be aiding foreign hostile forces, without providing the required basic constitutional protections to those citizens. So it should come as no surprise when our government wants ever more invasive tools of espionage and oppression, as indicated by the latest court battle with Apple over cell-phone encryption. It is no surprise that, allowing our government to forget our constitutional principles (and allowing the government to limit constitutional protections to established US citizens – and not even all of those), we now have an entire Republican party hostile to foreigners – immigrants and refugees, the very types of people who (together with slaves) built this country in the first place. It is no surprise that a Republican candidate is having audiences replicate the Nazi salute as they swear allegiance to their Orangearschlochführer and as they loudly urge him to protect them from Mexicans and Muslims. This is where the low road is taking us – away from our City on the Hill, and toward an ideological parking lot; empty, barren, and open for sale.
Instead, Paine urges us to take the high road. Paine pushes us to build Winthrop’s City, a liberal community of care and ethics, and of prosperity and wealth. Paine urges us to apply our Constitution to all human beings, not just established US citizens. Paine urges our politicians to treasure all citizens – not just those supporting them at rallies (and unlike those like Trump openly mocking anyone not buying the cheap dime-store make-up job he wants to put on our national legacy and principles). Paine urges us to remember that when foreign nationals at Guantanamo are denied constitutional protections, we are building precedents for our government to weaken and remove our protections here at home. Paine urges America to remember its revolutionary principles. Those principles can only truly shape our polity at home and the rest of the world abroad when we apply them as liberally as we can. We must guarantee basic constitutional protections to all people, and not ask first where they were born, what language they speak, what faith they profess, or what citizenship they hold.
The Republicans, and extremist forces like Trump, will continue to take the low road away from our City on a Hill, and strive to tear our City down in favor of a parking lot. We Americans must fight them at every step, and drive forward on the high road, to the City, to a greater community of care and wealth and social justice. Else we establish a precedent that truly denies protection not just to some loosely defined “outsider,” but to our ideals, to our communities, and to ourselves.