Last week, I enjoyed a fugue of blissful happiness. I left my phone plugged into its charger, selected two books, and walked out into an unseasonably warm November night.
Hopleaf, my favorite bar in the world, was the destination. Its gigantic oak bars, capacious rooms, and music at a level diminuendo of every other bar in the city makes me feel as if it’s my second home – a second home with enough beer to get a parade of elephants drunk.
After reading, drinking, and becoming fascinated by the bar’s mid-20th century posters of beer adverts, I started my blissful stroll home. The night was warm relative to any usual early fall evening. There was a hushed happiness in the extase of passers-by and Chicago briefly took on a bucolic feeling; it felt earthy and remote, even though the only plants in sight came potted.
My bliss wasn’t fully the product of Belgian beers. It certainly wasn’t the product of my constant downward-reach in search of my electronic dictionary (i.e. iPhone). No, the bliss came when I looked around at this little stretch of Andersonville’s Clark Street – Hopleaf, the massage parlor, the gay bar, the liquor store, the bathhouse, the knick-knack store, the African auto-repair shop, the food from across the world – and realized just how free and lucky we are to live here.
Could this maddeningly diverse setting appear anywhere else in the world? Parts of Europe, perhaps, but one wonders how much longer that will be true with Europe’s current refugee crisis and reactionary voting. At that moment, I felt a swelling pride in my home.
Lately, I have been reading a lot about the tyranny of other countries: Restricting speech, imprisoning political enemies, kidnapping children for sex, opening borders to millions of people before key issues of societal integration are addressed, sentencing women to gang rape for the crime of bringing shame to men, and the outright outlawing of others – other religions, other nationalities, other ideologies, and other sexual orientations.
With all of this kept in context, we Americans are truly the luckiest people on Earth.
I don’t believe that’s a controversial thing to say. Many might say, “Oh, well, perhaps YOU’RE lucky, white male with time and money to afford beer and books.” Fair enough. I do have it quite good and for that I’m thankful. Some days, I well up with wonder at my own state. “I’m wasting it,” I often think, just to test if it rings true in the pit of my stomach and deep into the marrow of my bones. For years, I didn’t believe I deserved the good fortune I was born into, a mentality of self-flagellation that is a clear remnant of a long-gone religious belief. Now, I feel quite happy with myself and hopeful about my place in the world; hopeful that I can be a force for good – even if on a small scale – and hopeful other people can attain this same level of good.
On the other hand, If I were to say there are no American problems, I’d be foolish, lying, ignorant, or a generous mix of all three. One can watch five minutes of 2016 election coverage and realize that something isn’t quite right in America. By now – it’s Election Day eve as I type this sentence – we’re all familiar with the rhetoric of both candidates and the ghastly reactions across the electorate. I feel no need to go any deeper into it than we already have this past year. I’m thankful it’s damn-near over and hope all who have stressfully shed hair from their head can grow it back.
However, when one digs deeper into the minutia of our past century of social, monetary, and foreign policy missteps, he might feel the situation is more dire than a single election cycle can explain. Is this election our punishment, or destiny, for decades of uncaring cruelty, shunning of those in need, and worship of the rich? Many take the position that we cannot be fixed; America is broken, uncaring, and a whore.
I’m a bit more bullish, although I can’t help but admire its whoreishness. I still genuinely believe that to live in America, no matter who you are, is to live in the only country in the world that guarantees unpunished speech. That’s unique. Others flaunt it, but we got it. So long as you aren’t directly inciting or threatening violence, you can say what you please. This is a chip we should not trade in; not by the demands of a ruler, the threat of social ostracism, nor by the barrel of a gun.
Our ideology of free speech and idea testing is continually put on the firing line. As Jonathan Rauch notes in his incredible defense of free speech, “Kindly Inquisitors,” if it isn’t the fundamentalist trying to limit free speech, it’s the a well-meaning humanist who simply wants everyone to feel good about themselves – even if that means not parsing some ideas that we normally would and perhaps should. Outside of these two, it takes on the form of recognizable enemies, and even many of them likely have plenty of good ideas that could be peacefully parsed via testing and conversation, if they’d allow it.
Free speech is imperfect, as all systems are, but we’ve corrected mistakes and advanced social life, technology, and quality of life by the sheer power of discussion. Sometimes, the discussion is loud and raucous. Other times, its soft and understanding. Every once in a while, it’s celebratory; we’re more alike than we think and we’re pleasantly surprised. In each discussion, respect is earned and dignity is readily given. It’s the ethos of who we are and our greatest achievement as a country.
If we didn’t have this level of discourse, what would we have? Would we change minds via rule of law? Social pressure? The gun? These alternatives ring empty and leave large swaths of people in the ideological cold.
A look at our country’s founders sees a group of inherently flawed men who, whether they realized their own flaws or not, hoped for less flawed future generations; a so-called “more perfect union.” Thus, secularism, skepticism, and free speech were made cornerstones of society, not religion and its forcibly stalled ideology or some other system of shunned questioning. Unfortunately, no man back then could argue for the end of slavery and seemingly no man would argue for the suffrage of women. But again: flaws to be fixed by a “more perfect union.” This is where we came into play.
Over the years, we’ve met – and I’d say surpassed – the challenge of the founders. We’ve become less racist and given voice to everyone. We’ve gone from barbarically firing gay people from government jobs to legalizing gay marriage in a span of 50 years. Suffragettes won the right to vote and a voice in politics, as well as in social life, for women, thereby fixing years of piffle bestowed on us by Calvinism and Catholicism.
We’ve also faltered as a country, allowing ideas and practices like mass imprisonment and mandatory minimum sentencing to enter the canon and become dominant. We’ve never quite addressed how to help the ancestors of slaves who shouldered the load of building America in its earliest days, even when reparations were given to American Indian tribes and the American Japanese citizens of WWII internment camps. We’ve allowed mental health to become an epidemic, lying in denial that we aren’t crazy. “I’m not crazy” is the unprovable rallying cry of the overworked, stressed-out American who simply has a good cry every couple of days after work and who has friends to talk to about their problems, thank you very much!
However, our greatest gift remains: Our ability to fix all of this. We’re all able to make our case to others and, just as importantly, we’re all able to change our own minds as we see fit. Never forget that this is a special privilege.
Even our supposedly liberal neighbors to the north, Canada, have a blasphemy law on the books. “Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years,” says section 296 of the Criminal Code R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46. Subsection (1). Freedom of speech it is not; you may have your move to Canada if the election doesn’t go your way. I’ll stay here and speak as I please.
When you live in a country based on liberal, scientific principles, no change is ever unreasonable, so long as the evidence shows it must happen. This may feel like a mirage in the face of science-hating plutocrats, but I wholeheartedly believe its true. While twisting arms has become a money game, it will never be a money game to remind the politicians that represent us just who they represent and what, exactly, our interests are.
However, proper reminders are backed by knowledge. As James Madison, author of the First Amendment, said:
“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Allow me to repeat: KNOWLEDGE WILL FOREVER GOVERN IGNORANCE. This is important. It’s truly something our country can’t lose sight of. I don’t believe it will, but I do believe it can if we proverbially fall asleep at the wheel.
During this election, many have argued that we have already fallen asleep. The wheel is turning and we’re nodding off. “The car is veering off the road,” they say with a fearful look in their eye and a quivering voice. The internet has risen to its apex and brought facts and knowledge to their knees in many respects.
Frightening as this idea may be, I believe the vast majority of our country live in an awakened state. Although the internet gives a megaphone to bullshitters and liars, it also gives a much larger megaphone (a mega-megaphone?) to truth-tellers and questioners. You can see it in the activity this election cycle. We know the stakes.
To push the sleep metaphor further, some of our populace are dozing off, groggy, and perhaps even on the verge of a nightmare, but most are awake. It’s our job to ensure they stay awake.
Today, America’s 2016 Election Day, I hope I will be proven correct; I hope we don’t knock over any mailboxes on our soporific drive into the next four years.