This Independence Day we will celebrate liberty, freedom, and democracy, even as our democracy threatens the ideals of freedom and liberty across the country.
It is perhaps fitting that on the eve of the United States’ Independence Day celebration Egypt hurtles towards an uncertain future. After ousting one dictator, protesters have once again urged the military to step in and remove a democratically-elected president from power. Americans, meanwhile – those who know what’s happening in the world – are having a hard time deciding whether this is a good thing or not. Former president Morsi and his supporters were, on the one hand, implementing Sharia law: a system of law most Americans loathe. On the other hand, we’ve just seen a military coup overthrow a democratic government that was fairly elected. How can we claim to love freedom if we cheer when military groups overthrow democracy?
The mental conflict highlights a naive belief, perhaps unique to those living in Western democracies, that democracy and freedom are the same thing. They are not, and are in many cases opposed to one another. This belief may have a long history, but it doubtless received a boost from 40’s-era propaganda that attempted to position freedom and democracy against oppression and fascism. In the U.S., we continue to perceive any country with a king or dictator as necessarily “less free” than a democracy.
It’s easy to see how we might confuse the two. “If we choose what the government does, how can we be oppressed?” To those who see no difference between democracy and freedom, consider recent NSA leaks from American hero Edward Snowden. A recent survey by Pew found that 56% of Americans approve of the NSA wiretapping and recording calls without a warrant. In addition, 45% of Americans believe the wiretapping program should be expanded to watch all online activity, going further than it already does. Supporters (as in this article) have used the majority opinion as a defense for what they’re doing: if the majority of Americans think this is a good thing, how can you complain?
I am in the minority, and I see my rights and freedom in jeopardy. I believe in honoring the fourth amendment and abolishing NSA programs spying on Americans without cause – not because we are breaking the law, but because we should have a right to privacy when we are not. How can I be oppressed if “I chose my government?” The individual is not the whole, and the whole is not an individual. True independence is personal, not national. We can be oppressed by a majority just as surely as we can be oppressed by a dictator.
For a perhaps less controversial and more obvious example, consider slavery. Slavery is obviously the opposite of freedom, but what if the majority voted for it? Does it make slavery and less wrong or evil? Could a country really claim to be a “free country” where the majority has approved enslaving a minority? Obviously not. Democracy and majority rule can and was at one time in this country directly and fundamentally opposed to liberty for all its people.
And yet we see this particular brand of ignorance played out over and over. In 2011 we saw widespread American and European support for the uprising against the dictator Mumbarak. We saw the people as oppressed because they lacked a democracy, and we couldn’t help but root for the people. So strong was the public support for populist uprisings that America assisted populist rebels in crushing Libyan forces. Mission complete, we left Egypt and Libya as “more free” countries – or did we?
Since the 2011 revolution, we have watched a much more democratic Egypt implement its own version Sharia law. The government – with majority support – has begun passing blasphemy laws, turning Muslim doctrine into law. One would think that the slow restriction of rights on minority Christians and non-Muslims in Egypt would be enough to teach America that freedom and democracy are not the same thing.
Even those whose philosophies I greatly admire often seem to mistakenly equate democracy and freedom:
Today, the values of democracy, open society, respect for human rights, and equality are becoming recognized all over the world as universal values. To my mind there is an intimate connection between democratic values and the fundamental values of human goodness. Where there is democracy there is a greater possibility for the citizens of the country to express their basic human qualities, and where these basic human qualities prevail, there is also a greater scope for strengthening democracy.
-The Dali Lama
It is no doubt true that those with power rarely oppress themselves, but even in the ideal democracy where the majority actually has the power people will only tend to be better off on average. Some will slip by unnoticed, some will be oppressed, and some will have their voices drowned out by overwhelming majorities. If people rarely oppress themselves, the most certain way to grant freedom is to give the individual as much power and freedom over his or her own life as possible. The desire to help people against their will, even when they do no harm to others, may one day prove fatal to numerous liberties and freedoms in this and other countries.
It would be foolish to suggest that the ideal system of government is a dictatorship – far from it. Dictators can oppress both majority and minority with enough power and force. The only way for a democracy to remain free is for its people to understand the awesome responsibility of protecting the individual rights of every group and person in the country. If that doesn’t seem likely to you, as it seems laughable to me, the solution is to regulate and control the individual only when he or she causes or is likely to cause unjust harm to another. Needless to say, we’ve gone far beyond this point with hundreds of different laws and policies.
Our founding fathers foresaw this potential conflict between individual rights and gave us a Bill of Rights to protect the rights of the individual from the whim of the majority. It hasn’t been shield enough, but it’s a barrier we cannot afford to lose. This Independence Day, let us celebrate our personal independence – our individual liberties. Let us Restore the Fourth Amendment, give thanks for the independence we do have, and continue taking back those freedoms that our government has failed to protect.