It’s Time to Re-Declare Independence – Politically, Economically, and Spiritually

Richard Eskow

This year the message has gone out to the young, the disaffected, and the idealistic: Don’t hope for too much. “Don’t compare us to the Almighty,” says the politician, “compare us to the alternative.” Ironically, this comes from the same people who told us four years ago: Yes, we can. Thanks to the rhetoric of hope, our President and his party saw their most improbable dreams come true.

When do we get our turn?

This is Independence Day. It’s a day to renew our most ambitious hopes and ideals. It’s a day to, in the words or Bob Marley, “emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.” What did you say? Bold dreams aren’t practical?Tell that to the Founding Fathers. Or the Suffragettes. Tell it to Gandhi or King or Mandela.

The fight for independence didn’t end in 1776 or the years that followed. We still fight it it every day. It’s a political and economic fight. And yes, it’s spiritual too – not necessarily in a supernatural sense, but in the sense that the spiritual is that which is good and beautiful and yet intangible. The spiritual world reaffirms our belief in those things which can’t be seen or measured, but which make us who we are – or would become.

Politics used to be the art of coming together to seek the highest in ourselves, both as individuals and as societies. The 2008 election was a choice between pursuing our best selves or succumbing to cynical self-centeredness. I remain immensely proud of our nation for voting as it did. We voted, not just for a politician or a party, but for our own higher selves.

Yet once again we’re being told that the best we can expect is that which the banks and other corporations are willing to tolerate. We’re being told that the art of the “liberal” is the art of begging more effectively, of obtaining more crumbs from a powerful person’s table than others are willing or able to do.

That’s not freedom. It’s submission.

On my school notebooks
On my desk and on the trees
On the sands of snow
I write your name

- – Liberty, Paul Eluard

Teachers are being laid off by the hundreds of thousands while phony preachers of education “reform” stigmatize the struggling few who remain. The problem isn’t our inability to fire teachers. It’s our inability to hire them. It’s our ability to keep them by paying a decent wage.

When they savage our education budgets, from elementary school through college and postgraduate studies, they throw all but the most privileged children onto the trash heap.

The Texas Republican Party just declared that “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills … critical thinking skills and similar programs … which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

They’ve never heard of Plutarch, who said that “A mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled.” But then, they and their sponsors don’t want fires. They want vessels, containers for the delivery of goods and services to Corporate America. And vessels soon become vassals.

An education is a child’s passport to economic and mental independence. It’s every child’s birthright. It’s worth fighting for.

On the pages I have read
On all the white pages
Stone, blood, paper or ash
I write your name

Even a liberal corporatist like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg thinks nothing of trashing an entire library, in violation of police procedures and common decency, when citizens have the audacity to challenge the entrenched order.

That’s nothing new: From Alexandria to Zuccotti park, they’ve been destroying books for 2,500 years. But if this loss of liberty is as old a story as history itself, so is the fight to recapture it. We’ve won it against seemingly unbeatable odds many times before.

“The harder the conflict,” said Thomas Paine, “the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Reading is the primary vehicle of human knowledge. “Enlighten the people generally,” said Jefferson, “and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day.”

On the images of gold
On the weapons of the warriors
On the crown of the king
I write your name

It’s sad to see so many of justice’s voices fall silent when the Commander in Chief has a “D” next to his party affiliation. Flying robots are indiscriminately murdering civilians around the globe (we interviewed Pakistan’s Minister of Human Rights about it), and our President reserves the right to kill foreign civilians and American citizens without a trial or a declaration of war.

His opponents go even further, condemning a billion Muslims as incarnations of evil and enemies to be destroyed. Those who accept this agenda of hate forget the words of Andre Gide: “There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.”

There certainly aren’t a billion of them.

When our nation kills lawlessly it leaves each of us with a moral stain. The independent conscience calls on us to condemn the wrongs done by our political allies as much as – more than – those of our opponents. You can’t outsource your conscience – not to a politician, however charismatic, and not to a party.

“When men yield up the privilege of thinking,” said Paine, “the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.”

On all my scarves of blue
On the moist sunlit swamps
On the living lake of moonlight
I write your name

As the world begins to smolder from climate change, as the seas rise and we see foreshadowings of the great migrations and epidemics to come, we’re doing virtually … nothing.

On the fields, on the horizon
On the birds’ wings
And on the mill of shadows
I write your name

The US Chamber of Commerce, the Koch Brothers, and other corporate masters are fighting for the right to pollute, stain, and destroy. They pervert and subvert democracy to push their quarterly bottom line, embodying the words of the poet Robinson Jeffers: “The human race is bound to defile whatever they can reach or name … they’d sh*t on the morning star if they could reach (it).”

Have we laid ourselves on the line to defend democracy from them, or have we surrendered to the “art of the possible” – where they decide what’s possible? “Let them call me a rebel and welcome,” said Thomas Paine. “I feel no concern from it. But I should suffer the misery of devils were I to make a whore of my soul.”

On the flickering figures
On the bells of colors
On the natural truth
I write your name

But if we have a tendency to defile, to sell that which isn’t ours to sell, we’re also the race of whom Paine wrote, ““We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

We’ve restarted the world before, and we can do it again. But the corporate right-wing movement is dedicated to the greatest act of political vandalism in our history: the destruction of our government institutions. We’ll lose our power to reshape the world if we over-indulge a political proclivity for compromising too easily with vandals.

“Moderation in temper is always a virtue,” said Paine, “but moderation in principle is always a vice.” It takes independence of thought to know one from the other.

On the high paths
On the mass-traveled routes
On the crowd-thronged square
I write your name

The squares and streets are crowded with cynics and conformists who have surrendered to corporate forces, but Jefferson never did. He wanted to “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” Jefferson said that “banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.”

Where are the prosecutions, Mr. President?

Anatole France wrote that “The poor have to labour in the face of the majestic equality of the law, which forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” But it’s not even clear that the rich are as forbidden as the poor to commit fraud, perjury, and forgery. We must demand better from our leaders.

Be forewarned: Our leaders probably won’t thank us for it. Independent thought isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a long road, a rough road.

A lonely road.

On the lamp which is lit
On the lamp which isn’t
On my reunited thoughts
I write your name

Some voices are heard. Some are not. Millions heard Thomas Paine, and the world was transformed:

“Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.”

Do we have the tenacity, the vision, the courage to do what Paine’s generation did? Eric Schneiderman talks about “transformative” versus “transactional” politics. Will we reach beyond the bookkeeper’s vision of politics and reclaim our political soul? Will we transform the world as Paine’s generation did?

Here’s a warning to liberals who want us to lower our sights: If you don’t inspire, your supporters won’t aspire. They’ll give up. That means they’ll stay home in November.

Lately I’ve talked to a lot of Democratic politicians and activists who are angry at their disaffected base for not remaining active and excited in the face of disappointments and reversals. They want to scold their own base for this justifiable disappointment, to say “suck it up and start canvassing those precincts again anyway.” They’d do well to remember the words of Antione de Saint-Exupery:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t … assign people tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

On the harmony of the flesh
On the faces of my friends
On each outstretched hand
I write your name

And to our leaders: Emancipate yourselves from the temptation to settle too quickly for the possible, which is another way of saying “the convenient.” Put up a fight before you do. Make a resolution not to use that quote about “the perfect being the enemy of the good” for at least a month and see what happens.

The perfect may get in the way sometimes, but “the good” has an much deadlier enemy: the mediocre.

Today’s politicians love to reminisce about the after-hours dealmaking sessions between liberal House Speaker Tip O’Neill and Republican President Ronald Reagan. But both of them stayed true to their values. There’s a time to compromise – but not until you’ve fought for your principles with all your might, both in public and in private, and won everything you could possibly win along the way.

What are those principles? Paine again:

“When it shall be said in any country in the world my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of its happiness: When these things can be said, there may that country boast its Constitution and its Government.”

That’s a pretty good platform, don’t you think?

On my ravaged refuges
On my fallen lighthouses
On the walls of my boredom
I write your name

Enslavement is the use of political, physical, or economic force to prevent human beings from making their own choices and fulfilling their highest potential. It will exist until we find the spiritual strength to resist the political and economic forces that perpetuate it.

George III is gone. But there are other tyrants, and it’s time to re-declare independence from them: from the cynical cheaters on Wall Street and the politicians in both parties who serve them; from the austerity advocates who would have the many pay the price for the greed of the few; from the mind-numbing consumerism that keeps us economically and emotionally enslaved; from sexual stereotypes and repression, from the racism and bigotry which divide us and make us easier to conquer.

By all means vote against the rapacious right, which would destroy what the Founders and their successors have built up over centuries. Get others to do the same. But your work doesn’t end with the the pull of a lever in a voting booth. Itbegins there.

They work for us, not the other way around. That means it’s our job to supervise their work. No elected official can relieve us of our moral and spiritual responsibilities as citizens.

On health that’s regained
On danger that’s past
On hope without memories
I write your name

There are still unrealized freedoms to pursue: freedom to choose our leaders without the corruption of campaign cash. Freedom of movement, of speech, of thought. Freedom to worship, and to refrain from worship. Freedom to engage in fair, equitable, enforceable and open contracts. Freedom to grow old without fear or deprivation.

It sounds impossible. I know. But isn’t our most fundamental freedom the freedom to dream? Every new idea, every new discovery, every new freedom is born nameless and powerless and unseen – until we give it power by seeing it, by naming it, by making it a reality. And that happens first in dreams.

That’s how our country was born – in dreams. That’s how it will be reborn into a brighter future, if we hold fast. They say idealism isn’t practical. Actually, it’s the most practical political force in the world. The idealistic dream of freedom and independence has transformed the entire globe. It changes lives. It changes hearts. It changes …. everything.

There’s a dream dreaming us, say the native people of Australia. It’s our duty to dream it again, to reclaim it as our political, economic, and spiritual birthright. There’s a name for that dream, and it’s a name worth remembering.

And for the want of a word
I renew my life
For I was born to know you
To name you

Liberty.

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