Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Pittsburgh Tea Party and the Meaning of Liberty

I attended a protest today in a small green space called Allegheny Landing, near PNC Park. It was reasonably well attended. A lot of parents brought their children, which was nice to see. A cute activist tried to give me a copy of Arron Russo's "From Freedom to Fascism," but I declined as I've already watched most of it. I was wearing my "Students for Ron Paul" shirt. An older gentleman mentioned as we were standing in line to sign a petition that he liked most of what Ron Paul says, except about the war. He left before I got a chance to start a conversation. The funniest moment was probably when a group of women carrying signs which labelled them as "feminist democrats against Obama" yelled "or she" after one speaker's speech used only the masculine pronoun when referring to potential liberty-minded politicians. They were vindicated when one of the next speakers was a woman running against Arlen Specter (BOOOOOOOO) in the upcoming Republican primary elections. Senator Specter is considered especially vulnerable this year, since many center-leaning republicans re-registered Democrat during the Presidential primaries.

The tone was one of a conservatism which knows no party. Pelosi and Obama were mentioned in the same class as Specter and Bush.

The keynote speaker was Alan Keyes. I am not very familiar with Dr. Keyes, but it seems he's a pretty good orator. He spoke with passion, and in a manner that reflected an excellent education. He didn't speak to the lowest common denominator, and for that, he has my admiration.


Dr. Keyes dredged up an issue that's always bothered me. You see, Alan Keyes really likes Jesus. Like, a lot. It seems to me, however, that the link between religion and freedom is...I was going to say "tenuous," but I'm going to go with "totally fictional." Many people believe that we get our rights from God, and that's fine. I happen to think they are a consequence of reason, but if you're a creationist, that very reason comes from God, so we basically agree. I've always thought a nice compromise is to say that our rights come from nature.

I don't really want to get into terminology, though, when there's a deeper issue at stake. The freedom movement quite simply cannot succeed without some serious coalition building. We need to join together big- and small-"L" libertarians, Constitution Party membership, John Birchers, ACLU members, advocates of drug decriminalization, NRA members, and Ron Paul Republicans, to name a few.

It irks me, then, when people undermine this process by doing things like bringing up highly divisive issues--usually it's abortion, but there are others--in a context where that's likely to alienate a large portion of the audience. And it really rubs me the wrong way when people decide to dismiss entirely all of the potential allies to the cause who happen to be agnostic or atheist.

Dr. Keyes spoke of an assault on Christianity. Quite frankly, the claim that Christianity is in some kind of peril strikes me as laughable. In this country, the electorate has proven willing to elect to high office a person with just about any kind of minority status (although I want to be clear that I reject "identity politics" absolutely), but is still clearly terrified of letting an atheist anywhere near the halls of power. An atheist or agnostic running for office is expected to be apologetic about their spiritual beliefs, and offer guarantees that he or she will respect the rights of the nation's religious. Openly religious politicians usually only issue platitudes about including everyone, and very often say that our society has become too secular, as if the relative religiosity of society was somehow the business of a politician. Which brings me to the point which I alluded to earlier: religion has very little to do with freedom.

Some of the most repressive governments on the face of the earth are theocracies. Christian politicians in America seem to completely miss this, somehow. When other countries have theocracy, we say it's "Islamo-fascism." When Alan Keyes and others like him call for a return to Christan values in government, it's "returning to the values that made America great." Neither the prevalence of Christianity in particular nor that of religion in general is a prerequisite for the existence of a free state.

Dr. Keyes made some veiled attacks on homosexuality. Liberty is meaningless without limits, he said. It is not, as some would have it, the license to satisfy whatever urges we may have. Liberty doesn't mean we tear down the fundamental institutions of our civilization. Cough, traditional marriage, cough. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The essence of liberty is the ability to pursue activities which society may deem distasteful, so long as those activities do not interfere with the rights of others. The essence of liberty is the freedom to fail, as well as to succeed. Indeed, you may fail by someone else's standards and succeed by your own.

Liberty is, as Dr. Keyes said, defined by boundaries. But those boundaries are human rights--wherever it is that human rights come from--not the moral approval of some religious organization or the whims of some government bureaucrat.

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