25 January 2017: First Amendment can save democracy

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering. / I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable; / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. – Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” Verse 52

The most frequent question I’ve gotten of late by frustrated citizens anxious about the rightwing regression at play across the nation: What can I do? I answer, “One concept; three words, a myriad of options: The First Amendment.”

The First Amendment. It’s one of our most eloquent, beautifully crafted, affirming statements that sets forth who we are as a people. Forty-five words that delineate more than rights. They imply responsibility.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The past election is prompting heretofore complacent, disengaged, or apathetic citizens to act. In turn, that might be the elixir that saves our democracy: A reinvigorated, reenergized citizenry. As 18th-century English essayist and poet Samuel Johnson said, “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.”

In columns before the election, I conjectured whether we have entered the last stage of our democracy. Andrew Sullivan of New York magazine, who had read Plato far better than I and found Plato’s diagnosis of a democracy’s end days disquieting, had presented that disturbing idea in a series of essays.

A quote in my May 18 column from Sullivan in which he references Plato bears repeating:

The tyrant “is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time. He makes his move by ‘taking over a particularly obedient mob’ and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. He rides a backlash to excess and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.”

Plato anticipated democracies eventually devolving, in James Madison’s words, into “spectacles of turbulence” and entering death spirals. One cause would be a citizenry, so distracted with entertainment—e.g., reality TV and football, our version of the Romans circus—or ever busy trying to survive economically, that devotes little time to public affairs. But with the noose tied for our democracy with a rope braided with voter repression, rights repression, and the corporatizing of our economy, millions of minds have become focused.

John Seigenthaler, a long-time newsman, founded the First Amendment Center at age 70. Upon his death at age 86 in 2014, FAC President Ken Paulson wrote about how in 1961 Seigenthaler, then a Justice Department aide, “was brutally attacked with a pipe by Ku Klux Klansmen as he rushed to protect Freedom Riders arriving in Montgomery, Ala. The Klansmen left John in the street to die.”

Seigenthaler didn’t die but went on to be a fierce advocate for the Civil Rights movement on a variety of fronts including as editor of The Tennessean in Nashville. Bobby Kennedy would later quip about how Seigenthaler “used his head” as he fought for civil liberties.

When Seigenthaler finally did retire, he left his admirers and supporters with this: “I only ask however you can, whenever you can, please stand up for what Ben Franklin called a precious gift, worth preserving and protecting.”

Our republic is on tenterhooks. But it will not die if citizens act boldly, without fear or reservation.

Whitman calls it his “barbaric yawp.” I like that. Barbarism conjures images of clamoring hordes refusing to be shut out. Yawps unnerve quivering, fearful ones who seek safety and security, look no further than themselves and their own, and blithely tootle through meaningless, humdrum lives.

When queried whether the founders had established a monarchy or republic, Ben Franklin ostensibly replied, “A republic if you can keep it.”

Spotted hawks by the millions shouted their barbaric yawps across the roofs of America this past weekend. It’s time to shout yours.

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