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Society and the Individual, Part Two: Personal Freedom in the Land of the Free

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Rights are the most precious thing that anybody can possibly have. They ensure liberty, which is the concept of personal freedom’s political arm. Without rights, one is essentially relegated to pawn status on a chessboard controlled by a select few. There can be no real self-respect or hope for the future; only a shrieking sense of fear.

Despite the utmost importance of rights, few can clearly define what they are. We all know that rights protect us from harm inflicted by others, but are rights intellectual concepts, starry-eyed ideals, divine ordinances or simply convenient social controls? History shows that rights have always been treated as flexible. Governments and religions alike have had no qualms in bending rights to suit their respective political or economic goals. As the times changed, so did the liberties afforded most people.

At the birth of the United States, our founding fathers drafted the Constitution specifically to provide an inflexible system of unparalleled personal autonomy. They viewed government as a means of controlling the threat of tyranny, not as an organ for regulating the professional and private lives of citizens. So long as one did not infringe on the liberties of a neighbor, no state intervention was needed. From this standpoint, personal rights followed as a given. Whether pertaining to one’s property, legal protections, or body, an unshakeable set of rights exists for all Americans.

This has produced a groundswell of human achievement. Members of persecuted ethnic groups in nineteenth century Europe were able to dock at the port of Savannah and build business empires which remain today. After the Civil War, Reconstruction brought full legal status to freed slaves who would go on to build universities that were and still are marvels of academia. Refugees from twentieth century wars came to America in search of a better life; now their children are public servants or officeholders. American individual liberty has allowed an untold number of the historically oppressed to take their lives into their own hands.

However, many sociologists and commentators wonder if individualism truly exists. Do people really make their own decisions, or are they consciously or subconsciously coaxed into doing things which they do not want to? In essence, are people society or is society people?

This is a very good question.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • http://loftypremise.blogspot.com/ Tommy Mack

    Our founding fathers drafted the Constitution specifically to provide an inflexible system of unparalleled personal autonomy.

    Come on, Joseph. Block that platitude. The founders had the Constitution written to replace the Articles of Confederation and establish home rule. It has been plenty flexible, just tough to modify, and allowed for such things as women’s suffrage, a federal income tax, and Social Security.

    As to the dock at the Port of Savannah, you must be referring to River Street which was always a great place to get drunk, get laid and get a tattoo.

    Tommy

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Joseph –

    To support what Tommy just said, the Founding Fathers replaced the Articles of Confederation because they saw that having such a broad emphasis on states’ rights doesn’t work – it resulted in a weak nation unable to band together to defend itself. Remember that at the time America really did have to worry about foreign invasion.

    It was the Founding Fathers who chose to have a strong federal government that held authority over pretty much all matters that concerned the nation as a whole. They did their best to strike a balance by including the Bill of Rights for individual citizens – and they did a pretty good job of it in the context of the times – but some of the positions they held (particularly Jefferson) would have been seen as socialist by today’s GOP.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/joseph-cotto/ Joseph Cotto

    Tommy,

    I never suggested that the Constitution was a begin all, end all for the founding fathers. It undeniably does, however, provide a base code of personal rights which supersedes state authority. These rights are, as the Constitution says, “inalienable”, though are open to modern interpretation through the judicial system. This is why I am reluctant to refer to any judge with a controversial ruling as an activist, because an objective document can be perceived in many ways. Me disagreeing with one of these does not negate its validity.

    As for River Street, I was referring to it and have been there on several occasions. Today, a trolley runs its entire length and the decaying warehouses of yesteryear have been turned into quaint shops and restaurants. A few tattoo parlors remain, though the seedy bars and easy women have moved above the bluff toward the eastern edge of town. I passed through this neighborhood while driving into the historic district, after getting off at the wrong exit no less, and it seemed like a particularly dangerous red light zone. Actually, it reminded me a great deal of Orlando’s Orange Blossom Trail, which is similar to San Francisco’s Tenderloin.

    Not my kind of ‘hoods, needless to say.

    Glenn,

    The Articles of Confederation were absolutely incompatible with a nation having any real power structure, and were thankfully done away with. I am no advocate of a bathtub-sized government, as you can probably tell from my articles, and believe that states should do whatever is best for their respective populaces. If this means having mandated healthcare, as with Massachusetts, or essentially legalized marijuana, as with California, then that is just the way it is. I am personally no fan of either, but barring the infringement of basic human rights, each state knows what is best for each state. Of course, the federal government is necessary for a national court, defense, and regulatory system capable of holding all states to those aforementioned rights outlined in the Constitution.

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