Monday, November 07, 2005

Liberty by Cudgel

Democracy is in itself—in its institutions, its pluralist traditions, its humanist assumptions—the embodiment of the Enlightenment. It doesn’t depend on one man. Its parts are greater than any single leader, than any single personality can be or has the right to be. Lincoln may be the exception because it took his presidency to prevent those institutions’ dissolution. It took a giant. We’re grateful it was that giant. Another would have wrecked them just as easily. We do not believe in cults of personality because we don’t need them. Our institutions are too strong, and require our leaders to be too humble, to tolerate cults of personality, to tolerate the sort of leadership that begins to consider itself above the law or worse, the sort of leadership that begins to ape the language of divine right. We need leaders whose greatness derives from their ability to reinforce and expand on those institutions, on their ability to bulk up the Bill on Rights and the Constitution, not on their political skill to make themselves great at the expense of our rights and our Constitution, and through the cheapening of the language of freedom and liberty.

Remember the President’s second Inaugural address in January. He mentioned the words freedom or liberty or their derivatives no less than fifty times in that 20-minute address. I played a little game the other day. I counted the number of presidents and inauguration addresses it took from George Washington’s time on to add up to 50 uses of the two words. It took six president and ten addresses, and those included two by Washington, one by John Adams, two each by Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, and one by John Quincy Adams. Those were the founders of liberty, and they didn’t find it so necessary to preach it so loudly as our latter day saint and preacher of liberty. He doth protest too much. What we’re seeing here is not a call back to our Enlightenment ideals, but the transformation of freedom from an ideal into a dogma, of America from an example into condition, even a cudgel. Two things as different as the Roman Republic in its best days, and the Roman Empire as the Ceasars brandished it.