John Whitehead's Commentary
A Crisis in the Making: Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
We are approaching critical mass, the point at which all hell breaks loose.
The government is pushing us ever closer to a constitutional crisis.
What makes the outlook so much bleaker is the utter ignorance of the American people—and those who represent them—about their freedoms, history, and how the government is supposed to operate.
As Morris Berman points out in his book Dark Ages America, “70 percent of American adults cannot name their senators or congressmen; more than half don't know the actual number of senators, and nearly a quarter cannot name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Sixty-three percent cannot name the three branches of government. Other studies reveal that uninformed or undecided voters often vote for the candidate whose name and packaging (e.g., logo) are the most powerful; color is apparently a major factor in their decision.”
More than government corruption and ineptitude, police brutality, terrorism, gun violence, drugs, illegal immigration or any other so-called “danger” that threatens our nation, civic illiteracy may be what finally pushes us over the edge.
As Thomas Jefferson warned, no nation can be both ignorant and free.
Unfortunately, the American people have existed in a technology-laden, entertainment-fueled, perpetual state of cluelessness for so long that civic illiteracy has become the new normal for the citizenry.
It’s telling that Americans were more able to identify Michael Jackson as the composer of a number of songs than to know that the Bill of Rights was the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
In fact, most immigrants who aspire to become citizens know more about national civics than native-born Americans. Surveys indicate that half of native-born Americans couldn’t correctly answer 70% of the civics questions on the U.S. Citizenship test.
Not even the government bureaucrats who are supposed to represent us know much about civics, American history and geography, or the Constitution although they take an oath to uphold, support and defend the Constitution against “enemies foreign and domestic.”
For instance, a couple attempting to get a marriage license was recently forced to prove to a government official that New Mexico is, in fact, one of the 50 states and not a foreign country.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Here’s a classic example of how surreal the landscape has become.
Just in time for Bill of Rights Day on December 15, President Trump issued a proclamation affirming the importance of the Bill of Rights in guarding against government abuses of power.
“The Founding Fathers understood the real threat government can pose to the rights of the people… That is why those first 10 Amendments to the Constitution, among others, protected the right to speak freely, the right to freely worship, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to due process of law. As a part of the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, the Bill of Rights has protected our rights effectively against the abuse of government power for 227 years… Since there will always be a temptation for government to abuse its power, we reaffirm our commitment to defend the Bill of Rights and uphold the Constitution.”
Don’t believe it for a second.
The government doesn’t want its abuses checked and it certainly doesn’t want its powers restricted.
For that matter, this is not a president who holds the Constitution in high esteem.
After all, Trump routinely rails against the rights enshrined in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, decrying the free speech rights of protesters, denouncing the media (which enjoys freedom of the press) as the enemy of the people, supporting government efforts to seize private property through asset forfeiture and eminent domain, refusing to denounce the use of internment camps to detain American citizens, sneering at due process, and encouraging police officers to use excessive force against suspects.
As law professor Garrett Epps notes:
“Donald Trump ran on a platform of relentless, thoroughgoing rejection of the Constitution itself, and its underlying principle of democratic self-government and individual rights. True, he never endorsed quartering of troops in private homes in time of peace, but aside from that there is hardly a provision of the Bill of Rights or later amendments he did not explicitly promise to override, from First Amendment freedom of the press and of religion to Fourth Amendment freedom from ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’ to Sixth Amendment right to counsel to Fourteenth Amendment birthright citizenship and Equal Protection and Fifteenth Amendment voting rights.”
To be fair, it’s not all Trump’s fault.
Indeed, we wouldn’t be in this sorry state if it weren’t for Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush and the damage their administrations inflicted on the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, which historically served as the bulwark from government abuse.
In the so-called named of national security, since 9/11, the Constitution has been steadily chipped away at, undermined, eroded, whittled down, and generally discarded to such an extent that what we are left with is but a shadow of the robust document adopted more than two centuries ago.
The Bill of Rights—462 words that represent the most potent and powerful rights ever guaranteed to a group of people officially—became part of the U.S. Constitution on December 15, 1791, because early Americans such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson understood the need to guard against the government’s inclination to abuse its power.
Yet the reality we must come to terms with is that in the America we live in today, the government does whatever it wants.
Make no mistake: if our individual freedoms have been restricted, it is only so that the government’s powers could be expanded at our expense.
The USA Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, drove a stake through the heart of the Bill of Rights, violating at least six of the ten original amendments—the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments—and possibly the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well. The Patriot Act also redefined terrorism so broadly that many non-terrorist political activities such as protest marches, demonstrations and civil disobedience were considered potential terrorist acts, thereby rendering anyone desiring to engage in protected First Amendment expressive activities as suspects of the surveillance state.
Since 9/11, we’ve been spied on by surveillance cameras, eavesdropped on by government agents, had our belongings searched, our phones tapped, our mail opened, our email monitored, our opinions questioned, our purchases scrutinized (under the USA Patriot Act, banks are required to analyze your transactions for any patterns that raise suspicion and to see if you are connected to any objectionable people), and our activities watched.
We’ve also been subjected to invasive patdowns and whole-body scans of our persons and seizures of our electronic devices in the nation’s airports and at border crossings. We can’t even purchase certain cold medicine at the pharmacy anymore without it being reported to the government and our names being placed on a watch list.
Government surveillance, militarized police, SWAT team raids, asset forfeiture, eminent domain, overcriminalization, armed surveillance drones, whole body scanners, stop and frisk searches (all sanctioned by Congress, the White House, the courts and the like), etc.: these are merely the weapons of the police state.
The power of the police state is dependent on a populace that meekly obeys without question.
Remember: when it comes to the staggering loss of civil liberties, the Constitution hasn’t changed. Rather, it is the American people who have changed.
Those who gave us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights believed that the government exists at the behest of its citizens. The government’s purpose is to protect, defend and even enhance our freedoms, not violate them.
It was no idle happenstance that the Constitution opens with these three powerful words: “We the people.” Those who founded this country knew quite well that every citizen must remain vigilant or freedom would be lost. As Thomas Paine recognized, “It is the responsibility of the patriot to protect his country from its government.”
You have no rights unless you exercise them.
Still, you can’t exercise your rights unless you know what those rights are.
“If Americans do not understand the Constitution and the institutions and processes through which we are governed, we cannot rationally evaluate important legislation and the efforts of our elected officials, nor can we preserve the national unity necessary to meaningfully confront the multiple problems we face today,” warns the Brennan Center in its Civic Literacy Report Card. “Rather, every act of government will be measured only by its individual value or cost, without concern for its larger impact. More and more we will ‘want what we want, and [will be] convinced that the system that is stopping us is wrong, flawed, broken or outmoded.’”
Education precedes action.
As the Brennan Center concludes “America, unlike most of the world’s nations, is not a country defined by blood or belief. America is an idea, or a set of ideas, about freedom and opportunity. It is these ideas that bind us together as Americans and have kept us free, strong, and prosperous. But these ideas do not perpetuate themselves. They must be taught and learned anew with each generation.”
There is a movement underway to require that all public-school students pass the civics portion of the U.S. naturalization test—100 basic facts about U.S. history and civics—before receiving their high-school diploma, and that’s a start.
Mind you, it’s only the first of many steps.
If there is to be any hope for restoring our freedoms and reclaiming our runaway government, we will have to start by breathing life into those three powerful words that set the tone for everything that follows in the Constitution: “we the people.”
People get the government they deserve.
As David Fouse writes for National Review, “A government by the people, for the people, and of the people is only as wise, as just, and as free as the people themselves.”
It’s up to us.
We have the power to make and break the government.
We the American people—the citizenry—are the arbiters and ultimate guardians of America’s welfare, defense, liberty, laws and prosperity.
It’s time to stop waiting patiently for change to happen. Do more than grouse and complain.
We must act—and act responsibly.
Get outraged, get off your duff and get out of your house, get in the streets, get in people’s faces, get down to your local city council, get over to your local school board, get your thoughts down on paper, get your objections plastered on protest signs, get your neighbors, friends and family to join their voices to yours, get your representatives to pay attention to your grievances, get your kids to know their rights, get your local police to march in lockstep with the Constitution, get your media to act as watchdogs for the people and not lapdogs for the corporate state, get your act together, and get your house in order.
In other words, get moving.
A healthy, representative government is hard work. It takes a citizenry that is informed about the issues, educated about how the government operates, and willing to make the sacrifices necessary to stay involved, whether that means forgoing Monday night football in order to attend a city council meeting or risking arrest by picketing in front of a politician’s office.
Don’t wait for things to get as bad as they are in France, where civil unrest over a government proposal to raise taxes on gas has turned into violent clashes between protesters and the police.
Whatever you do, please don’t hinge your freedoms on politics.
No election will ever truly alleviate the suffering of the American people.
No matter which party controls Congress or the White House, the government as we have come to know it—corrupt, bloated and controlled by big-money corporations, lobbyists and special interest groups—remains largely unchanged. And “we the people”—overtaxed, overpoliced, overburdened by big government, underrepresented by those who should speak for us and blissfully ignorant of the prison walls closing in on us—continue to trudge along a path of misery.
Remember what Noam Chomsky had to say about politics? “It is important to bear in mind that political campaigns are designed by the same people who sell toothpaste and cars.”
In other words, as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we’re being sold a carefully crafted product by a monied elite who are masters in the art of making the public believe that they need exactly what is being sold to them, whether it’s the latest high-tech gadget, the hottest toy, or the most charismatic politician.
It’s just another Blue Pill, a manufactured reality conjured up by the matrix in order to keep the populace compliant and convinced that their vote counts and that they still have some influence over the political process.
Don’t buy any of it.
The Constitution is neutral when it comes to politics. What the Constitution is not neutral about, however, is the government’s duty to safeguard the rights of the citizenry.
“We the people” also have a duty that goes far beyond the act of voting: it’s our job to keep freedom alive using every nonviolent means available to us.
As Martin Luther King Jr. recognized in a speech delivered on December 5, 1955, just four days after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery city bus: “Democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.”
Know your rights. Exercise your rights. Defend your rights. If not, you will lose them.