Number 422 March 10, 2009

This Week: On Freedom, Part Two

"Quote" of the Week
Digital Television: Help Your Neighbors
On Freedom, Part Two: Freedom and Social Class


This is a typical Nygaard Notes in one sense: Everything in this week's Part Two of the series on Freedom is a surprise to me. In fact, the series itself is a surprise to me, as I thought it was going to be a single, rather short, essay. I didn't expect to talk about the Constitution, nor about Rush Limbaugh, nor about anything else that you see this week. Or, for that matter, the things that will be in next week's Part Three.

The reason this is typical is that Nygaard Notes is not about "answers" or "solutions" to anything. Nygaard Notes is all about journeys of discovery, and each issue is a sort of travelogue where I talk about my journeys. Right now I am exploring the idea of Freedom. The reason is that I think the particular USAmerican understanding of Freedom is one of the ideas that shapes how we think about all sorts of things in this country. For example, by living in a democracy, do the people of the U.S. have the freedom to authorize their government to attack another country? Many think we do. What kind of "freedom" is this?

Questions like this led me to think that I should try to better understand what we mean when we talk about Freedom. And, the next thing you know, here is a series that looks like it's going to be long enough to be in three parts. Not only that, but I suspect you'll see this series in the Nygaard Notes book, which should be born—in some form—before too long here, with any luck.

Welcome to the new readers. I welcome any and all feedback!

In solidarity,



"Quote" of the Week:

This week's "Quote" is from the New York Times of January 16th, in an article headlined "Israel Lets Reporters See Devastated Gaza Site and Image of a This week's "Quote" is from a speech by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He was speaking on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution at the Annual Seminar of the San Francisco Patent and Trademark Law Association on May 6, 1987:

"I do not believe that the meaning of the [U.S.] Constitution was forever ‘fixed' at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite ‘The Constitution,' they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago."


Digital Television: Help Your Neighbors

I imagine that most of you are aware of the upcoming big change in the world of television, the switch to digital signals. If you're not aware of it, here's a couple of paragraphs from New America Media:

"While many Americans take their cable and satellite TV services for granted, millions of families still rely on rooftop antennas and rabbit ears to receive their television stations. On June 12th, when most television stations must broadcast digitally, those old over the air televisions sets will not pick up the stations many Americans rely on.

"Not surprising, low income families and communities of color will be impacted the most. The Nielsen Company, leaders in television viewer research, has completed a study with stunning results. Their report shows that 12.5% of African American households and 13% of Hispanic households are using analog televisions and are not ready for the digital transition. Moreover, households with annual incomes of less than $25,000 are five times more likely to be unprepared for the digital conversion than households earning over $75,000."

The Big Change coming up is probably a good thing in the long run. But in the short run it has a racial and class-based dimension, as with ‘most everything in this country. And this issue is not simply about the fear of missing the next episode of American Idol. Many people rely on their television sets for the latest on the weather, for a heads-up on emergencies, and news and information of all kinds. Also, for many people who live alone, or have mobility limitations, or income limitations, or who, for any number of reasons, have a hard time getting out and about, the television can be a real "window to the world."

Several groups are working to make sure that this switch doesn't create a new "digital divide," leaving some in our communities out in the cold. The government has made available free coupons to use toward the purchase of digital "converter boxes" that folks can use to allow their TV to receive the new signals (without having to buy a new TV, or subscribe to cable). That's a good idea, but there's not enough of these coupons, so "Over three million people are currently on a waiting list" to receive them, according to the excellent grassroots group The Main Street Project. Here's where YOU can help.

If you have an extra coupon (many people do) consider donating it to people who need them. The place to go is the "Donate DTV" website.

The Main Street Project says that "We know of tons of folks—particularly in communities of color and rural areas who are in need of DTV coupons. Take a minute and send us your extras--we'll make sure they get into the right hands."

For more information on this issue, Check out the official DTV government website. Or, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights project on DTV accessibility. Or check out New America Media.

Help your neighbors. Prevent a new digital divide from opening up.


On Freedom, Part Two: Freedom and Social Class

Last week, in Part One of this mini-series, I said that Freedom could be better understood if we introduced the idea of socioeconomic class into the discussion. That has to do with the U.S. Constitution, and the class of people who created it and who today revere it. Which leads me to Rush Limbaugh.

At the end of February was an event known as the CPAC, or Conservative Political Action Conference. Held in Washington, DC and attended by a veritable Who's Who of the Individualist and Competitive (Nygaard Notes term for "conservative") crowd, the event ended with Rush Limbaugh delivering an "impassioned address, drawing an immense ovation" from the crowd of 9,000. The speech was also broadcast live to a national audience who's(for the first time in the 36-year history of CPAC, I believe) by C-SPAN, CNN and Fox News. A big deal.

In his impassioned address Limbaugh asserted that "We love and revere our founding documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence." At that the crowd applauded, which is not too surprising, since his speech was interrupted over 60 times for applause, but it's worth noting the Pavlovian response to the word "revere." That word reveals a stark contrast between Limbaugh and the CPAC crowd, on the one hand, and Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose thoughts appear in this week's "Quote" of the Week, on the other.

Marshall saw the Constitution as a living document that derives meaning from our ongoing efforts to have it reflect our values. Meanwhile, Limbaugh and his followers "revere" the document. As Limbaugh has said on the air, "the Constitution is a gift of God" and "a document written by the greatest defenders of liberty the world has ever known." Statements like this are no doubt why Limbaugh was awarded the "Defender of the Constitution Award" at CPAC 2009.

Why do Limbaugh and the rest of the "conservatives" in the room revere this document, while Marshall—and many others—maintain a more complex relationship with this statement of our nation's basic principles? For part of the answer, let's think for a moment about the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

The Framers of the Constitution

The framers of the U.S. Constitution were almost entirely of the property-owning class, and were highly aware of the power that they possessed due to their wealth. One of their primary concerns, therefore, was the limiting of the ability of any power greater than themselves to restrict what they could do with their power. In his excellent book Toward an American Revolution: Exposing the Constitution and other Illusions, author Jerry Fresia put it this way:

"The vision of the Framers [was that the United States] would be a nation in which ambitious industrious (white Anglo-Saxon) men would be finally free from the Crown and from the Church to do with their property as they pleased and as their talents permitted. It would be a nation organized around private power where there would be freedom to acquire wealth and the function of the state and of its executive would be to protect these freedoms and opportunities, defined as natural rights."

The concerns of the framers are seen in the language of our Constitution, which reflects the strong fear of an oppressive government. The First, Second, Fourth, Fifteenth, 24th, and 26th Amendments all put limits on the power of the government. The First says that "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech" etc. The Second says that "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." The Fourth says that "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." And the others all say that the right to vote "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States" for any reason.

In the U.S. system, freedoms are understood to be best preserved by limiting the power of government to "abridge" or "infringe upon" or "violate" or "deny" the freedom of people to do whatever they want. Lots of that is great, like the freedom to vote, for example. But, because of the way it is worded, the Constitution also has been used to protect the freedom to charge whatever prices a company wants to, and the freedom to spend millions on advertising for political candidates, the freedom to own any type of gun, and so forth. That is, the government is only limited, and not charged with the affirmative responsibility to guarantee freedom from things like profiteering, propaganda, gun violence, and so forth.

What I'm saying here is that freedom is a complex and multi-faceted thing, not the simple and straightforward thing that some people revere.

A Short but Interesting Digression: Limbaugh Again

This idea—that freedom is a complex and multi-faceted thing—is not an original idea. Erich Fromm wrote about it in 1941 in his book "Fear of Freedom" (called "Escape from Freedom" in the U.S.) I talk about freedom from and freedom to, but another way to go is to talk about "positive liberties" and "negative liberties." It's not exactly the same idea, but it's worth noting how philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously defined "negative liberty:" He said it was non-interference, or a lack of coercion. Like in our Constitution.

The reason this is important to note is that this is almost certainly the definition that Barack Obama had in mind back in 2001 when the then-State Senator was interviewed on a Chicago public radio station. He put it this way: "...generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. It says what the states can't do to you, says what the federal government can't do to you. But it doesn't say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf."

If you do an Internet search for the words "negative liberties" and "Obama" you'll get about a half-million hits, and that's because there is a bit of a brouhaha at the moment, led by Rush Limbaugh, concerning this interview, which Limbaugh says shows Obama's "contempt" for the U.S. Constitution. Limbaugh's show of October 27th 2008 had a long segment on Obama's 2001 interview. You can read the transcript and judge for yourself whether or not Limbaugh deliberately twisted Obama's meaning or whether he just doesn't understand the concept of negative liberties.

OK, Where Were We...?

Oh, yes, I was saying that the U.S. Constitution is mostly about putting limits on the power of government to interfere with the behaviors of its citizens. What the Framers were concerned about, above all, was removing the ability of the government of the new nation to interfere with their freedom to exercise their power. This is certainly important, as many governments have shown themselves to be great threats to the freedom of their people.

While it may be good to limit the power of the government to oppress or interfere with the rights of its people, what about the ability of the government to use its power to act in the interests of its people? Do we also want to limit the power of the government to redistribute wealth in ways that may be different than the way the "Free Market" distributes wealth? Or (to use a very current example) the power of the government to force corporations and wealthy people to pay taxes that will be used to provide health care for everyone?

Some people clearly do want to limit the power of government to redistribute wealth, or to provide health care, or to provide to the less-powerful members of our society some freedom from the actions of the Free Market. In fact, the fear of any sort of "redistribution" of wealth is among the dangers most feared by Limbaugh and the CPAC crowd. These people "revere" the Constitution for the reasons that Fresia says the framers put it together the way they did: They want a nation "organized around private power where there would be freedom to acquire wealth and the function of the state and of its executive would be to protect these freedoms and opportunities."

Right now—the year 2009, time of anxiety, recession, depression, war—is a time of great opportunity, greater than I think many people understand. And it starts with the opportunity to change our consciousness, which is the theme of next week's concluding essay in this series on Freedom.