Saturday, September 12, 2009

Barry Shain on the Founding's Conception of Liberty

(Many thanks to regular commenter and longtime friend-of-the-blog Phil Johnson [Pinky] for his contributions from historian Barry Shain's The Myth of American Individualism. Click to google-preview it for yourself, and props to Pinky for typing out key passages.)

The first thing one needs to know about Barry Alan Shain's The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought is what he means by "Protestant." He does NOT mean Pat Robertson.

So let's cool our jets and hear him out.

What Shain does mean is that American Christians in the Founding era [90+% of the population] were almost all Protestants. But what does that mean?

It means they largely rejected any and all central theological authority, be it the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, or any other establishment. If your pastor pissed you off, you either kicked him out or started a new church down the road. That's American Protestantism in a nutshell, and there were dozens of varieties of Protestantism that arose in the Founding era, and there are perhaps hundreds now.

Very Protestant, and very American.

A man [or woman] had the Bible, and they made of it what they would or could, and God help the clergyman who got in the way. If anything, the Founding generation and their ancestors fled Europe's clergy and their politics as much as they fled Europe itself.

No surprise, then, we ended up with the First Amendment, and that's largely what Dr. Shain means by "Protestant"---decidedly not Roman Catholic, but other Protestants too are kindly invited---keep your hands off my religious conscience!

Do you believe Jesus is God?
---I dunno. The Messiah, probably. You know, special.

That Jesus died for our sins?
---Mebbe. But mebbe he died for ALL men's sins. The Bible's a little unclear on whether there's definitely a Hell. My mother didn't believe in God much, but I'd still like to see her in heaven, y'know? Hate to think of Mom burning in Hell.

Is Christ present in the Eucharist?
---I have no idea. Tastes weird to me.

Is the Bible true?
---Sure. But people might have messed it up. People are people. And when it comes to interpreting the Bible, Rev. Smith is an idiot like Rev. Mayhew says---as if Romans 13 says I have to believe Charles II was some sort of saint, and now I have to obey King George III, who's a total bastard.

Look, the wife takes care of religion for the both of us, and I got a field to plow. Whatever. Just Don't Tread on Me, OK?


It went down sorta like that.

So with that necessary preface, what the hell is Barry Shain talking about? What was "liberty" as the Founding era saw it?

Page 277 of the book isn't available in the Google book preview. What were the odds? In the Founding days they used to call it Providence, that Brother Pinky took the time to type out the exact key graf for us:
"By the 19th century, at least some of the confusion surrounding the meaning of civil liberty had been resolved, as civil and political liberty were no longer readily confused. Noah Webster explained that 'political liberty is sometimes used as synonymous with civil liberty. But it more properly designates the liberty of a nation.'

Civil Liberty properly described 'the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty, so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interests of the society, state, or nation.' And regarding the two meanings of civil liberty that were distinct from political liberty, Webster continued in the middle of the 19th century to use the communal understanding of civil liberty.

This is evident because he defined civil liberty as the residue of the individual's natural liberty that remained after the society's needs were met as determined by the political community.

This is the traditional sense of the term. The more modern alternative held that civil liberty defined a set of individual privileges and exemptions (radicalized prescriptive liberties) from corporate intrusion--in effect, a private space into which the corporate body could not legitimately intrude."

...and that's difference between the Founding era and a lot of the talk in ours.

Perhaps 2009's understanding of "liberty" is better than the Founding era's, perhaps not. But there's a bigass difference. And until can we appreciate what the difference is, well...

Well, this blog is about learning how to tell the difference. The rest is up to each of us according to his or her own conscience, but first things first. You gotta know where you've been before you can tell if the grass might be greener somewheres else.

46 comments:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Politics ruling in the Church is what brought about the Reformation because of the abuse of power to individuals withint the body politic. And it was economic greed that drove the indulgence debate.

The same scenario plays out in the Church today. And this is why many are not interested in "playing that game".

As to civil liberty, modern Americans believe that we have the right to govern our own affairs. This means that there is no one determining our life. Providence is not deterministic in our scientific understanding today. There are parallel universes. And men have many potentialities. So, determination as to another's life is viewed as "immoral" in our "free society".

Some conclude that civil liberties undermine our communal spirit, because of its emphasis on individual rights. I don't believe so, because a sense of identity to our nation's good (common good) is a value that many hold, though unconsciously. 9-11 or any "attack upon America" brings out patriotism. For the most part, our citizens do believe in the miltary's 'ideals of service to thier nation. This is a sacrificial service that believes in the natural rights of man.

jimmiraybob said...

"...individual privileges and exemptions..."

Does Shain expand on what he means by this (sorry but I just don't have the time to take on the reading)? Specifically, what are the individual privileges and exemptions that are being sought? Does seeking individual privileges and exemptions exclude one from being attentive to the broader corporate interests?

Are Shay's Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion examples of seeking individual privileges and exemptions or subservience to the corporate interests?

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think one BIG problem is rhetoric v. reality. "All men are created equal" is a pretty powerfully broad statement. Shain interprets it as "All White Propertied Protestant Males," because he looks at what the Founders DID not necessarily the broad implications of what the FFs said.

One could play the same game with the meaning of terms like "rights of man."

Thinkers as diverse as James Wilson and Roger Sherman are on record at least using rhetoric that suggests such a concept should sweep with a very broad and general scope.

Pinky said...

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I think one BIG problem is rhetoric v. reality.

Could I restate that to be, I think one BIG problem is our rhetoric v. Revolutionary-era reality.?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Actually Pinky, I'd say no. Some of the rhetoric that the FFs used regarding "rights" were so broad, that it was, in a sense, inevitable that they would "grow" beyond their strict original meaning of White Propertied, Protestant Males being created by nature "free and equal."

The fact that the FFs began to think SERIOUSLY that the formula applied to blacks proves that the ideas were by their nature, destined to "grow."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Phil,

Let me give you some examples of quotes that support my assertion. In fact, I'll point you to a blog post I wrote (one of my first as I was guest blogging at Timothy Sandefur's site). And I do note that I wrote the post as a partisan libertarian. Should I reproduce it on the front page here at AC, it will be without the partisan commentary. Here is just one of the many quotes from that era on unenumerated rights that suggests, at least, in principle a very broad, individualistic understanding of "liberty."

Supreme Court Justice James Iredell: “Let any one make what collection or enumeration of rights as he pleases, I will immediately mention twenty or thirty more rights not contained in it.”

http://sandefur.blogspot.com/2004_03_07_archive.html

Pinky said...

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In no way do I think our rhetoric is the only problem.
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It is true that our understanding of rights has continued to change over the decades. Almost every one seems to admit to the idea that there is a great deal of confusion over what was meant by rights and liberty. But, we are beginning to wipe much of it away. I think you agree.
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I'm pretty much convinced that Barry Shain has a pretty good handle on most of the questions.
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I think every person who wants to have a good grasp on the Revolutionary and Founding eras owes it to their self to study what he has written; otherwise, it's difficult to see how we can truly understand history.
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He certainly is changing my view and I an thankful for it.

J said...

If your pastor pissed you off, you either kicked him out or started a new church down the road.

That's a rather optimistic view of Puritan America. In some areas--like the frontier--that may have been the case. In New England, when the puritans and calvinists ran things, if you pissed off the pastor and the Elect--or weren't a protestant--the Elect ran you and your people out of the village, and branded you a heretic. Down south, they tarred and feathered you (and T & F. was not only performed on runaway slaves). In some areas of Early America life was rather blissful and pastoral (like Virginia, probably), but that was not the case everywhere--. A few miles away from the farm, the frontier was chockful with natives, runaway slaves, rogues, criminals, etc.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Are you kidding? Even Jonathan Edwards got dumped by his congregation. Let's stick to facts.

J said...

I agree: where are your facts? I can provide plenty of facts of puritan hypocrisy and injustice (the Salem witch trials for one).

Or maybe the facts of calvinists seizing the natives' lands, for starters.

You tend to sentimentalize American history.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ugh. I'm not interested in this. Theological schisms were a way of life in colonial America.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

REvolutionaries are those that undermine civilizations, which our Founders did in the name of religious and political freedom.

But, the revolutionaries of today are radical Islamics that undermine our nation's values of liberty and justice for all.

These believe that God priviledges a religion. And they also believe that outsiders from this religion are not due respect, rights, or liberties. This is what makes radical Islam so dangerous.

J said...

That wasn't my point. My point concerned protestant injustice/hypocrisy etc., instead of the Pollyannaish view of WASP America. And there is plenty of evidence.

Most of the leading Founders had nothing but contempt for protestant orthodoxy; Jefferson made mention of the "insanities of Calvin". The people might have been protestant; the leaders, however, were attempting to control protestant enthusiasm and zealotry.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Your point is not remotely relevant to the post. I caught your act over at Feser's

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/09/sordid-topic-of-coyne.html

where you managed to get yourself banned from yet another blog for the same hijacking stunt you're pulling here.

The gentle readers are invited to check out the link to Feser's blog. What happened there is not going to happen here.

J said...

It's completely relevant: called dissent. You are agreeing with Shain's gloss that protestantism = good, proper, American, etc. That's not supported by the facts .

As far as Maestro Feser goes, anyone who ever valued one word of Jefferson should feel nothing but contempt for his neo-thomistic meets zionist schtick. Then TvD's on record as blessing Scalia and the LDS, so Jeffersonian concerns--ie Liberty, even for non-believers, or non-conservatives--don't trouble TvD too much.

I wasn't banned: merely pointing out his errors, until Feser's fellow sunday schoolers started to rat-pack, and then I responded in kind ( for one, Coyne, whatever one thinks of him, was right about Hume, who more or less dismissed the Design argument in DONR. Then I doubt you know DONR from dunkin donuts, TvD)

8 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bpabbott said...

J, I didn't notice Tom arguing for Feser's position. His point was your behavior.

I'm unfamiliar with Feser. He may be a good example of a Catholic, a bad example of a Catholic, or some where in between. However, regarding your behavior Feser is irrelevant.

Trying to divert attention for the subject of your behavior and onto the behavior of Feser is, I suspect, an example of what Tom referred to as "hijacking".

Regarding Tom's point, it's not clear to me that you are entirely off topic. However, the bull in a china shop approach is not constructive to civil discussion.

Do you hope to win favor among those with differing perspectives or to drive them further form your position?

Tom Van Dyke said...

You had your defense, out of courtesy. Done.

Shain is not making value judgments about Protestantism here. In fact, he's not talking about religion atall, but their view of society.

And that's the topic here.

In short, like Toqueville and Bastiat, the Founding era viewed society and government as [ideally] minimally overlapping, by no means the same thing.

Our modern view often believes government and society are synonymous.

The key sentence is from Webster:

'the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty, so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interests of the society, state, or nation.'

This has nothing to do with protestantism qua Protestantism, only the worldview of the times.

When Ms. VDM writes:

our citizens do believe in the military's 'ideals of service to their nation.

...this is not in evidence to me, but "nation" has more than one meaning.

If a "nation" is a society, then it seems Americans pitch in when needed.

If a "nation" is its government, and the ideal of service is to serve government, well, I just don't know about that.

bpabbott said...

"8" no one is going to be persuaded to your comment. Whomever you directed your comment toward ... he/she now looks better in comparison.

Brad Hart said...

J writes:

That wasn't my point. My point concerned protestant injustice/hypocrisy etc., instead of the Pollyannaish view of WASP America. And there is plenty of evidence.

I think you have a point, but this does not refute Tom's general argument. Sure there was plenty of hypocrisy to go around (on all sides). But the hypocrisy of the clergy doesn't eliminate the fact that American Protestantism had created (as TVD has put it before) a "Christian-y" atmosphere, which saturated the founding generation. Sure, some founders rejected the "hypocrisy" of the American clergy, but I don't think many of them rejected the "Christian-y" influences that were clearly at play.

By the way, 8, you are officially banned.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I smell a 'fish".
Is the J on Feser's blogsite the same J that wrote on AC? And who is 8? Are you not on blogger?

Conservative politics doesn't trascribe very well into liberal theological commitments. That is the problem.

But, when liberal poltics uses conservative theology then that "works".

The FF were of the second type.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I have no idea what you mean, Ms. VDM.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Conservative politics; individual liberty and individual responsibility

Liberal theology: social gospel or "The Church" is the instrument of "salvation", "salvation" is humanitarian aid (physical), social justice is the "moral good" or the "should" or duty of Kant...
Myth is useful for social formation, and social structures are the foundations of society.

Political liberalism; government is to provide for its people's needs, as we are a "social unit", 'moral responsibility is a social duty" not an individual choice

The liberal politician can use words such as "the Kingdom of God" or Charitable service and mean government mandated "duty"...which is in opposition to the FF intent, I believe.

But, the FF did understand that differences when ti came to religion would always divide and they sought to "use" relgion as a social control, providing the norms of society. That changed with the civil rights movement and centralization of government...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Angie, I don't see "control" in the Founding documents. Even the least religious like Jefferson highly valued Christian principles, and there are plenty of quotes that see the need for them in the new republic.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Social control is what social norms do. And social norms are 'held" by traditions. This is your distinction of society and government. Soceity being the social formation of individual withint social structures.

The FF did not want a revolution like the French Revolution, so they believed that maintaining a "class system" and allowing the religious to "do their thing" was neccessary for a "peaceful society". Peace and freedom went together.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If you're saying social norms are [or may be] necessary for social order, I agree.

"Control" is an unnecessarily pejorative word. A healthy society self-orders, which we agree was the Founding vision.

However, if government takes a role above society, that's where the word "control" seems far more appropriate.

Pinky said...

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The entire concept of government as it was presented is all about social order.
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As it is put, a Gvoernment Of, By and For the People.
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You don't have to hold a master's in sociology to understand the implications of the local community in America on the entire hierarchy of government in America.
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The question that gets begged is the one about personal responsibility by individuals.
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I know I have been accused of being anti-religionist here in the past and rightly so. So, it doesn't surprise anyone that I'm coming out again against religionism again. It is a serious problem not only here in America; but, across the entire world.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, but there's no disagreement here that if colonial America was united in one attitude, it was that whether it was clergy/church or the government dictating to society, it was tyranny.

Both are artificial means of control, not organic and self-ordering, as a healthy "society" is.

[This is the key component and only relevance of "Protestantism" in this particular discussion, the rejection of centralized authority.]

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Kant's categorical imperative, from what I understand, is like the Golden Rule as a "duty". Habit formation in doing what is morally good.

I don't think he would be that different from Ann Rand, except that we cannot know the thing in itself. Therefore, wouldn't a little relative definition of "good" be allowed?

Individuals do understand "good" in different ways, depending on their values. And wouldn't this be an appropriate way to "do social contract"?

Pinky said...

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Having been raised in a Fundamentalist Baptist church, I think I understand the procedures involved in the establishment of authority of the church.
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Baptists call them deacons; but, the Puritans called them elders.
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These men, the elders, pretty much ruled the roost in Colonial Americ. I'll bet money on that.
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Angie Van De Merwe said...

Tom,
I think many of us would approve of the military defening citizen's right to be free. This was the reason for the military, right?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Angie, I was saying that your military analogy breaks down. The citizen-soldier is only a soldier when the need arises.

And I'm not sure we're getting anywhere trying to blend Kant, Rand and relativism. That's a lotta ground, and not coincidentally, not one of those three was present at the Founding.

Pinky, I dunno. Surely there were powerful churchmen, but they seem to be missing in the Founding literature, and certainly among even the top 100 Founders.

And if Jonathan Edwards himself could be bounced by his congregation, well, we should explore that.

Pinky said...

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The idea that rights are attached to the individual seems to be most accepted; but, it is doubtful as to whether or not our Revolutionary and Founding Era American ancestors thought so.
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And, this is much more pervasive in our thinking today that we might think--at least on the surface.
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Rights are sort of like salvation in a certain sense. Are they attached to us as individuals or because we belong to a certain group?
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I think we're missing the boat if we don't delve deeply into this question.
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Pinky said...

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I have a hard time thinking we truly understand the mind set of the Colonial Americans as they were ushered into the nineteenth century by the Founding Fathers.
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Here is Shain again on page 284. He is talking about Nathaniel Whittaker's sermon, An Antidote Against Toryism. Here's the complete paragraph:
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"Whitaker then discussed the central determinant that shaped how civil liberty was to be interpreted. He described how the critical boundary between corporate needs and the individual's legitimate residual freedom was to be set. More to the point, in a fashion that most Americans approved of in both written statements and in lived testimony, he argued that it is the public rather than the individual that must determine how much personal liberty is to b surrendered by the sinful individual for the benefit of corporate needs. This is the smoking gun. He recounted that
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perfect civil Liberty differs from natural only in this, that in a natural state our actions, persons and possessions, are under the direction, judgment and control of none but ourselves; but in a civil state, under the directions of others ... In the first case, private judgment; in the second, the public judgment of the sense of the law of nature is to be the rule of conduct. When this is the case, civil Liberty is perfect, and every one enjoys all that freedom witch God designed for his rational creatures in a social sense. All Liberty beyond this is licentiousness, a liberty to sin, which is the worst of slavery.

He leaves no doubt that in society, it's the public's right to determine the inherently ambiguous outlines of civil liberty, not the right of individuals blessed by the assortment of inalienable natural rights yet to be discovered."

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--------End of quote --------
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We still struggle under these differences in our present day society. Think about the recent outburst by the S.Carolina rep when he called our president a liar.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

the public judgment of the sense of the law of nature is to be the rule of conduct

Hah. That should be enough to blow Ms. VDM's gourd.

This seems in accord with the sort of thing I've been saying all along about the Founding mindset, eh, Pinky?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I don't know why you would think this would disturb me. Of course, there is protocol for Congress in regards to the President. The President was speaking, when this Wilson spoke out. Not even in polite society do people interrupt or disrupt a conversation or speech. I am sorry that you think that I would agree with such an outburst.

But, it seems that freedom of speech is prohibited because of "so-called" prejuidice. This is absurd. Minority rights do not demand everyone to surrender their rights, when it comes to public interests. I have written elsewhere that it seems that people are bending over backwards to appease African Americans for what happened over 100 years ago. And fear motivates those who are intimidated by "hate speech" when information about tolerating radicalism. (Gert Wilders is being charged for such "hate speech") When does prohibiting 'hate speech" limit freedom of speech in regards to information about public interest, or harm? I understand this, Tom.

I believe that the social contract demands that people be informed forthrightly, when it concerns their interests. That is of concern, IF Wilson knew the President had information he was distorting. It was freedom of speech in an inappropriate context. That should be the issue. Congress should no be limited in disagreeing with the President, otherwise, we are headed to a dictatorship.

Pinky said...

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I certainly see Angie's points; but, still don't think things can be explained away so easily.
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The questions of free speech combined with the differences between civil and natural liberty beg for a more complete look at what is bearing down on us today.
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Wilson-the one from South Carolina--blurting out, "You Lie", is not a matter of Free Speech so much as it is a matter of his natural liberty vs the civil liberty of the group. And that is how Congress is playing it out with its rebuke of Wilson. It seems, by its actions, the congress is taking the 18th century ideas to heart.
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And, I think you might want to rethink your ideas about "appease African Americans" as well. Perhaps it is more a case that our Civil Liberties have been pushed aside in favor of the Natural Liberties of individuals? Maybe we we could be better served with some Founding-era conservatism?
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Thinking outside the box... me being such a progressive...
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Angie Van De Merwe said...

Pinky,
You are saying that one's natural rights are subservient to one's civil rights? And civil rights are only rights of a group? What about an individual's right in opposition to the group? Does that exist? Human rights are about natural rights, aren't they? I understand that natural rights can be taken to an extreme.

Don't our courts defend the individual in his natural rights or his civil rights in regards to his identification? The person has a right to be identified and defended because he is a part of a group. This is what AMerican citizenship is about, isn't it? The Bill of Rights is about our individual freedoms.

Pinky said...

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Hey, Angie!
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I'm no expert on the subject.
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But, it looks to me as though your questions are right on.
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James Hutson contributes to this book: http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/jsp/welcome.jsp?source=rss&isbn=0813926661
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I'm just reading his article, The Emergence of The Modern Concept of a Right In America. You might want to pick up a copy for your edification. It might blow your mind.
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Angie Van De Merwe said...

Isn't the issue of human rights (natural rights) one of international law? And isn't the controversy over where the lines should be drawn in regards to a citizen's priviledges, or protections, versus another's? Does human rights trump citizen rights? No. Otherwise, we do not have any boundary maintenance in regard to immigration policy, and discerning where international law supercedes our nation's interests. We, as a Nation must have that righs, as that right also justifies the citizen's right in our free society.

Pinky said...

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To repeat myself, I'm no expert on the subject.
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But, living in the wild is vastly different than living in society.
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And, we live in society--what we have is all as a result of our combined effort.
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I know that I am having my mind blown by the authors I'm reading. I could post quote after quote on the points you're raising. But, it seems obvious to me that my rights in society are given to me in exchange for rights I may have had in the wild. We can't have our cake and eat it too.
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Maybe society has a right to expect more civility from its individuals and minorities?/
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You think?
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Pinky said...

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I am learning that these questions are heavily considered by legal scholars.
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It's time we hear from some on them on your questions.
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Angie Van De Merwe said...

Pinky,
I agree. Some legal scholars would be nice to hear from...

I just heard today, as it is Constitution Day that we are giving up our liberties to international treaties that undermine our Constitution. How is this so?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, Ms. VDM, Brother Pinky has provided many quotes from historians and Founding-era thinkers to support his arguments, which aren't really arguments one way or the other, just calls to re-examine the evidence.

I was about to post a quote or two, but I realized Pinky already has, that he was our birddog.

Pinky is right on the knife-edge, researching the concept of "rights" as the Founding understood them, and what "rights" mean today.

Phil, that's where my own studies started. Not history so much as the history of ideas. How did we get from the the cavemen and the Greeks and Romans to now?

Well done, sir. Anyone can swim in a river. Only an explorer is brave enough to seek out its source.

Pinky said...

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My personal opinion regarding the loss of our liberties and the international scene has more to do with how we are being led by the most highly skilled politicians the world has ever known.
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So much of what we think we know (as a people) about our American society is built on mythology--some purposeful and some evolved out of legend and imagination.
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While we all know the story about young George Washington cutting down the cherry tree was made up to teach youngsters the value of being honest, there is much out there that is just plain b.s.. And, that is to our shame as responsible adults.
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Here's a point to consider. The dominating media all seem focused on the moment; Obama did this, Gingrich said that, Palin is flying to Texas, Pelosie owns a hundred million dollar vineyard, Iran is fixing to Nuke Israel, all sorts of right now issues. It reminds me of how the magician, when he starts his illusion, says, "The hand is quicker than the eye", which puts your focus on what he is doing on stage. Hey!! What is going on back stage?
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Magic is the oldest partner to political leadership. The ancient Egyptians practiced it and so it is today. These tricksters are out to keep us so confused that we never stop to question just exactly what it is they've got up their sleve.
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Think about it.
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A responsible media would be discussing the things we are uncovering here.
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Pinky said...

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"...just plain b.s."
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The myth of American individualism for example.
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