Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Federalist Paper 2: Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence

"Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government; and it is equally undeniable that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers."

It is important to remember that in these Federalist Papers the writers are setting forth arguments for their form of government -- one weighted towards federal (that is, national) power rather than distributed more heavily among individual states -- during the formation of the United States. So John Jay isn't debating the purpose of government here, but what system best achieves certain assumed goals.

In this paper he is laying the ground for his case that the physical security of Americans can best be achieved by a cohesive Union, a United States rather than several separate confederacies and commonwealths, as many favored at the time.

He's probably right, to a point. I'm no security expert. But I find the language of this letter intriguing, because it drums on the heart of a belief that underlies much of modern America's isolationism, pride, independence, and yes, racism, arrogance, and xenophobia.

"It has often given me pleasure to observe that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, wide-spreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty. ... A succession of navigable waters forms a kind of chain round its borders, as if to bind it together ... With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people -- a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs. ... This country and this people seem to have been made for each other." (Emphasis mine.)

Sidestepping the issues of slavery and what amounted to a policy of genocide toward Native Americans (since it's impossible to reach back through time, grasp 18th-century America by the throat and say, "You should know better"), the concept that the Christian God has somehow blessed both this country and this people is a refrain that recurs again and again throughout American history. Its tiresome voice harped again in the last three elections, coming largely from those of the Christian Right who believe that America is meant to be a beacon of godly light to the rest of the heathen world (talking to you, Europe!), a "shining city on the hill."

I would contend that it is this belief that has prompted American leaders to perform, and its citizens to condone, some of the most egregious and appalling acts in our recent history. When horrified and exasperated American voices asked again and again how the US government could sanction torture -- torture -- of any human being, there was one simple answer hidden among the manufactured legal gibberish: a quiet voice whispering that America is blessed, America is special, America must survive as a beacon, either of democracy or Christian values, for the rest of the world. America, in other words, must protect its physical security at the cost of all else: its liberty, its justice, its humanity.

John Jay and his contemporaries are not to blame for the evils of Dick Cheney and the rest of the Bush administration. But if modern Americans are to argue the case of justice and true liberty, we must learn to understand, and more importantly, to speak, the language of those who believe the US's actions are always justified, simply by our existence. We must go back to where it all started.

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