Most Americans have grown up knowing nothing but freedom, and naturally assume that the rest of the world would want to have the same type of freedoms that we all enjoy. It has long been my belief that when people are given an option, they would choose to rid themselves of tyrannical dictatorships and flourish under the same conditions that we now take for granted. Certainly the end of the Soviet Union gave us a chance to see this in action to some degree in Eastern Europe, so it was not totally unreasonable to hope for a similar outcome in the Middle East.
After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, President Bush put into place a plan to restore the physical infrastructure of the nation and to lay out the political infrastructure to support free democratic elections. The resulting government has been somewhat less than the one for which we had hoped. When the Egyptians overthrew President Mubarak in 2011, many expected that free elections in that country would lead to a better government and freedom for people who had long lived under an oppressive dictatorship, and many of those were surprised when the Egyptian people elected a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization, to lead the country.
The truth, as we are beginning to learn, is that free elections are not enough to guarantee freedom. It is a fact of human nature that left to our own devices we are quite capable of making bad decisions. It is not enough for someone to simply have choices, they must have the tools necessary to make good choices. Here in America we have a rich history of hard won freedom and people understand the idea of freedom so well that it is almost instinctive for us. We fail to realize however, that people in other countries and other cultures do not share the same history, and that not everyone in the world shares our understanding of the concept.
Nelson Mandela said “For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others". We have now seen that those who find themselves free without the requisite sense of responsibility that comes with being free often use their new-found freedom to exact revenge on their enemies rather than to concentrate on building a better life for their families and their fellow citizens. Instead of seizing the opportunity to better their society, they confuse power with freedom and give into their baser instincts to take upon themselves the role of oppressor.
When I was a child I was taught that I must answer to a higher power, and we learned about our founding fathers, the valiant effort they made to secure our freedom from England, and the provisions they made to protect those freedoms from those who would seek to take them. I learned to see these men as heroes and to have a profound respect for their sacrifices and their wisdom. Patriotism was presented to me as being a virtue, and American exceptionalism was something to take pride in. My parents taught me to be responsible for myself and my own actions, to help those in need, and to respect others. I learned early on that I had a future that was open to endless possibility, and that it would be up to me to make something of it.
Somewhere along the line, our society changed and the things we were taught went out of style. Once considered to be a servant of the people, government has become that higher power to which we must answer. Instead of teaching our children about the heroic actions of our founding fathers, we have begun to highlight instead their human flaws and failures and they are relegated to the status insignificant “old white men”. Rather than teach our children to be patriotic, we are teaching them to be 'good citizens of the global community', and American exceptionalism is treated as a worn out relic from the past. Independence and self-reliance are archaic notions that have been replaced with passive dependence and the 'rugged individualism' we used to find admirable has lost favor to obedient conformity.
We have now raised a couple of generations of Americans who no longer understand the concept of freedom that people of previous generations took for granted. These younger generations do not share the same sense of responsibility that we grew up with, nor do they see as much value in individual freedoms. As the older generations die off and the younger generations come of age, those of us who truly grasp the importance of these concepts are becoming outnumbered by those who would trade their freedom for security and popularity.
The events in Egypt have painted a vivid picture of wasted opportunity and squandered freedom, but we are on a course to squander our freedom on a scale that dwarfs anything the world has ever seen. John Adams said “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”. Generations of Americans have respected those principles and have done their best to preserve freedom for their progeny, but we have neglected to teach that respect to our kids.
The fault is ours, not theirs. To be fair, my grandparents didn't have to worry so much about the outside influences that come into our homes via television and now the internet. We have accepted these influences as benign entertainment and allowed pop culture to supplant the values we sought to pass on to our children. We were often warned of these influences, but those warnings were mostly ignored, and we now find ourselves living in a time when our politicians openly challenge our religious freedom, seek to limit our freedom of speech, publicly call for banning and confiscating our guns, and continue to serve in Congress after stating “I don't care about the Constitution”.
In recent days an op-ed in the New York Times written by constitutional scholar Michael Seidman advocates abandonment of our Constitution decrying our “obsession” with it, calling many provisions “archaic, idiosyncratic, and downright evil”. Views such as his are not normally espoused in such clear terms, but he is certainly not alone in this way of thinking. A fact that should not be overlooked is that he is a Professor of Law at Georgetown University, working in a position that shapes the minds and views of some of our brightest young people; those who will be among the future leaders of this country.