The American Pendulum

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The debate over the Bill of Rights was one of the most contentious of our Constitutional Convention. The proponents and their antagonists represented the two poles of human behavior: the need to be governed and the desire to be free of all restraint. In the end, the creative tension produced an ingenious, if imperfect, compromise consistent with the living spirit of the Constitution itself. A momentous event for us, yes, but just another battle in the on-going conflict between John Locke’s view that government is the true source of freedom, and John Jacques Rousseau’s exaltation of the natural state, where reason is uncorrupted by the compromises civilization requires.

At different times, one gains the ascendancy and then the other. The French Revolution started as a libertarian bloodbath and ended with a return to monarchy. Our own revolution pitted loyalists against rebels, as did the Civil War, and the contest continues down to this moment, making us what we are for better or worse. To whom the common good is to be entrusted is a question in which everyone feels they have a stake. Traditional group allegiances are shattering as we shift toward the exercise of individual identity.

Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg are heroes to some, traitors to others. Citizens now assert a right to recall judges with whom they personally disagree. California ballot propositions promote direct democracy. Social media provides an instant channel for expressing personal opinions with little or no regulation or accountability. Corporations fly whichever flag is convenient to them: creatures of the state on some issues, individuals on others. In a box office breaking musical featuring we, the people, the hero is an avowed elitist bent on curtailing immigration.

Back and forth the pendulum swings, in personal and public life, never resting for long in one spot. A good thing, too, because too much of anything is too much: we’ve seen what happens when either the establishment or the mob wields absolute power. The Greek fabulist, Aesop, may have had the final say on the matter thousands of years ago. The frogs demanded a king. So, they were given a log. When they complained that the log did nothing, they were given a stork. Who ate up all the frogs.

With a Perspective, I’m Richard Friedlander.


Richard Friedlander is a mediator and an actor in the East Bay.