Richard Friedlander: A Bill of Responsibilities

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Richard Friedlander says the Bill of Rights is a foundation of our Constitutional structure, but it isn’t enough to make the Constitution live up to its guaranties.

The Bill of Rights guarantees our personal freedoms. And we are fortunate to have it. Because contrary to some philosophers, human rights do not exist in a state of nature, where all animals are equally unprotected. The Bill came into being after the founders had approved of the Constitution, which defined and limited the rights of government. It occurred to them that a government strong enough to guarantee individual rights might also be capable of taking them away.

But the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights are not absolute. They do not exist in a vacuum. They exist under the assumption that those enjoying them will respect the government on which those freedoms depend. But you know what they say about assumptions. Now, it may be our government that needs our protection.

This may sound ridiculous, but it’s not. It’s merely ironic. The founders were careful to insure that the sacred document would not be confused with tablets made of immovable stone. It’s an ideal. A bold project for those who came after to carefully amend when necessary. Neither the Constitution, nor the Bill of Rights, provide for their enforcement. Their power rests solely on good faith: on the federal and state governments enacting legislation and making it stick, and the vigilance of voters exercising their franchise. If we do not ride herd on our lawmakers to protect the Constitution, there is nothing to stop evil people from destroying it. Bad faith killed Reconstruction.

When our system of government is working as intended, it relies on a collective conscience to remedy wrongs. Without it, all our boasted freedoms are as nothing. This pandemic is proving that unless every single one of us takes this responsibility seriously, our individual and collective lives are in danger. Refusing to wear a face mask is not a human right but a denial of this responsibility. Like mob violence, it’s a threat to our national existence. Perhaps what we need is a Bill of Responsibilities to balance the Bill of Rights. One that establishes not what is owed us, but the duties we owe others.


With a Perspective, I’m Richard Friedlander.

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