I believe in the rights of the individual. Being American, I believe in the documents that stand as heralds of and sentinels over those rights, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The ideals they express, however imperfectly manifested, are man’s greatest gift to himself; for the recognition of individual rights is the prerequisite of freedom and the jealous protection of individual rights is man’s only defense against tyrants and tyrannical ideologies.
History shows the atrocities of men are enabled only when the rights of the individual are subjugated to the tyranny of ideology. When people are classified into groups that either fit within an ideology, or are considered inferior to it, or obstructive of it, freedom is sacrificed, and totalitarianism and unspeakable wrongs follow. For ideology allows the end to justify the means.
The Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Terror of the French Revolution; these are but a few examples of what occurs when ideology trumps individual rights. The sins of America, similarly, occurred when we chose as a people to set our ideologies above the principle of individual rights set forth in our founding documents. Slavery, segregation, Native American injustices, the World War II internment of Japanese Americans: each happened because our ideologies allowed us to ignore the individual rights, and thus, the humanity of those we victimized.
The framers of the Constitution understood this danger. They understood that a mood of a people can be as tyrannical and oppressive as any despot. They knew that unless the protection of individual rights was made a bedrock purpose of the Constitution, Americans risked repeatedly abandoning this founding principle on transitory ideologies. So they crafted the principle into the Bill of Rights, set it as the cornerstone of the Constitution and established the rule of law to guard it. Consequently, the majority does not rule in America. Neither do politicians. In America, the Constitution rules and is the touchstone for determining when the whims of the majority or even a vocal minority threaten the sanctity of individual rights.
With these protections came an American definition of freedom that allowed men to rise above their social, economic and political stations and which loosed their imaginations to explore beyond constraining ideologies. This new definition gave American culture vitality unmatched in human history and a reputation for being chaotic and self-centered.
It is a reputation I celebrate. Protecting individual rights makes for unwieldy and contentious societies and there is ever-present pressure, especially during turbulent times, to sacrifice individual rights for the sake of social harmony and to marginalize those who refuse to sacrifice their rights as self-centered. Thus, dictators rise from social turmoil. I celebrate this reputation because the principle of individual rights offers the only assurance of freedom. I celebrate because the principle is fragile and the assurance tenuous. It must be nurtured. It must supersede all religious, political, social, economic and ethnic dogma. For only by protecting individual rights can we guarantee any other.
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