Turn, turn, turn! The millennium is about to flip, one geographical time zone at a time, one Friday night in about 400 days.
And as the old millennium ¾ not just the century ¾ races towards its tonic resolution, we've seen an enormous change in our political and ethical values, all of this building up in the coda of the century almost like a second development.
We suddenly have a new axiom of choice for personal ethics.
The individual controls his or her own life, as long as he or she doesn't interfere with the rights of all other individuals to do the same. Believe it!
On the surface, this may sound like the Jeffersonian ideal behind the American Revolution. But history hasn't worked that way. History has usually, until very recently, been described in terms of struggles, often economic, and between groups ¾ nationalities, religions, races and other special interests. The nation state, the church, and even representative democracy ¾ all of these things ¾ encourage people to secure their rights relative to their loyalties to various groups, families, religious affiliations and personal faiths. The sudden reawakening of individual rights and self-ownership has occurred as Western society has become wealthier - affording individuals more personal mobility and (particularly because of personal computers and the Internet) more access to self-expression.
There have always existed external threats that complicate the expression of individual freedom and tend to limit it. The list is obvious and long: wars, public health, terrorism, nuclear threats, crime, social disintegration. These problems will continue, even as the Cold War is supposedly over (a naïve assumption). We'll see debates about terrorism, global warming and energy sources; we'll face the growth of recently visible ethical questions such as cloning, the right to die, and maybe even, soon, how to react to sentient extraterrestrial life.
Hence, the time has come for the public to revisit the question: how much
prerogative government should have to invade the life of the individual in
order to fulfill what seems like some overwhelming public safety or moral need.
We need a formal debate on this. We need to redraw a list of our fundamental
rights and responsibilities ¾ not just
along the legalistic lines that shaped the Bill of Rights late in the 18th
century (and that established what we sometimes call affirmative rights),
but along functional lines in a modern world. These fundamental rights seem
pretty straightforward to enumerate: the right to life, freedom from servitude,
the right to be left alone (sexually and otherwise), property, free speech, the
right to defend one's property and family with force, the right to practice
religious faith or no faith, and the right to bring up one's own children. As
we know from some Supreme Court rulings (particularly Bowers v. Hardwick
in 1986), what we call fundamental rights are sometimes derived from
social traditions or notions of social utility (such as marriage and
procreation) [largely through the "due process" clause in the 14th
Amendment]. This seems to contradict the tradition that the natural rights
of man should be "self-evident," perhaps derived from some
unambiguous moral absolutes (but then, again, these might turn out to
depend functionally upon religious precepts). Thus, we need to re-think the
whole concept of fundamental rights and their ethical basis. Fundamental
rights, in our discussion, might be conceived as including many "psychological
rights," those capacities we need in order to discover who we are and
to live expressively. These rights seem linked to a concept of self-ownership
or personal sovereignty. We also need to decide when affirmation of
individual rights requires government to get out of the way, and when, on the
other hand, it requires affirmative government "uplift" in specific positive
law rather than ethical custom, equity or common law. We could characterize
rights that need this uplift or distinct affirmation, say, as exalted rights.
They will be controversial because they sometimes require that representative
government make "moral choices" in balancing what seems to be one
person's fundamental right against another's. Some persons have expressed
rather facetious notions of "fundamental rights." In
Debate could take place in a series of forums in various cities (
All of this was my thesis in my first book, Do Ask, Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back. I developed the case for what I called a "Right to Privacy Amendment," although the amendment I proposed really encompassed much more territory than is usually associated with "privacy."
This time, I want to present a simpler, though supplementary, argument, based around our rights at a simple conceptual level. I leave to others (as in the bibliography) the technical discussions of our Bill of Rights as it is today. Many of the "affirmative rights" specifically listed in the Bill of Rights ¾ the right to a speedy, public jury trial for example, or to be free from self-incrimination ¾ deal more with specific potential abuses by the police powers of the state than with "psychological" rights. I want to go back to ground zero and re-debate our rights for the new millennium, in the same spirit as our forefathers some 230 years ago. We should develop a strategy to re-assert our individual rights to protection from government intrusion regardless of what party is in power. This strategy may still involve direct amendment to the Constitution, but it may also involve supporting political candidates who, if elected, would reduce the hyperactivity of government in both economic and personal liberty areas. Of course, many of my proposals, based on moral principles about self-direction, would match those of the Libertarian Party more closely (although not always exactly) than any other. The Republicans and the Democrats are simply too beholden to the special interest groups that they comprise in order to adhere to principles.
Individual liberty is, of course, not uniquely American. Perhaps no greater image of our dreams for our own personal futures exists than that of Leonard Bernstein taking the podium on Christmas Day, 1989, in the Berlin Opera, a few months after the Berlin Wall fell, to conduct Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. This one work of art, from a tortured composer, still today seems to symbolize the whole world's highest ideals for personal freedom, and for reconciling personal aims with brotherhood and community. The Ninth speaks for the entire planet.