I am not sure if this letter ever appeared in the U. of Tennessee student newspaper. If it did, I missed it.
I am writing in response to Amien Essif’s November 9 column, “Media miss drama of demonstration”. In it, he distinguishes the political environments of Europe from ours in the United States, and his distinction deserves further exploration.
Essif laments the quiet politics of U.S. citizens, and wishes there were frequent raucous protests. In Europe, crowds of people partake in what he calls “real action.” Going to work, minding your own business, and expecting the same of others is the American political tradition, but apparently these activities do not qualify as “real action.”
Then again, Americans have never walked en masse to the enlightened despot’s palace to request food, or travelled to the democratic tyrant’s outpost to request medical attention. Even before the United States ratified a constitution to prevent those European follies, their citizens had begun a very different tradition. That tradition began every time a group of colonists stepped off of a boat and into a vast wilderness, finding no postal roads, no gendarmerie, and certainly no royal granary.
In his journal, William Bradford, leader of the religious separatists that founded Plymouth colony, wrote that within a few months of landfall, half his company was dead. Back in the Old World, the key to survival was “real action,” but rowdy demonstrations proved futile in the colony. The harsh winter of Massachusetts Bay heeds neither protest nor prayer.
How did colonists survive? They took the unreal action of providing for themselves, and in so doing began the American tradition of personal responsibility. This tradition has endured through countless authoritarian regimes in Europe, all of which began with moral intentions for the greater good and “real action.”
Essif complains about “the uniquely American relationship to government, a strange concoction of cowardice and contempt,” and believes that “in Europe, the government is afraid of the people, while in the United States, the people are afraid of the government.” This begs the question: what have the European governments done that makes them so fearful of their people?
The answer is that European governments have promised their citizens an end to fear, and an end to want, and their citizens believed them. A digressive lesson for citizens and single women: if a man ever promises to bring an end to your fears and wants, you believe him at the risk that he will thereafter control you. No government can deliver on those promises, and those that try not only exceed their true purpose (to defend natural rights) but act against it, by becoming instruments of plunder.
When government pursues its true purpose, the political environment is very calm. Essif sees the absence of massive demonstrations as a negative; on the contrary, it is a sign that society is working well. As Frederic Bastiat points out, “No one would have any argument with government, provided that his person was respected, his labor was free, and the fruits of his labor were protected against all unjust attack.”
Our government has stepped outside of the boundaries of its purpose, but it has not been doing this as long or as extensively as its European counterparts, and the effects are not yet as visible. While Americans were running their own lives and expecting the same of others, their leaders in Washington–perhaps envying European governmental power–were patterning their legislation on the unwisely set examples of Europe, and then destroying the constitution accordingly. After more than a century of this insidious legal process, the American political stage is finally set for some “real action.”
Europeans demonstrate to their governments because their governments run their lives, and in all likelihood this will soon be true for us, and then Thomas Paine’s words will apply to America for the first time since before he penned them: “The enormous expense of government has provoked men to think, by making them feel.”