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America being overrun by the tyranny of the minority. The remedy? Freedom of choice.
By JAMES BEDELL
It was a choice. And the fact that they had a choice is what brought them here in first place. Having choice is what made them us.
The Puritans who journeyed to Massachusetts came here because they wanted to have the choice of how they worshiped. But after the Puritans settled, they began to create rules limiting choice. At that point, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, took his followers to a place where their choices were still up to them. They uprooted their lives to preserve their right to personal choice.
Rhode Island and Massachusetts were civil societies and successful ones. But one of them, Rhode Island, was founded because the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s theocratic magistrates no longer respected an individual’s choice of how to worship. Even in those early years there were problems when a person's beliefs and civic actions intersected.
Roll the clock forward. Frontiersmen push the boundaries of America West. As they were overcoming the new challenges they encountered in the new world they were making, they had no time for minding their neighbors’ business. Their focus was on advancing their nascent society. Matters which were not common to the public welfare were handled in the family forum.
As our Founding Fathers were hammering together the structure of the America we know today, they included protection against “unreasonable search and seizure.” This was another example of giving people a choice. The choice they were guaranteeing was that citizens would be free to do what they wanted inside of their own homes as long as it neither negatively impacted their neighbors nor restricted in any way their neighbors' choices. The background social concept that developed was that Americans could choose to do whatever they personally wanted, as long as it did not diminish another’s welfare. This social aspect of our society has persevered to this day, and is the primary reason that freedom-seekers from around the globe are still willing to risk everything to reach our America and become one of us.
So what has changed? One thing is that politics is now a career — a permanent career. To keep getting re-elected politicians need dependable constituents. One way to create that committed support is to cater to people’s beliefs. Beliefs, after all, are not topics that someone running for office has to continually debate or carefully watch. Unfortunately, this “chunking” of the electorate by our officials into values populations has one set group vying with another group in a social tug of war that is not in the best interests of any of us.
There was a time when we Americans had more common threads woven into our society. Not too long ago, when every soul in America watched the same three networks, there were many things that all Americans could discuss around the water cooler the next day.
The present society in which we are immersed is much more fragmented. The extent to which we are now able to access information instantaneously and people around the globe camouflages the fact that we actually identify less with major portions of our fellow citizens. Part of this new separation is a media phenomenon. Whatever a person’s skin tone, religious dispositions or social preferences, there is a cable station or radio channel focused directly at that person’s profile.
We as a society are now being shattered by the accelerating and sometimes questionable use of the tremendous reservoir of “big data” which our personal communication devices silently gather and store. This trove of personal information makes us vulnerable to being marketed and informed as a nation of discrete individuals. The communal consequence is that we are left with limited connections through the society around us to bind us as a coherent people.
In the present political arena, disparate social and religious differences are used as political wedges. In the early days of the country, many of these differences would have been privately addressed inside each citizen’s “Castle,” and would not be part of the wider public discussion. The arena of public debate was reserved for issues that impacted everyone.
This shifting boundary between what is public concern and what is private territory is a major problem of our day. This issue stands between the current schismatic society we fret about and the cooperative and productive community we collectively desire. Let’s look at some examples of how the beliefs of small groups of Americans are being injected into our political scene to shore up the power base of our now permanent politicians to the detriment of us all.
Take the issue of same-sex marriage. Segments of the population are holding politicians hostage because of something in which that particular group believes. The members of the population who are against the concept of same-sex marriage are trying to remove the choice of same-sex marriage from other people’s lives. It seems these people have forgotten that there was another time when some citizens, because of their beliefs, would not allow a black person to marry a white person — to the shame of us all. We’ve come a long way along the freedom road as a nation, but we are not all marching at the same pace.
A second example of small parts of the population pushing the buttons of our career politicians is the issue of giving people the choice to end their lives with dignity and without suffering if diagnosed with a fatal disease. Throughout most of human history, humans simply did not have the resources or the technology to sustain the heartbeat of an aged and infirm member of their group. The current set of statistics which inform us that a preponderance of a person's lifetime medical costs will be incurred in the final days of his or her life is evidence of the same reality. Death and dying are natural aspects of life that should be dealt with, not fought against. Again, a segment of the population is seeking to prevent the majority from having that personal and final choice in their lives.
Another issue of choice is the topic of abortion. In the fractured discussions in which partial information is directed toward groups with strong belief frameworks about the topic, significant background knowledge is never mentioned. There are parts of our country in which a fertilized egg in a woman's reproductive system is believed to have all the rights of full citizenship. The medical fact that up to 80 percent of all fertilized eggs never successfully implant, and therefore never become a functioning human being, does not seem to be part of the discussion.
Furthermore, of the fertilized eggs that do successfully begin a pregnancy in a woman's womb, roughly a third of those pregnancies are aborted by nature — more commonly referred to as miscarriages. These natural abortions occur because pregnancies are incredibly complicated cavalcades of precise biochemical and developmental stages which often and understandably suffer unrecoverable errors. One flawed reproductive attempt is terminated by Mother Nature to save the biological resources for the next try.
With this clinical information available, but apparently ignored, faith-based constituencies put tremendous pressure on everyone else in America to abandon a choice that might have profound consequences for their lives.
As a last example, and perhaps the most perspicacious of them all, is the issue of stem-cell research. As the rest of the world forges ahead in this area of medical promise, America is being left behind. Some of our best and brightest scientists are going elsewhere to continue their research. The exploration of the medical benefits that will cascade from this technology is just beginning. Yet in America alone, almost a half a million frozen embryos, which could serve to move medical science forward, are silently discarded as medical waste. This wasteful tragedy will happen because relatively small groups of the population are forcing too many of our permanent politicians to cater to their belief-based position condemning stem-cell research. The effect of which is to deny everyone else in the country the choice of pursuing the medical, economic and life-quality benefits that this breakthrough will bring in the future.
Listening to statements put forth by groups seeking to limit the choices mentioned here, one gets the impression that the people seeking to limit the choices of others would somehow be forced to do something they didn’t want to do if everyone were free to choose. As though allowing other people to marry someone of the same sex would somehow be a mandate for the children of a fundamentalist Christian family to be required to marry someone of the same sex. That allowing women in America to choose to end a pregnancy because of reasons they deemed paramount to their lives somehow would force women with strong faith-based opinions to the contrary to also have an abortion. That allowing terminally ill people to end their life calmly surrounded by their family at a time of their choosing would force people with beliefs forbidding such actions to do the same.
Choice is the antithesis of force. The freedom that allows a citizen to choose to do something is the same freedom that allows another citizen to choose not to do it. So what choices must we make to regain this fundamental American value: our freedom of personal choice?
The concept of separation of church and state was instituted exactly for this reason. The Founding Fathers were generally religious, but saw that accommodating different beliefs into the arena of civil society introduces conflicts that literally cannot be resolved. To believe something is to hold it to be true without proof or question. To the people holding the belief, it is taken as a fact, a reality. The believers invite that concept into their lives and make important personal decisions based on that believed reality. But to other people that fact both does not exist and certainly should not be a factor in any public policy making. Beliefs, by their nature, are beyond reason and are not open to compromise. Beliefs and the influence they are given on a person's life belong solely in the domain of one’s Castle and not in the public square.
In the search for coherence in the social fabric the word “tolerance” is often used. The appropriateness of tolerance depends on which definition Americans choose from the two offered by the dictionary. One leads to resentment and acrimony, and one opens the way to the individual and communal vision of America that inspires us all.
One definition encountered in the dictionary for tolerance is “the act or capacity of enduring.” This definition implies that someone is being forced to suffer something that is malevolent or improper. That is not what I am talking about here.
The higher definition on the dictionary page is “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude towards opinions and practices that differ from one's own." This is the definition that has worked, and can still work, for America.
Allowing choice in the lives of Americans does not force anyone to do anything. On the contrary, it frees us. It frees us to come together on all aspects of our overlapping lives that drive us as a people toward the common betterment of our condition. It frees us to rule in our castles as we see fit. It frees us to follow our beliefs, our passions and our dreams however we choose in our pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
The choice is ours. Protect it.
James Bedell is a Wakefield, R.I., resident.