Abe Lincoln, Ben Franklin and Saving the American Dream

Sometimes catch phrases become so commonplace that we lose sight of their meaning. Lincoln’s 203rd birthday a couple of days ago left me thinking about one of them. He concluded his Gettysburg address with the oft-repeated words that those who died fighting for the Union during that great battle fought so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Sadly, only the most naive or dishonest among us would claim that those phrases characterize our system today. It is obvious that government “of the people, by the people [and] for the people” is no-longer alive in the United States of America. But as I considered that evocative statement, it struck me that it embodies the desires of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Movement.

You could argue that we never really had such a government. That the America of Lincoln’s time, even after the emancipation proclamation, was not of, by and for women, people of color, workers or the poor. But those nine words summed up the American ideal. They have helped inspire those striving for freedom and fairness in this country ever since. This is another reason why the OWS Movement has struck such a responsive chord. It is plain that the 1%, their corporate creatures, their mouth-pieces in government and media, and their hacks on the Supreme Court, are destroying all hope of ever achieving those democratic impulses, no matter the lip service paid to them.

But while many are fighting against the destruction of their dreams, the majority remains quiescent. That got me thinking about another, nowhere near as popular, catch phrase. Ben Franklin said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

This phrase dogged me when I read the day after Lincoln’s birthday that a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 42% strongly approved and 28% somewhat approved of keeping Guantanamo open to hold suspected terrorists. That’s a whopping 70%. Since 5% had no opinion; that means only a quarter of the American’s polled felt it was time to close Guantanamo.

Lincoln’s and Franklin’s phrases in the context of post-9/11 and endless recession America go a long way toward explaining the explosion of youth activism and the continuing passivity of the majority. Too many Americans live in fear of terrorism, and of other races, religions and sexual orientations to join a diverse mass movement to attempt to gain control of the body politic. Many others are preoccupied by the vastest array of entertainment opportunities our species has ever known. The 1%’s strategy is plain: frighten some, distract others and repress the rest.

That brings to mind a third catch phrase. Our national anthem closes: “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Maybe we should change the words to “we’re no longer free because we’ve become so afraid.” Too many of us will remain enslaved to the 1% until we awaken from our entertainment-enhanced stupor, and throw off the deadening blanket of the post-9/11 national security state. Until we do, we’ll never achieve government of, by and for the people.

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