I didn’t intend to have my Composition II class turn into a political philosophy class.
But we’ve been covering Thomas More’s Utopia, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Thomas Jefferson’s The Declaration of Independence, and, in covering these works, I find myself turning into a history and political philosophy professor. And my students are so limited in their experiences when it comes to this sort of thing. Most of them are African-Americans who have been taught to see the Democratic party and the African-American Caucus in the Democratic Party as being the only faction that speaks for them and looks after their interests.
But these are 18-22 year olds who just accept these things like, well, air or the fact that the sun rises, without understanding exactly what they accept. Moreover, since the majority of these same students espouse a Christianity that is very conservative and pro faith-based initiatives, a strong belief in the dream of owning their own business someday, and a distrust in bureaucracy and government agencies, it strikes me as deeply ironic that these students of mine would ally themselves with a party idealogy that seems oppositional to their personal beliefs. I mean, if the Democratic Party didn’t participate in race politics, I think many of my students would be more critical of these political beliefs that they’ve been taught to believe, which veer to the idealism of Utopia and vilify anybody else as crass Machiavellian, like, say, the Republican Party. But, as I tell my students, life is more complicated than that.
As I mentioned in a previous entry, I think, on November 4 of last year, I’m not exactly politically-minded. My voting record is very spotty, and being an independent requires me to do extra homework on whom and what I elect, homework that, honestly speaking, sometimes I’m too lazy to do. But in teaching my Composition II class, I find myself explaining these political ideas through the lens of my own political beliefs.
I took the above quiz, and it said I was centrist-leaning libertarian, which makes me go, “Great, just great,” because the Libertarian Party itself is, well, whacked. Anarchist-leaning whacked. If it weren’t for that connotation, I wouldn’t mind it, since my political beliefs are all in Jefferson’s Declaration of Indepence. All of it. It’s what “America” means to me, and, as I found out, my students don’t really understand it, don’t really understand how amazing this document actually is.
1) There’s a God who creates.
2) This Creator God created mankind to be equal and to have certain natural (“unalienable”) rights.
3) Among these natural rights are life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and to change or abolish one’s government if it goes wrong.
4) Ordinary people create government as a delegated tool to secure their rights — to make sure the one person’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness respects another person’s rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
5) Sometimes this tool does a pretty mediocre job, but ordinary people can put up with a lot of crap in their government if it isn’t too bad. “Too bad” means that too many people are miserable for too long a time and the defective tool totally forgets that is a tool.
6) When it gets too bad, it is the duty of ordinary people to enact that fourth right — vote the bastards out or, if that doesn’t work, revolt and start all over.
Nobody gives anybody rights. We’re born with them, and we’re equal in so far as we have these same rights. I have the right to live. I have the right to be free. I have the right to pursue what I believe will make my happy (but, as I point out to my students, not the right to happiness). My responsibilities, however, kick in when I realize that I don’t live as a hermit, in a vacuum. There are other people here who have the same rights that I do, and I live with them, day in and day out. In other words, I live in a society, and I do not have the right to hurt people as I mindlessly enact my rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Hence the need for some form of government to serve as a standard to which everybody can consent as making one’s individual rights safe without infringing on another person’s rights. It’s all a matter of respect, really.
So the question I ask my students is this: “If someone has an unalienable right, does that imply that he or she also has certain duties, certain responsibilities? If so, what are they?” With rights come responsibilities, to yourself and to others. The power comes from yourself. And so the question is, what you gonna do?