Sunday, May 23, 2004

The American Way

WARNING: Long rambling post ahead.

Since I was a child, I've had this recurring nightmare. In my nightmare, the details are always different, but the plot line is always the same: I live in a society where things look really great, but as I discover more and more about it, I find that underneath the happy surface is oppression and death. By the time I discover this, it has become difficult for me to escape; I've been deceived. I then spend the second half of the dream trying to escape the oppression and get to somewhere where I can be free. Once I dreamed that aliens came to our school. They were perfect looking and offered us cures for cancer, etc. But they really wanted to enslave us all by mesmerizing us with a puppet show. People disappeared and no one knew where they went.

The last time I had the nightmare, it was set in an environment in which the entire country was somewhat like a school. It was a democratic society. All the citizens were happy, concerned citizens, and the majority were decent, law-abiding people. But there was an element in the government that wanted to take away people's liberties in the name of decency. At first they did things like regulate the clothing people could wear, so that it would be modest. Since I was in favor of modest clothing, I did not call them to task, and I gave up that bit of liberty. But the regulations started going farther. Eventually they banned tampon use (on the grounds that tampons were indecent) and installed cameras in the bathrooms to enforce the law. Then I had to escape this oppressive government, but by now there were cameras everywhere. Heavily armed policemen chased me around; there was nowhere I could hide. That time I didn't get out. I woke up when they shot me.

Someone suggested to me once that I have this dream over and over again in different guises because there was something I needed to learn from it. I thought that over, and came to the conclusion that what I could learn from it was that ends do not justify means: that just because something looks good on the outside, or serves a good purpose, does not make it right. This sort of idea is summed up in the phrase, "Mussolini made the trains run on time." IIRC there was some debate over whether or not the actual trains in Mussolini's Italy ran on time, or whether or not he was responsible for the schedule, but that makes no difference to the meaning of the phrase: a government that achieves desirable ends through oppressive means is not as desirable as a government that achieves whatever ends while preserving liberty. Preserving this liberty, even at the cost of voluntarily given lives, is the American way.

We have seen this pattern over and over again throughout history. The countries that sacrifice liberty to make things "nice" for the average person end up oppressing first the few, and then the many. On the other hand, the fruits of liberty are apparent. The United States has great economic and political success because of its devotion to liberty above other things; and it fails to the extent that it takes away liberty. This is something I know now is true. I know this is true, not only because every experiment in the test tube of history has come out that way, but because it is also consistent with the laws of God and the intent of the creation.

I should quit talking about education in front of my sister M. She always rolls her eyes when I proselytize for the charter school. I don't think she understands why this school is so much better than the other public schools. It doesn't have a cafeteria, it barely has enough play balls to go around, and school administration is constantly being disrupted by elections. I understand her point of view; after all, it was mine when I was her age. She hopes to find some "cop-out" position that will allow both sides to be right at the same time. But what I've learned, in my eleven years' head start on her, is that while there are some issues in which right and wrong do not play in, liberty is not one of those issues. When it comes to liberty, it is simply wrong to abridge liberty and force people into situations where they cannot get out.

At the Gardeners' Market yesterday I had a conversation with a woman who was pulling her daughter out of the charter school because it was so "disorganized". I felt really sorry for her. She admitted she liked the charter's academic program better, but she wanted the easier option of her local public school, where the trains ran on time. I know that school district; it's the one I fought tooth and nail with over whether or not my Tiny Princess would receive education or would merely be herded off with kids her own age. That entire district is under the thumb of a dictator-like personnel director at the district office. No one in that district will so much as wipe their nose without her permission if they value their jobs. This district does an adequate job of educating its children to the extent that the children fit into its mold of what a child should be like. If a school in that district does good for all its students, it is because it is a benevolent dictatorship. But a benevolent dictatorship is still a dictatorship. One day this woman will retire, and another dictator will take over. And this time, the dictator may not be as benevolent.

In short, that school district is an oppressive environment like the one in my dream; and it is not worthy of the respect of liberty-loving people, even if it does result in good educational outcomes for the average child, even if it offers nice hot nutritious lunches in its cafeteria or boasts a state-of-the-art computer lab. Because if the administration decides to administer vitamins in the lunches, or force-feed students websites you don't want them exposed to, or examine your kids without your consent, you can't do anything about it. Just because right now they wouldn't do it doesn't mean one day they won't-- or that anyone would be able to stop them. This is unthinkable in my state, but it nevertheless is the way in which districts like that are headed. Just ask anyone from California.

The charter school, by contrast, is a school that respects liberty. It knows it cannot be all things to all people, so instead of trying to rope in all people and force them to fit in, it allows people to freely enroll or disenroll as they see fit. And you can see the difference in the educational environment. If the school tried to pull any of the stunts I described in the previous paragraph, the entire parent board would be recalled and the principal fired inside of a month. There are checks and balances that prevent one person from taking over the entire school and imposing her vision on it.

I hope I can teach my children the importance of liberty while they are young, so that they don't end up like I did in my early twenties, trying to rationalize away all sorts of infringements on liberty so that I could remain "open-minded" about all political positions. I don't want the first moment they know they are right and someone else is wrong to come at the age of 22, like mine did, while they are confronting a man who beat his wife severely, who said it was none of their business what he did to his wife. I hope that when moments like that come to their lives, that they will stand up for liberty and stand against oppression, even when oppression comes with a shotgun just feet away. This is the truly American way.

UPDATE: Maggie Gallagher sums it up thusly (emphasis mine): "When you are repelled, as we all occasionally are, by the ceaseless bombardments of the longest presidential campaign ever, by the sound bites and the talking points and the nasty comments and the relentlessly negative ads, by all the detritus of democracy we are attempting to bequeath to the Iraqi people, consider this: The central advantage of democracy is that in our system, ruthlessly ambitious men seeking power hurl words at one another, not bombs. As the Iraqis can attest, that's no small advantage." That's why they pay her (and not me) the big bucks to write essays.