Thursday, April 9, 2009

'Liberty' run amok

Today, the city of Pittsburgh said goodbye to three policemen who were shot to death Saturday morning by a 22-year old gunman.

Taking place on Tuesday will be a "Tax Day Tea Party," a protest to be held here -- and, I'm sure, around the nation -- and sanctioned by the national Libertarian Party against "inefficient government."

The two are related.

For Richard Poplawski, now in custody for their murders, subscribed to a similar anti-government ideology based more on fear and resentment than on any historical perspective.

Well, perhaps that's not entirely true, because American political culture from the start was informed in large part by contempt for the English crown courtesy of immigrants from Northern Ireland -- known popularly as the "Scots-Irish" -- beginning in the 17th Century. Individualists to the core and quite militant, they have always maintained at least a suspicion toward any authority, whether economic, political or social, that doesn't answer to them. That has historically caused problems for the efforts to maintain a sense of justice, especially toward those whose rights have been abridged by law or custom.

Let's take the Civil War, which we often teach was fought to end slavery especially in the South. However, in the section of the country known as Appalachia, where many of the Scots-Irish settled and still live, slavery was non-existent and in fact resisted to a point where the state of North Carolina was considering seceding from the Confederacy over it and what is now West Virginia actually did so. Yet, the South had no shortage of soldiers because, according to that narrative, the real issue was "sovereignty" and the enemy was in Washington, D.C. (Try finding a statue of or streets or buildings named for Abraham Lincoln in the South, even today.)

The civil-rights movement similarly faced resistance, particularly because of the "sovereignty" issue; it turned bloody because Southerners, again, felt it was their sacred duty to fight the central government, which they considered the instigator. Some conservatives even tried to link Martin Luther King Jr. to Communists (a ridiculous charge on its face but understandable given that culture).

You see, in that atmosphere the pursuit of "liberty" at the expense of justice -- which is occasionally secured only by changing laws and customs and in which the "state" is often involved -- can lead to the kind of carnage we witnessed in Pittsburgh on Saturday. It is no accident that the Poplawski's victims were police; after all, they were agents of the "state" (in this case, the city of Pittsburgh), which in his view sought to curtail constitutional liberties almost by definition. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Poplawski subscribed to right-wing "conspiracy theories" and was an ardent opponent of President Barack Obama, whom he felt would eventually abridge his interpretation of the Second Amendment.

That's the connection to the "Tax Day Tea Party." Government, of course, runs primarily on taxes, and what better way to limit government by, in the words of anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, "starving the beast" of revenue? It's come to the point where many libertarian-oriented conservatives consider taxation "theft" and others insist that we can't "tax ourselves into prosperity." That argument falls short, however, when you consider that libertarian economic policies over the last three decades have led directly to the mess we experience today. Hate to disappoint, but government intervention is, for all practical purposes, necessary at this point.

It's easy to talk about "rights," important as they are; it's something else to talk about responsibility to society and one's fellow man. At some point we need to consider if our shortsighted focus on our own has actually sabotaged the rights of others. Thanks to Poplawski, three men have been deprived of their right to life, and if this "tea party" has any effect the government will be deprived of its obligation to restrain evil and administer justice. And without justice, no amount of "liberty" will make this a sane place to live.

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