The tragedy in Charlottesville, VA requires real attention, deliberation, and action from all of us who believe in constitutional representative democracy; especially in the United States of America. Our political structure serves in the protection of economic and civil liberties, and we have a duty to uphold it.
Unfortunately, our society has become self-obsessed with Spectacle, reactive to crisis, and does little about such real issues. Moreover, this is not a limited problem in the USA held by white supremacists. Instead, this is a global phenomenon of the postmodern era of financial capitalism. Ethnic-Nationalist sentiment is on the rise again and action is necessary.
I wrote an essay in college entitled “Why Neo-Nazis Need Freedom of Speech Too” contrasting the philosophy of John Stuart Mill with the decision in Niles, Illinois, to grant a municipal parade license to a Neo-Nazi group (several decades ago). This essay was focused, primarily, on the idealistic liberalism of public discourse. I continue to believe that a rational nation must protect and encourage honest and peaceful discourse about even the most ludicrous and dangerous political, economic, and social views.
Importantly, this freedom of speech for JS Mills especially applied to the Press and its role in criticizing the decisions of government – far from the pretense of “objectivity” that we occasionally expect of our media.
More pragmatically today, as I describe in my book Continuous Experimentation, we as citizens do not want potential insurgencies, radical religions, civil terrorists, and other extremists festering in the isolation of their echo chambers. The more people speak about their anger, prejudice, and frustration in a calm and honest dialogue based on facts and beliefs, the less insane these conversations become. Moreover, a publicly-known group can be more easily secured and detained than a hidden, angry militia plotting in private.
This is precisely what has worsened to a tipping point with “Neo-Nazis” in the the US, as has become extremely clear with the events in Charlottesville. The right to free speech and peaceful assembly are intentionally diametrically opposed to the right to bear arms and form a militia. The tension between these two seems to have been forgotten in the stupidity of partisan rhetoric. A fresh look is necessary. To better understand the distinction, we must look to John Locke, one of the most important influences of the United States’ founding fathers.
For Locke, as rings loud and clear in the Bill of Rights, a Nation is formed as a Social Contract by persons with rights and freedoms intrinsic to being human. This contract is based on the Rights that any group of individuals would have in what is called the “State of Nature” – the right to life, freedom, and pursuit of property as a fruit of one’s labor. In contrast, Locke makes clear that when one person violates another’s right to life, freedom, or property, the individuals enter into the “State of War”. It is therefore one’s right in the State of War to kill someone who tries to kill you, to capture someone who tries to enslave you, and seek justice when someone steals or damages your property. The Social Contract of a nation is intended to prevent individuals from entering the State of War through collective preservation of civil liberties. In other words, the Nation preserves its people against the State of War, both internally and externally.
Without freedom of speech, the ability to criticize and debate beliefs, and vocally remove the privilege of power from elected representatives, the government cannot be trusted to preserve our civil liberties. Moreover, the primary realm of social life and personal belief that has been a constant source of war is religion, so it is essential that the government not select or uphold one. Thus, our first amendment to the US Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Next, when the government is no longer representing the will of the people or becomes ineffective in assuring national security, mutual defense, or domestic tranquility–especially when the representative power of the government has entered into tyranny–it is essential that the Citizens of the nation have the ability to re-enter the State of War, overthrow the government, and establish a new constitution. Likewise, remember that a formal State militia is likewise the right of the people in order to protect its citizens, including in case of revolution against the federal government. Thus, our Second Amendment:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
As we can see, the right to freedom of speech and assembly is specific to the natural rights preserved from the State of Nature and the preservation of natural Rights, while the right to arms and form a militia is specific to the State of War and its capacity as a credible threat of the people to overthrow an insolvent government.
It is worth noting that this tradition in political philosophy is continued with the Thirteenth Amendment. Locke argued that Slavery is the right of an individual in the State of War, to the extent the individual is delaying the death they have a right to exercise. In other words, if someone tries to kill you, you have every right to take them captive and force them to follow orders until justice is resolved. This, like every other Natural Right of individuals in the State of War, is given up to the Nation in the Social Contract. Thus, while slavery is abolished based on “birthright” in the Thirteenth amendment, it is preserved for the justice system:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
When we apply the philosophies of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson to the individuals in Charlottesville, VA there is a clear problem in defining who they believe themselves to be as a group.
If they are a religion, they have the right to peacefully assemble and their views have no role in government. This is not who they are.
If they are a charitable organization, they have clear State and Federal laws they must uphold as an entity separate from its members, with major restrictions against political actions. This is not who they are.
If they are a Political Party, there are very clear restrictions on what they can and cannot do in the pursuit of campaign financing, signage display, and peaceful assembly. This is not who they are.
If they are a militia, the individuals have the right amass weaponry, gain supporters, and take action against the government in an attempt to redress their grievances. However, the government has the authority, right, and power on behalf of its citizens to crush this insurgency, end their revolt, and eradicate the militia.
So let me make something very clear. They have the right to their beliefs and speech, and they have a right to their guns and militia. However,
A MILITIA HAS NO OTHER RIGHTS
A militia does not have the right to freedom of speech once they take action against the State or Federal Government of the Citizens of United States of America.
A militia does not have the right to freedom of assembly once they take action against the State or Federal Government of the Citizens of United States of America.
A militia does not have the right to freedom of movement once they take action against the State or Federal Government of the Citizens of United States of America.
In other words, anyone who shows up to a parade with a gun should be arrested immediately. The 2nd Amendment does not apply to parades, it applies to our right to war and revolution. Anyone claiming freedom of speech must do so without a gun, anyone claiming the right to peaceful assembly must do so without a gun.
What to do?
First, we must petition our representatives to ensure that both of these rights–and their corresponding responsibilities–are upheld. A narrowly-defined but very clear rejection of militia-like petitions for parades and protests should be executed. Keep your swastika and your gun at home, if you have real nationalist, ethnic, or socialist grievances or ideas, the symbols of ancient religions and weapons of revolution are not allowed.
Second, we need to engage individuals more directly in regards to their beliefs. We all have prejudices – the originate from the interpretation of disgust in the expressions of our parents as children – this will not disappear without very real effort because we all have cognitive biases, limited knowledge, and emotion-filled memories. If the only avenue for self-expression for those who believe their race, religion, gender, class, or rights are under attack is in violence in a municipal intersection, we have failed each other deeply.
Third, there is a clear problem of identifying a militia in revolt in this country. Because ethno-nationalistic violence is on the rise worldwide, we cannot leave this unaddressed. The line between peaceful assembly and revolution must be clearly drawn, as a militia loses all other civil liberties once it violates the rights of Citizens.