Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #051. First published in the St. Cloud Times Oct. 25, 2011

If you suspect that “Give me liberty or give me death!” has been quoted at me more times that I can count, you’re right. While I’m not a direct descendant of the orator of the American Revolution, by bearing his name I attract references to him, especially to his memorable 1775 phrase that is part of the collective American memory.

Earlier this month, my wife and I paid a visit to Charleston and Savannah. The language and frameworks that tour guides in both cities used made clear that South Carolinians and Georgians rank liberty high on the values chart, perhaps even at the top. But liberty as spoken there has undertones, sounded loudly in the past and still resonating, that give me pause before I say, baldly and unnuanced, “Give me liberty.”

Liberty in 2012

I bring this up not to introduce a travelogue, but to initiate reflection on what is becoming a central theme of American politics as we move toward the 2012 election, especially in the rhetoric of Republican candidates. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann sometimes sounds as if she claims copyright in the term; there is a Republican Liberty Caucus; candidates show up regularly for speeches at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

Students of language know that the power of words often derives from the associations, even below consciousness, that they call forth. The tradition of states’ rights, so deep in the memory of many in the South (and invoked by governors in other parts or the country today), the Lone Ranger frontier heroics of rugged individualism so celebrated throughout our culture, and the belief in American exceptionalism, which means we don’t take orders, or even advice, from other nations, are all tapped into by the word “liberty.”

The power of the myth of the “self-made man” is evident when, in the midst of economic distress of a depth and spread not seen for 80 years, the politics of investment in education and infrastructure for the common good, let alone the politics of compassion and of care for the most vulnerable, gets blasted as “government overreach,” even “socialism.”

A tale of 2 authors

Literature holds up a mirror to us. On our trip, my wife recalled a study she did of two iconic American authors, and how it applies today.

What today’s Republicans see (it was not always so) when they look in the mirror is the Ernest Hemingway hero, who, in face of troubles and struggles, asserts the dignity of the self by resolutely standing alone: liberty as the avoidance of all entanglements.

Democrats look in the mirror and see the Saul Bellow hero, who, while acknowledging the difficulties that the Hemingway hero faces, doesn’t get stuck in alienation but connects with others in a covenant for common flourishing: liberty as the freedom to function as the social creature we human beings are.

This issue of the meaning we attach to liberty — Hemingway’s version or Bellow’s — is as fundamental as any we face, and is forcefully stated in a widely circulated recent speech by Elizabeth Warren, designer of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection who is now a candidate for the Senate from Massachusetts.

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.”

The Occupy Wall Street movement, an outward and visible sign of Warren’s point about how we’re all in it together, began in a park that used to be called Liberty Plaza. This Patrick Henry says Give me Liberty Plaza, not Liberty University.