by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - October 24, 2011) Two hundred and twenty years ago, a young American revolutionary named James Madison wrote what are perhaps the most significant words in the history of American law and jurisprudence. A Virginian and a fierce advocate of liberty with deep suspicions of federal government, Madison set down 46 words that could not have been uttered with more clarity and simplicity, though they have been interpreted, reinterpreted, deconstructed, and reconstructed thousands of times.
"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," Madison wrote. He meant that citizens should have freedom to think their own thoughts, express them in print and in conversations with others, that groups of citizens could gather in public to voice their common grievances and demand that the government act to alter or amend intolerable conditions.
Were he to live today and gaze at the U.S., he would surely say that the First Amendment was thriving, especially at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that began in New York and that have quickly spread to cities and towns around the country. At the same time Madison -- and Jefferson and Tom Paine and Ben Franklin -- would surely be alarmed by the fact that corporations have seized hold of the First Amendment, perverted its original aims, and turned it into a tool for profit and power and against the people of the United States.
Our founding band of brothers would also be aghast to learn that the US Supreme Court ruled recently that corporation do in fact enjoy First Amendment rights, along with private citizens, and that corporations can spend money to influence public opinion and electoral politics. Surely, they are turning in their graves.
The young and not-so-young protesters in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere are a living, breathing representation of Madison's First Amendment. They have entertained their own thoughts, and they have gathered peacefully, and while they have often been criticized by corporate media for not articulating clear demands, it's clear that they have deep-seated grievances against banks, banksters, and against an economic system that encourages and rewards greed and the greedy.
Moreover, the demonstrators want the government, which is supposed to represent and protect the needs and wants of the people -- not the 1% that controls most of the money and property and most of the mass media -- to redress legitimate grievances. To spread their message and to exercise their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, our electronic-age pamphleteers have turned to Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet, wisely opting not to rely on The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CBS, and MSNBC -- no matter how sympathetic some of their columnists may be -- to accurately convey their views of the world.
Occupy Wall Street is a good start. It's the first real awakening of a generation that has been too often silent and too often asleep for the past ten years -- dazzled by their new toys and mobility. Of course, there have been exceptions to the acquiescence that has existed, including the spirited protests against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ever since 9/11, far too many Americans have watched what they said, buttoned their lips, and bitten their tongues. The past decade has been a time noteworthy for both overt and covert censorship of news and information about the wars and the economy and noteworthy, too, for a non-stop blizzard of misinformation and disinformation aimed to keep the American people in the dark about national and international policies.
Madison was well aware of the dangers of misinformation and disinformation and warned early after the Revolution that a government that acted in secret and without transparency wasn't democratic and would likely end in tragedy or farce. Both seem to have arrived full-blown in the unfortunate and disappointing presidency of Barack Obama, who has placed himself in the pockets of the banksters and fused the White House to Wall Street.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters -- those with whom I have been e-mailing, anyway -- understand the links between the local and the global and between New York and Cairo, Washington, D.C. and Athens. They also understand that behaving politely, speaking softly, and never talking out of turn -- as many of their elders have taught them -- won't enable them to break through the clutter of corporate media. Madison never said that those who practiced freedom of speech and the press were required to mind their p's and q's and say "Yes, Sir" and "No, Sir" as they do in the U.S. Marines. Throughout American history, advocates of freedom and defenders of the First Amendment -- abolitionists, feminists, pacifists, and environmentalists -- have been a rowdy, rambunctious gang. Let's hope that this generation carries on in that spirit, that they understand the merits of patience, and remember that the powers-that-be will do everything possible to stifle, repress, and silence their voices.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin teaches in the communication studies department at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine and The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)