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My dear kids –
You’re all adults now, and moving on to build your own lives. So often, I think of things I wish I’d told you, and wonder if it’s too late. So allow me the liberty to share some thoughts fitting for the day. It is important that on the Fourth of July, we take a few minutes aside from the parade and fireworks, and even the Weird Al concert, to contemplate just what it is that makes America something worth celebrating.
I love our country so deeply, and I wish I could convey to you how precious it is. I believe in “American exceptionalism.” That’s a term that’s often misunderstood and misrepresented. “American exceptionalism” does not mean that Americans are better or smarter than other people, or that we are the only people in the world with good values, or that we have always lived up to the high ideals of our founding. What is unusual about America is that it was the first country to be based on an idea – the idea that every single person is born free, with the right and responsibility to seek out truth, express and act upon those truths, and pursue happiness in accordance with the dictates of his or her own conscience. Americans are not subjects, but citizens. We are not cogs in some vast collective, working for “the greater good.” We are not slaves, but unique and free individuals. Since its founding, many other countries have emulated the American idea, but that American dream still draws people from around the world who long to live free and pursue happiness in their own way. The rights guaranteed us in our Constitution are meant to ensure that the government will not intrude on that individual freedom.
We talk a lot about freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, of assembly, etc., but I’d like to sum it up this way: The United States of America is, or should be, a safe place for integrity. Yes, I’m coining a new term: freedom of integrity. Integrity means living life as a whole, and being guided by the same values in everything we do. It means not having one set of values in church on Sunday and another one in our business dealings or when chit-chatting with the “cool kids.” It means working out what we believe to be right and true, and then doing our best to live all of our life in terms of those values, especially when it is difficult or even dangerous. Integrity is obviously a virtue – but is it a freedom? Is it a right that needs protecting? I believe it is.
Throughout history and in many parts of the world to the present day, integrity has been a luxury few people could afford. In many countries, saying or writing what’s on your mind, practicing your religion or lack thereof, and living in accordance with the dictates of your conscience are not options. Doing these things can bar you from employment or advancement, or land you in prison or even get you killed. Nathan Sharansky, a dissident who survived the gulags of the Soviet Union, describes the difference between fear societies and free societies. He writes that in fear societies, where dissent is banned, society fractures into three groups: true believers, dissidents, and doublethinkers. True believers and dissidents both speak their minds, although the dissidents likely end up in prison or dead because of it. The vast majority of people, however, fall into the last category, the practitioners of doublethink. That term, borrowed from Orwell, describes the soul-killing contortions one must go through to hide ones true thoughts and beliefs, while presenting a false face to the world and the ever-vigilant enforcers of conformity. It means mouthing the proper pieties, whether in Communist Russia or Nazi Germany or Islamic Iran. It means weeping with the expected level of grief at the funeral of North Korea’s Dear Leader, even if you know he was a monster who killed your whole family. It means always, always living a lie. Outside of the true believers and the few dissidents willing to risk a horrible retribution for themselves and their loved ones, integrity is not an option. For those of us who live in free societies, such a nightmare existence is nearly unimaginable. We are used to speaking our minds and expressing our values openly, sometimes with nearly obnoxious abandon, and it is hard for us to wrap our minds around the level of fear that governs so many lives. But I see reason for alarm. Freedom of integrity is under assault in America.
The United States is not as free a country today as it was when I was young. There are still plenty of opinions thrown around, as we see on Facebook, but there is also a new chill, a careful measuring of words, especially among those with businesses or careers to lose. It seems that there are invisible tripwires everywhere, and social media mobs can turn with terrifying speed on perceived offenders against the latest, and constantly changing, standard of “sensitivity.” Citizens have been driven from their jobs and hounded from polite society. A prominent executive was forced out of his position at a company he helped found, because of a political donation he made years before as a private citizen. Numerous business owners have had their livelihoods taken from them because they declined to apply their creative talents and brand name to an activity which violates their deeply held beliefs. Certain nonprofit groups have been harassed and penalized by the IRS because of their political leanings. And here in Wisconsin, innocent citizens have had their homes invaded at dawn by armed SWAT teams, their families terrorized, their computers and possessions seized, and then have been threatened with jail if they dare to tell anyone what was happening to them – all because they engaged in legal political activity. It seems that acting with integrity is becoming a dangerous thing in America.
At the same time, we see corporations, universities, and public figures falling all over themselves to demonstrate their moral sensitivity and ideological purity, banning words or ideas, and punishing transgressors who pass through the crosshairs of the thought police. I don’t really expect integrity or moral courage from corporations (though it would be nice), but I am terribly concerned for the real human beings who get trampled in their stampede. I cringe to see individuals being forced into sensitivity (ie. reeducation) training or groveling public apologies, reminiscent of Maoist struggle sessions or Soviet show trials. In a truly Orwellian twist, these things are supposedly done in the interest of demonstrating how tolerant and open-minded and sensitive we are. To borrow a term from Canadian writer Kathy Shaidle, it’s all part of the “Tyranny of Nice.” This is the behavior of a fear society, not a free one.
My dear children, I don’t know what kind of America you will inherit. I foresee integrity becoming a rarer and rarer commodity in the coming years. But I know you will try, and fight the good fight! It takes courage to pursue the truth, and even more to stay faithful to it. Truth is often uncomfortable and unfashionable; it often goes against the grain of popular opinion. But as Gandhi wrote, “In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place.” And in the words of Tolstoy, “Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.” You will need courage to stand for what you believe. Don’t fall for the modern fallacy that truth is relative or a matter of opinion or social constructs. There is such a thing as ultimate truth. But here is where you will also need wisdom and humility, because truth is complex, and our own perspectives are so limited. You must be willing, always, to be open to new information and to respect the perspectives of others. They also have the right to freedom of integrity, even when you think they are wrong or unkind or misguided or just plain silly. In fact, especially then, because they will certainly be thinking the same thing about you. For yourselves, always try to seek greater knowledge and understanding, and then to be true and faithful to it, in spite of adversity.
American freedom is more than a cliché or words on a paper. As with so many things, we tend not to really appreciate the value of freedom until we start to lose it. I hope I’m wrong in my fears about where the United States is headed. We’ve passed through bad times before when we’ve forgotten our ideals, but we usually get back on the right track eventually. But that won’t happen if no one remembers the way back, or sees the value of following the right track, or even remembers that such a track existed. I hope you will read the Constitution and study our history, and that you will understand what a precious thing it is to have a free place for integrity. Then make it your goal. I love you, my darlings, and I have faith in you. God bless you, and God bless America.