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Responsibility and Respect

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The Occupy Movement's takeover of parks in various American cities and towns, at the very nexus of either political or economic power in those municipalities' jurisdictions, meets Justice Marshall's criteria for expressive conduct that is in fact symbolic speech. If the rest of the court at that time was too frightened or too conservative--which may indeed be redundant--to follow its own precedents, then that is the fault of a weak and vapid court, subservient to the interests of a reactionary segment of society, rather than to the nation as a whole. This was certainly the case in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). It is equally true for the application of Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence (468 U.S. 288) today.

The government is never supposed to have an easy time when We the People express ourselves and our rights under the First Amendment. This is especially true when we are using those rights to demand a redress of grievances on the massive scale which the Occupy Movement is doing today.

Ayn Rand's Objectivists and other right-wing extremists--including Presidential candidate Ron Paul--represent w hat Robert Locke quite properly called "The Marxism of the Right" (The American Conservative, March 14, 2005). In my opinion, this group of intellectual children want the blessings of freedom, without the concomitant responsibilities.

Our rights under the Constitution are precious things, which should be worth far more to Americans than mere gold or silver. These rights were sanctified by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence--"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness"--and initially--if not exhaustively--enumerated by the Bill of Rights. They are too often used by those who claim that government is the source of all that is wrong in the world: as a license to ignore the needs of their community, as well as their fellow human beings, and as an excuse for refusing even the most basic duties of a citizen to the government.

These "refuseniks" in fact remind me very much of Socrates and his disciples, as I.F. Stone describes them in his book The Trial of Socrates (1988).

There are many important reasons why every American should make at least a cursory study of the history of ancient Greece. But Athens deserves our special attention because that is where the idea of Freedom of Speech in political discourse, as well as the responsibility of all citizens to take an active role in their government, originated. I would strongly recommend reading the late Mr. Stone's book to fulfill the minimum requirement of knowledge of Ancient Greece that all Americans need.

As most of us know, through osmosis of information from our schools and the modern media if nothing else, Socrates was a philosopher in ancient Athens who was "forced" to commit suicide by the authorities after he was convicted of impiety and corrupting the morals of Athenian youth.

This is about as complete a description of what actually happened, as describing the composition of gunpowder as charcoal, sulphur, and potassium nitrate. Without the proper proportions, procedures, and precautions, you are as likely to produce a fizzle or an accidental explosion that kills you, as you are to produce usable black powder.

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Socrates and his followers were not men who believed that just any Athenian should have the right to speak before the Assembly on an issue, even though Socrates made it a point to never attend a meeting of the assembly in the Agora. Like their spiritual descendant, Edmund Burke, Socrates and his followers thought that speeches before the Assembly should be limited to those who were experts on the subject, those who were directly effected by the proposed legislation, and the elite who knew what was best for the country.

Plato and Socrates would have agreed with Burke's statement in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), "The occupation of"hair-dresser, or"tallow-chandler, cannot be a matter of honor for any person"such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppressions from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule."

I am going to use a long paraphrase of Mr. Stone's book here:

"But the great lawgiver Solon had given the right to vote in the Assembly to all of the citizens of Athens, after deposing the aristocratic archons. This was done to insure the continued freedom of Athens' citizens, and place a check on her aristocrats. The sophist and teacher Protagoras (in Plato's dialogue of the same name), has Athens' democratic institutions tossed in his face by Socrates, who points out that while questions such as shipbuilding are limited to answers by shipwrights and seamen, questions of a more general political nature are allowed to be stated and answered by any citizen at the assembly, whether they have either training or experience in the matter at hand.

Protagoras answers Socrates by telling a parable of how, after the creation of man, human families lived solitary existences, and were in danger of being exterminated by the wild animals. Men then tried to secure their lives by building cities and towns, but these cities and towns were torn by strife because men had not yet learned to work together for a common goal. (In other words, they were libertarians-R.G.)

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Zeus, Lord of Olympus, fearing humanity's destruction, prepared to send Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, down with two gifts for humanity that would permit the art of politics to be practiced, so that man could live and work together in unity and amity within their towns and cities.

The first of these gifts was aidos--a Greek word meaning both responsibility and the shame which accompanies our failure to fulfill our responsibility. This form of responsibility, both implicit and explicit, is one we have to ourselves and others.

The second of these gifts was dike--a Greek word which in this case means respect for the rights of others, including the right to have contrary opinions to your own. This includes listening to those opinions, rather than ignoring them because we believe them to be foolish or uninformed.

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Richard Girard is an increasingly radical representative of the disabled and disenfranchised members of America's downtrodden, who suffers from bipolar disorder (type II or type III, the professionals do not agree). He has put together a team to (more...)

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