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D'Amato [Northwestern]: President Bush's Second-Term Speech

Anthony D'Amato, Northwestern University School of Law:

"Although I have been very critical of the President, I write to report how thrilled I was to hear his second-term acceptance speech. He may not have written it, but he ratified it and spoke it and that's good enough for me.

"We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

Is there anything more important than that? If America were an island surrounded by oppression everywhere, we could hardly hope to sustain our freedoms at home.

"Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government because no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave "

The best operational statement of both of the above positions was, I think, put forth by the philosopher Karl Popper. He said that where a people can change its own government bloodlessly, we have our highest hope for freedom. The people's ability to change their government will produce a government whose highest motivation is to act in the best interests of the people. States go astray, and they suffer huge losses, when the government declares itself perpetual and acts by force of arms to suppress dissidents.

"The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations."

I think Popper would agree that tyranny is our greatest enemy. It's not communism, or fascism, or peoples' democracies, or whatever; it's just plain tyranny. See his "The Open Society and its Enemies."

"Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country."

On its face, this sentence is no different from American sentiments uttered during the decades of the Cold War. In that era, we supported democratic dissidents because we were hoping that they would come to power and support our side against the Soviet Union. Today, however, we don't have a bi-polar world. Does the demise of the Soviet Union mean that a sentence uttered forty years ago is different in meaning from a similar sentence uttered today? I think so. We can no longer identify a dissident as "democratic" by the simple fact of his or her opposition to the regime in power which is ideologically aligned with the USSR. Instead, we have to look more closely at the merits of the claim of being a democratic reformer. I think that this may signal an enormous shift in our foreign policy.

"Americans move forward in every generation by reaffirming all that is good and true that came before; ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever."

I don't think anyone can subscribe in any deep and committed sense to ideals of justice and morality that they think are relative to time and place. I think that these ideals, in order to have any non-trivial meaning, must be the same yesterday, today, and forever. I acknowledge that anti-relativism in matters of morality can lead to excesses of self-righteousness, and I can understand those who say that our invasion of Iraq was an example of such excess. (But I would deny that shifting from absolute to relative morality is necessary to cure the Iraq problem, and I reaffirm my public position of two years ago that toppling Saddam Hussein was the morally correct thing to do.)

"We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul."

I'm a lot less confident about it than President Bush. Enslavement could spread across the world, and we have to fight actively, to disagree, to speak out, to act, always and everywhere, eternally vigilant, to keep tyranny from spreading. Once enslavement is in place, human freedom could be lost for thousands and thousands of years. Although I am inspired by the last of the quoted sentences, I don't believe that history happens because we have hopes, hungers, or longings. I'm not at all sure that freedom is the natural condition of mankind. We could discover to our shock that enslavement of the few (who control the weapons) over the many is the natural default position. "Human choices move events," but we cannot afford to allow to others the hugely mistaken choice of tyrannical government." [January 21, 2005]

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