Passover tells us that tyrants fall only when revolution affects them directly and that revolutions are successful only when focused on individual liberty.
Passover, which begins tonight, is about so many things: the Jewish people’s renewed covenant with God; their escape from slavery; the journey that ended with the Ten Commandments and a return to Eretz Israel, the Holy Land of Israel; and — which is the subject of my annual post — the nature of tyranny.
Think about this for a minute: The Passover story, depending upon which Biblical archaeology you’re referencing, places the Passover story sometime between the 16th and 13th centuries B.C. In other words, this is a story that Jews have told and retold for as many as 3,500 years — and it’s a story that is always relevant. Slaves in the South took it as their story in 19th century America. And a couple of decades ago, when I was the only straight person at a gay Passover, the attendees there took it as their story too. The yearning for liberty is a timeless aspect of the human psyche.
It’s worth contemplating for a moment what “liberty” means. In European history, “liberty” invariably means trading one form of tyranny for another form of tyranny — only one in which the revolutionaries will have control. To Europeans, therefore, “liberty” is a gigantic state that will give them, rather than the others, all the goodies government can grab. And if, in exchange, government gets to control what they do, say, and think, well, they’re still “free” if the goodies keep flowing.
Once upon a time, the Americans went in a completely different direction that was more consistent with the original Exodus story. To go back to Exodus for a moment, Exodus might have told how the Jews rose up against Pharaoh, defeated him, took over Egypt, and enslaved their former enemies, at which point everyone who sided with the Jews lived happily ever after . . . right up until the Jews were deemed the tyrants and in turn overthrown.
But Exodus tells a different story: It tells about Jews leaving the old system behind entirely in order to live as a free people, even if that freedom meant the lack of a government safety net. After all, Pharaoh may have been cruel, but he kept them fed and housed. In the desert and in the land of Israel, the Jews were responsible for themselves, for better or worse.
In the same way, the American Revolutionaries, having concluded that England had become a tyrant by taking their money and dictating their actions without giving them a say in government, opted to create a different system entirely: one in which government played as small a role as possible and in which citizens had the greatest control over their lives . . . a notion both exciting and frightening. Ultimately, with fits and starts, failures and victories, tweaks and intransigence, this liberty-oriented system gave birth, not only to the most powerful nation in the world, but also to a nation that lifted more people out of poverty than any other nation ever had. Poverty is its own form of subjugation, so America spread freedom from want around large parts of the world. Indeed, today, those parts of the world most mired in poverty are nations that have systems antithetical to the American principles of individual liberty, small government, and a free market.
Put more simply, America went the Exodus route and traded enslavement for liberty. America did so because Americans, like the ancient Israelites, believed freedom was worth the scary downsides. And just as the ancient Israelites gave birth to a set of rules that changed the world (by which I mean the Ten Commandments), so too did Americans give birth to a political system that changed the world (by which I mean a system predicated upon limited constitutional government allied with a free market).
Both the Exodus story and the American experiment show that freedom is worth the price.
The eternal timeliness of the Exodus story also matters because it reminds us that tyranny never changes: Different tyrants may use different forms of tyranny, ranging from actual enslavement, as Pharaoh did, to oppressive political systems in which people ostensibly have citizens’ “rights” but lack all actual power over their lives. These modern tyrannies can be religious (think Iran), military (think of every Latin American junta), or ideological. In the latter category are fully socialist nations, such as North Korea pr Venezuela; socialist nations that nevertheless have commerce, such as China; and micromanaged liberal fascist states, of the type embodied in the European Union. In all of them, true freedom is illusory but the state, whether as a loving parent or a cruel, minatory parent, hides this lack of freedom by boasting about how it takes care of its citizens’ needs.
Another thing that never changes about tyranny is that, no matter how tyrants talk about what they do for the people, they hate the people. The only thing that matters to the one(s) atop the tyranny pyramid is that the tyranny remains stable and protected. Which gets me to my annual Passover post which, as always, I’ve edited it to reflect current concerns. [Read more…]