Ferguson and the death of the American idea



At the heart of the American idea is that belief that self-government is possible. Self-government is one in which there is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people can flourish. The laws are made democratically, by the people, and most importantly the people obey the laws they have made as they serve the common good not the good of a group or an individual. In essence, this is the idea of self-government. We obey the laws we have made because they apply to everyone equally. This idea based on a belief is fading. Obedience to the laws is no longer the dominant civil religion within America. The belief that underpins the American idea is dying and we can see this in what Ferguson has revealed about America.

To distrust the government is to distrust ourselves

The seductive desire to disobey the law has been growing over generations. The distrust of the government growing since 1968 has started to become an outright hatred for the government.  Could a government dedicated to the proposition of self-government be possible?  In 1863, Lincoln explained that America was fighting a bloody and vicious civil war to answer this question in the affirmative. He fought the war to save the Union, a Union that was based on the Constitution. Without the Constitution, a set of laws made by the people and obey by them, self government was not possible. Yet, the government that no longer serves the common good, but serves a group, cannot be considered one that allows for self-government.

Each generation must answer the call to renew America

Lincoln understood that the civil war did not settle the matter. He knew before the war that America’s political institutions had to be renewed and strengthened by each generation. What would destroy America would never be a foreign emperor leading a conquering army. Instead, he warned in his Lyceum address (1838) America would be destroyed from within its borders. He feared lawlessness and a disregard for the laws by American citizens would be the cause of America’s defeat. What began as lawless in spirit would become the lawless in deed. For those who were lawless in spirit, the government would represent their greatest constraint to their “freedom”. They would destroy the government to be “free”.

“the lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint but dread of punishment, they become absolutely unrestrained. Having ever regarded government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations, and pray for nothing so much as its total annihilation”

We can see those prophetic words coming to life in Ferguson. The police used arbitrary power to enforce the law. Then the public encouraged to be lawless in spirit from the lack of justice within their community, attacked the symbols of the law. In turn, outsiders travelled to Ferguson to fan the flames of violence, disorder, and destruction. These strangers were not interested in justice, or the common good, they were interested in destruction, the lawlessness in deed. Yet, that lawlessness in spirit is not limited to the street, it occurs in the corporate suite and city hall. In those places, the American idea becomes something to be used to further the corporate or political interest. What Ferguson revealed is that America is in danger of becoming a country that is for one group, by one group, and of one group. When that occurs, then the common good has disappeared.

Without a common or shared vision of justice, we are but a gang of robbers

For America to survive its people have to remain attached to the government as the common expression of the law, and in turn, justice. The people have to be faithful to the idea that it was a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Yet, when the people lose faith in the government, they lose faith in themselves. If Americas did not reaffirm their faith in the American idea, that self-government is possible, then ruin was certain.

“I know the American People are much attached to their Government;–I know they would suffer much for its sake;–I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.” [1]

Is America no longer a country that can show reverence for the law either in the street or in the city hall? If we cannot sustain the democratic experiment, who will? Citizens seek their own good and pay no heed to the common good. The logic is “As long as I am ok, it doesn’t matter what happens to you. You had your chance and made the wrong choice.” Such a view expresses the corrupted idea of what self-government now means in America.

Our individual lawlessness devours the common good

We are not talking about a political debate over the size of the government. We are not talking about whether government spending should be reformed. We are not talking about how regulations stifle capitalistic freedom. We are talking about a dislike, distrust, and even an outright hatred of the government. Let us not confuse this with an esoteric debate that seeks to parse the nuances of a government as an agent separate from the people. The government at all levels has becomes a legitimate target of hatred and destruction. The hatred has as its target an idea. The idea is that the individual has to accept that their self-government is bound up with obedience to the laws.

Without obedience to the laws, self-government is not possible. .

Self-government is not a right, it is a not a certainty, it is not permanent. It is a proposition that must be answered every day by each citizen. If Americans are to live together as one people, they have to understand that it is as one people, united and expressed in the common good. The government express our common belief, our common good that we can live together under the law. Instead, it has become the idea that we can only live by own rules and the government is a tyranny.  We can only be “free” if we are rid of it. What is forgotten in that belief is that self-government was our last best hope to avoid a government of arbitrary violence.

Ferguson has shown us what it means when the government no longer serves communities with equal justice. The American experiment begins to fade for these communities because the law is something imposed on them. When the government no longer serves all communities equally, does America have justice? Even without the death of Michael Brown, we can see a similar injustice in Chicago where it is alleged that the Police Department, under political pressure to improve the murder statistics, reclassified homicides as non criminal deaths.[2] The reclassified murders are nearly all black men and women. In Chicago, the communities with the highest murder rates are the black communities. When the police reclassify the murders, the government stops working for these people as they are excluded from the common good that the government is for the people. It does not work for their community. They are left with lawlessness. The  other Chicagoans enjoy the “common” good.

The lawlessness has grown over the past two generations.

America’s disbelief in the principle of self-government has not occurred overnight, but over generations. Over generations, the people have lost their understanding of what is good for the country. As citizens have lost that understanding, the country has suffered. The illness does have a cure. It is to reawaken our belief in the common good and the responsibility to hold ourselves to account for we have done for the common good. What Ferguson has done is show us that the common good is tenuous. The black community live with injustice and violence unknown to the rest of America.

Can America still claim to know its common good?

The law is founded on a belief in the common good, something larger than the individual and something more than a cynical transaction between the citizen and the state. The only way we can reignite the hunger for self-government is if we educate our young to be citizens, to obey the law because it is good and it serves the common good. In turn, we have to ensure that the law serves the common good that no one person, no institution, is above the law. Either we return to the idea of self-government that is based on an idea of the common good or we prepare ourselves for its alternatives:  anarchy or tyranny. In Ferguson, we have seen what happens when the common good is neglected and the law appears as an oppressor rather than as something that reflects the community.

[1] http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm

[2] http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/May-2014/Chicago-crime-rates/


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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3 Responses to Ferguson and the death of the American idea

  1. Filippi says:

    Lawlessness reflects an idea about our human nature.Or, an academic as Michael Jensen who is a researcher in the field of economics, has written about this nature as a sort of lawless state. It’s a perversion of Fromm’theoretical meaning grounded into the concept of self-healing. Laws are bad and must be destroyed if they constrain you and cut the way to your proper nature. Your nature is perfection and laws act against your perfection or the perfection of a Nation … This theory is used by managers, the Army, and you want they are in respect of the laws of the State? Perfection is upper the laws and in Ferguson all people are searching for a sort of perfection even the policemen, the rioters and perhaps Obama himself.

    • Michel,
      Thank you for the comment. The search for justice is never finished and we each pursue it. The challenge is to find a way to create a common justice that all can access equally. Perhaps it is but a dream but it is something we should try to develop.



      • Lawrence,

        I agree with a vivid heart. As a novelty justice appears now like a moving, iridescent aegis and each peope says “‘it’s mine, for me, my pattern .. ” and we have to build an idea of Justice for all with rules, laws for all as a whole and not for all as individuals.



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