Southern Seen — Liberation abetted by de-liberation
By: Larry McGehee
The irony of Plymouth Rock is that the Pilgrims and the Puritans of
Massachusetts Bay soon after them in escaping from European religious conformity immediately established their own brand of it. Their liberty was de liberating. In Connecticut and in Massachusetts, it would be two more centuries before their religion was “disestablished” as the official faith for citizens of those colonies/states.
“Deliberate” is a terribly good word to ponder in an election year.”Liberate” means
“to set free”. “De liberate” used as a verb ought logically to mean “to imprison or enslave”. An uncaged canary ought to be called “liberated”, but “deliberated” if caught and encaged again.
“Deliberating”, of course, means something else. It is not just the antithesis of liberating. We use it to mean “intending” or “thinking through” or “talking over”. Democracy in America often has been called “the deliberate experiment”, something taken seriously and consciously.
Democracy as a concept was hardly more than a gleam in its parents’ eyes when the Pilgrims arrived. Just as the birth, nurture and education, infancy, adolescence, and maturity of a person is a deliberate experiment requiring consciousness, planning, concerted action, and goals so it has been with democracy in America.
The price of liberation is deliberation.We are a nation of individuals, and democracy has placed high value on the liberties of individuals. But those individuals most often exercise those liberties within institutions within schools, governments, churches, clubs, volunteer service agencies, businesses.
All institutions limit the liberties of their members. They have charters, by laws, rulebooks, dues, procedures, meetings, and parliamentarians in short, “de liberations” for that very purpose. Short of being a savage or a hermit in a wilderness, the only way to have “liberty” is “de liberately” to create it in association with others. That takes the form of institutions Mayflower Compacts, Constitutions, and so forth. We define ourselves by electing to have others with whom to be for comparisons, for co-operations, even for criticisms and conflicts. We find our liberty by deliberating. Institutions are licensed license, deliberated liberty.
Institutions survive and thrive by two means by drift or by deliberation. Drift is the cellophane tape approach. It means ad hoc and added on actions, as when a school becomes aware belatedly of the dangers of asbestos ceilings and then replaces them, or a hotel closes after an earthquake instead of not building atop a geological fault at all.
The second means by which institutions collections of individuals acting collectively for common liberties for all thrive is by deliberation. Here the premium is upon anticipation and participation, upon foresight and applied hindsight, upon reasoning and dialogue.
Another good ambiguous word for deliberating is “reckoning”. Some think it means accountability after the fact as in “the last reckoning”. More typically, it means charting scientifically ahead as when the ship pilot “reckons” by the stars and radar, by radio and maps, and by landmarks.
The ability to reckon, or to deliberate, surely must have progressed some since the days of the Mayflower. (After all, those Pilgrims were aiming to go to Virginia.)
Yet, old habits are hard to break. We still trust a lot to “fate” or “chance” or “nature” or “others”. Our will to deliberate has not caught up with our improved capacity for it. Ours will be institutions of snarled cellophane tape adrift, or at best of a few licensed elites, wherever and whenever too many people think liberty means freedom from responsibility for their institutions. Institutions are endangered less by the red tape of rules than by the accumulated ad hoc cellophane tape of drift. Delegated deliberation is abdicated deliberation. In a complex democracy, the cost of liberty is deliberation-everyone thinking and talking it out, freely.
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com
Published in The Messenger 5.13.08