Every Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day, Americans are subjected to endless reruns of an “inspirational” (cringingly stupid) poem by Charles Province, written in 1970: “The Soldier.” “It is the Soldier, not the minister, who has given us freedom of religion.” The poem restates the same basic principle in regard to a series of other freedoms: It’s not the reporter who gave us freedom of the press, or the campus organizer who gave us freedom to protest, or the lawyer who gave us the right to a fair trial; in every case, it is — you guessed it — the Soldier “who has given us” our freedoms.
To see what nonsense this is, we need only consider who the rights to freedom of religion, press, assembly and a fair trial are supposed to protect us against. Stipulating for a moment that the written words of the Constitution actually mean anything when it comes to our freedoms, the first words of the Bill of Rights are “CONGRESS shall make no law” impairing a list of assorted civil liberties. Not “King George shall make no law”; not “Hitler,” “Ho Chi Minh,” “Saddam” or “ISIS shall make no law.” The United States government shall make no law. Our civil liberties are fundamentally protections, not against foreign countries, but against the government that claims to represent us right here at home.
And the Bill of Rights was originally drafted to appease those in the American public who saw the American government as the primary danger to their liberties. And the soldier is an agent of that very same government, under its direct command. So the soldier’s job tends to be enforcing the will of the United States government — not restraining it. The soldier fights in wars against the governments of other countries, not to protect American citizens against the government of this one. And if you look at how prominently the phrase “standing army” figured in the debates over ratification of the Constitution, you can’t escape concluding that the American public in those days took a considerably less glowing view of “the Soldier” than Province does.
Now take a look at who, throughout American history, has actually threatened our liberties. It wasn’t a foreign government that passed and enforced the Sedition Act, or the fugitive slave laws. It wasn’t a foreign government that used troops — “Soldiers” — to break the Pullman Strike, or declared martial law and sent milita to fight pitched battles with workers in the Copper Wars and Coal Wars. It wasn’t a foreign government that threw Eugene Debs in prison, along with thousands of other political prisoners from the labor, socialist and antiwar movements. It wasn’t a foreign government that gassed the Bonus Marchers. It wasn’t a foreign government that put Japanese-Americans in internment camps, or carried out COINTELPRO, or passed USA PATRIOT, or detained American citizens without charge or trial. And it wasn’t “the Soldier” who protected us against these things.
On the occasions when “the Soldier” has actually had occasion to impinge one way or the other on our liberties, the picture has generally not been a pretty one. Whatever those soldiers at Kent State were protecting, it wasn’t “freedom of protest.” It was soldiers that freedom of protest needed protecting against.
Province’s claim that our rights are something “given to” us, handed down from above by the government and its soldiers, is a pernicious, authoritarian, DAMNED lie.
Who has given us our rights? Nobody. We have TAKEN them. Every right we have, we have because we fought for it FROM BELOW. We have these rights because we resisted violations of them, because we fought those who violated them — sometimes fighting “the Soldier” — and COMPELLED the state to recognize them. And the state recognizes them because it’s afraid that if it violates them we’ll damn well fight it — and its soldiers — again.
Rights have never been granted by authority. They have always been asserted against authority, and won from it. We don’t have our rights because the government and its soldiers are nice — but because we’re not. It’s not the Soldier — it’s the dissidents, the hell-raisers, the dirty flag-burning hippies, the folks with bad attitudes towards authority in general, who have given us our rights throughout history, by fighting for them.