Celebrate dissent this Fourth (7/3/2008)

Dating back to the Declaration of Independence itself, America has been the land of dissent. Protecting it is part of our history, our political DNA and our Constitution.

The Fourth of July — flag-waving, parades and fireworks — provides a golden opportunity to renew our commitment to those rights and ideals that define and distinguish our nation.

Chief among these is the First Amendment’s freedom of expression, a fundamental liberty exalted by the Supreme Court’s denial of governmental authority to establish “Americanism.”

In 1943, Justice Robert Jackson eloquently wrote: “If there is any fixes star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act therein.”

Precluding authority from forging a monopoly on patriotism is wise since pretension to such power is the first step toward totalitarianism. Protecting dissent enables citizens to express love of country while reserving the right to criticize government and propose remedies to set it straight — the essence of patriotism. Without this right, and sometimes in spite of it, patriotism, as Sen. Barrack Obama observed recently in Independence, Mo., is converted into a sword to divide loyal from disloyal Americans.

The temptation to censor, scorn and intimidate those who would dissent from prevailing laws and policies is strong, particularly when the majority is brimming with confidence in the wisdom of its views. Such temptations must be resisted. They are essentially short-sighted and self-defeating.

Our entire system — indeed, the premise and promise of republicanism — rests on the assumption that through discussion and debate, we will reach superior policies. That requires broad protection for speech, including dissent.

Dissent’s virtue lies in its potential to expose deficiencies in governmental programs and policies. At a minimum, it invites reconsideration and, perhaps, reaffirmation of our prevailing views. At most, it may lead to revision and correction of failed policies.

Because it requires courage to challenge the prevailing view, dissent deserves appreciation. Patriotism must not be converted into a word to denounce and savage those who would shed light on government actions.

The Founders’ embrace of constitutional encouragement and protection of dissent reflected doubts about their own infallibility and that of subsequent American leaders. Moreover, it recognized no official or citizen could claim a monopoly on patriotism.

Two centuries of Americans practicing dissent confirms this view. Repressive barriers, including race and gender discrimination, have been toppled. Democratic institutions, including the expansion of the franchise, have improved the quality of life in the United States.

Our Constitution guarantees the right to dissent. Dissent is embedded in our DNA. America was born in dissent. Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and John Adams were among history’s greatest dissenters. Had they not dissented, we’d still be English — worth remembering as we rightly celebrate our freedom and independence.

Adler is a political science professor at Idaho State University who has written and lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and presidential power.