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on 7 May 2003
A good idea -- but hardly original, April 19, 2003
Reviewer: Ted Rushton (see more about me) from PHOENIX, Arizona United
States
This could have been a great book, as one certainly expects from Alan Dershowitz; unfortunately, it
reflects the American belief that democracy was invented here rather than realizing this country is
part of a long evolution of freedom.
Dershowitz, a renowned Harvard law school professor and frequent commentator on individual
rights, wastes most of his effort refuting, rejecting and attacking the Religious Right rather than
understanding such people are the bell weather of American freedom. He doesn't seem to
understand the impact of the Religious Right (or the Radical Left) is in inverse proportion to the
level of freedom in this or any other country -- as the absolute rule of the Taliban religious
extremists certainly proved in Afghanistan.
However, zealots exist in very society. Perhaps they counterbalance each other; if they become
part of the Establishment, they crimp the freedom of everyone. Dershowitz uses the massive
artillery of his intellect to attack the limited acumen of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Alan Keyes
-- as if Justice Louis Brandeis would have been profitably employed attacking Father Coughlin.
Dershowitz doesn't seem to understand that freedom and individual rights have constantly evolved
in Anglo society for more than a thousand years. Democracy wasn't invented when Thomas
Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, cribbing many ideas from the English Bill of
Rights written in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Freedom and democracy is a constant and
uneven struggle, not an accident or gift .
The Declaration of Independence was a quantum leap forward in defining some basic ideas of
freedom, but it was not the end of the process. Before 1776, American colonists had legitimate
complaints; the Thirteen Colonies were run by the English Colonial office, part of the executive
branch of government. Colonists were ruled by King George III and his bureaucrats, instead of
their own elected officials.
In response, the colonists said, in effect, "We're Englishmen. We have an absolute right to be
represented in Parliament." If their rights were denied, according to the Bill of Rights of 1688, they
had a right to overthrow the government. As Englishmen brought up with the Bill of Rights, the
Declaration asserted their most basic rights.
Out of that came The United States of America, with a Constitution written to clearly avoid
problems which led to the Declaration of Independence. Dershowitz recognizes the idea that
freedom evolves in a society; his weakness is thinking there was an immaculate birth of freedom in
America in 1776. He doesn't understand the Declaration of Independence was a bold and perfectly
legitimate assertion of the basic rights of every free Englishman -- and from this a new form of
"Democracy in America" (to use Alexis de Tocqueville's phrase) evolved.
There are two elements in society: a view that people are basically evil and must be restrained for
their own good, as represented by the likes of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton
and the current Bush administration. The countering view says people are basically good and must
be free of as many social restraints as feasible, as represented by Rousseau, Voltaire and Thomas
Paine and the usual Democratic politicians.
Either view, if carried to the extremes of a Father Coughlin or Alan Keyes, or the excesses of the
French or Russian revolutions, destroys our freedoms.
Yet, history shows an uneven but very real expansion of human freedom. When freedom is limited,
the response in 1775 was the shot heard round the world; today, the response is often footsteps
that cross half the world to find freedom.
This screed by Dershowitz is a rant against the Religious Right. His recognized talents would have
been much better used to examine and explain the English origins of the Declaration, rather than
bashing baleful bigots who are mostly irrelevant in a free society.
All in all, perhaps a useful book to demolish straw devils; but, it could have been immeasurably
better with a different approach.
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