The Responsibilities of American Citizenship (1984)

Norman Lear on Business, Politics and Culture

Speech Excerpts, 1972 – 2011

The Responsibilities of American Citizenship (1984)

I cannot overstate how much the word “citizenship” means to me.  Felix Frankfurter said that the highest office in a democracy is the office of citizen.  I believe that with all my heart.  This government, which functions through the “consent of the governed” is our government.  And the Congress and the President, who work for us, on our payroll, are our Congress and President.

But the responsibilities of citizenship are not discharged simply by voting.  Being an American citizen means exercising our rights fully – and this can sometimes invite abuse.  The history of America is rife with examples of citizens who were willing to brave threats and jeers and imprisonment in order to spread the mantle of constitutional justice.

This nation’s first Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, recognized that genuine citizenship can be a risky thing.  In his Farewell Address, Washington warned: “Real patriots, who may resist the intrigues of the favorite, are liable to become suspected and odious.”  It is true:  citizenship does not always win instant, easy acclaim.  That’s because it so often requires challenging the “intrigues of the favorite” – the tyranny of the majority.

In a democracy, the will of the majority rules – as it should.  But at the same time, the conscience and rights of the individual are sacred, and also deserve protection.  So the Founding Fathers came up with one of the greatest inventions of modern statecraft: an independent judiciary.  Without the Federal courts, our constitutional rights could evaporate overnight.  An irresponsible majority, hell-bent to punish its enemies, could suddenly decide to suspend freedom of speech or freedom of religion.  Need I add that the first victims of a self-righteous majority would be ethnic and religious groups and individuals who happen to be unpopular?  Scapegoats, sacrificed on the altar of freedom.

What is the spirit of liberty?  Learned Hand once raised the question – and answered it.  “I cannot define it,” he said, “I can only tell you my own faith.  The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is a spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even one sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him, who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind a lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten.”

Josiah Quincy, a colonial patriot and pamphleteer, wisely noted in 1774: “It is much easier to restrain liberty from running into licentiousness than power from swelling into tyranny and oppression.”  Which is why I believe we must welcome the First Amendment’s breathtaking liberties and tolerate its inevitable excesses.…The price that Americans must pay for their unparalleled freedoms is a civil tolerance and respect for citizens who are different, who disagree and who may, in fact, be disagreeable!

Let me commend to you an equally important fight, in its own way as perilous and as rigorous:  the fight for freedom on America’s home front – the fight to ensure that every citizen can enjoy the liberties promised by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  Now there’s a challenge for America’s patriots…. Why should such a giant wish come true with less than great difficulty?  We have come a long way in relatively little time.  There can be no doubt that together we can go the distance.

From “The Rigors of Liberty, Citizenship and the First Amendment,” upon acceptance of The U.S.O. Distinguished American Award, June 6, 1984.