Insofar as we take pride in these activities, and come to know others who do so as well, we are creating civil society.
Dr. Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
This week’s lesson is so simple, yet so important. Pick a charity or a cause (or two), and dedicate a regular payment to them. It’s easy with the various autopay options available, and most of their websites give you a direct link for setting it up.
Even better, read their newsletters. Participate in their activities. Contribute your time and ideas.
The importance of this is that, as Snyder says, “When Americans think of freedom, we usually imagine a contest between a lone individual and a powerful government…But one element of freedom is the choice of associates…”
Turns out that “freedom of association” is not precisely spelled out in the American Constitution or the Amendments. It is an ongoing rights evolution that has been wrangled over for many years.
As the Cornell University Law School Legal Information site explains (emphasis is mine):
The doctrine is a fairly recent construction, the problems associated with it having previously arisen primarily in the context of loyalty-security investigations of Communist Party membership, and these cases having been resolved without giving rise to any separate theory of association…
It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the ‘liberty’ assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech. . . .
Of course, it is immaterial whether the beliefs sought to be advanced by association pertain to political, economic, religious or cultural matters, and state action which may have the effect of curtailing the freedom to associate is subject to the closest scrutiny.
Freedom of association as a concept thus grew out of a series of cases in the 1950s and 1960s in which certain states were attempting to curb the activities of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In the first case, the Court unanimously set aside a contempt citation imposed after the organization refused to comply with a court order to produce a list of its members within the state…
There can no longer be any doubt that freedom to associate with others for the common advancement of political beliefs and ideas is a form of ‘orderly group activity’ protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The right to associate with the political party of one’s choice is an integral part of this basic constitutional freedom.
These rights are under scrutiny, because they are constantly being challenged and decided on a case by case basis.
That’s why we need groups that help maintain our freedom to belong to causes and groups: environmental organizations, those who protect LGBTQ interests, people of color, women’s rights, economic justice, and so on. These are the protectors that champion the rights of minorities to belong to country clubs, sports teams, and scout troops; that save endangered species and expose corporate cheating; and that summon help for refugees, immigrants, the hungry, and abused.
And they need to thrive. Thus we need dedicated volunteers, donors, and professionals who get involved. By our neglect, or leaving active engagement to someone else, these protectors can be weakened, making it easy for them to become impotent, assimilated by an autocracy, or vanish completely.
And, as Snyder emphasizes, non-government organizations are vital in a free society.
Not only do they expand our circle of like-minded souls and unite us in ways that are good for the causes they serve, they stand outside of political influence.
“In the twentieth century,” Snyder writes, “all the major enemies of freedom were hostile to non-governmental organizations, charities, and the like…Today’s authoritarians (in India, Turkey, Russia) are also highly allergic to the idea of free associations and non-governmental organizations.”
Even when they are not particularly political.
But Wait. There’s More!
There is another, more subtle benefit of involvement with, and support for such groups.
In my experience, the antidote to fear, paranoia (especially when justified!), and despair is action.
In this unprecedented time, when we are in pandemic isolation from one another, and the White House seems to be following the playbook of authoritarianism to the letter, it is easy to stew in a toxic miasma of frustration, frantic but essentially useless social media clicks, and gloom.
It’s true that action is much harder to summon, especially if, like me, you are very high risk and simply cannot go marching.
Still, though, there are many ways to be involved and support the causes you care about. And the more you do so, the more you will come to trust others, feel aligned with your own authenticity, and, yes, begin to realize you are still empowered.
Sharing in an undertaking teaches us that we can trust people beyond a narrow circle of friends and families, and helps us to recognizes authorities from whom we can learn.
The capacity for trust and learning can make life seem less chaotic and mysterious, and democratic politics more plausible and attractive.
Reinforcing the mechanics of micro-democracy within an organization, we practice benevolent, collegial leadership and participation. We deepen the normalcy of mutual collaboration, and become habituated to independence and helping one another work for the common good.
Which is the antithesis of authoritarianism, and they very well know it.
So pick your groups. Offer your contributions.
But even better, get involved. Our watchdogs, charities, and progressive groups are in need of your strength. And in return, they will strengthen you.
Here are the links from my previous posts:
Introduction to Freedom Fridays
Freedom Fridays, Lesson One: Do Not Obey In Advance
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Two: Defend Institutions
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Three: Beware the One-Party State
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Four: Take Responsibility for the Face of the World
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Five: Remember Professional Ethics
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Six: Be Wary of Paramilitaries
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 7: Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 8: Stand Out
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 9: Be Kind to Our Language
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 10: Believe in Truth
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 11: Investigate
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 12: Make Eye Contact and Small Talk
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 13: Practice Corporeal Politics
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 14: Establish a Private Life