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Letter: Preserving our democratic ideals

Is our government tyrannical? By Founder standards, yes.

Is our government tyrannical? By Founder standards, yes. Photo Credit: Tribune Media Services / Kevin Kreneck

Columnist Lane Filler's welcome belief in our Bill of Rights ["Our desires erode our Bill of Rights," Opinion, June 12] belies efforts by elected officials to trade freedom for security, as if the latter could ever be assured.

President Barack Obama's surveillance program, like President George W. Bush's Patriot Act, makes real the late George Orwell's fictional warning in "1984" against governmental oppression. Both presidents echo Enlightenment thinker Thomas Hobbes' ancient claim that a social contract commands that we pledge loyalty to strong leaders in return for protection.

But Hobbes thought people were "brutish" by nature; Bush and Obama, by contrast, laud our democratic society and those who live in it. This makes them hypocrites.

Preserving that democratic society was the founders' concern. George Washington refused a kingship in favor of the presidential precedent; Thomas Jefferson sought free public schools where generations would learn to apply ancient Athens' democratic ideas. John Adams thought our evolving society would enhance its democracy as new groups arrived on our beacon shores.

But today we are complacent. TV infotainment lets minds sleep. Textbooks trivialize people's movements against wars and for labor, feminist, gay and civil rights. The U.S. Department of Education's "college and career ready" refrain denies the need for the active citizenship on which democracy depends.

John and Robert Kennedy asserted as presidential candidates that we can do better. But with no Kennedys now to lead us, we must lead ourselves. Indiscriminate spying on American citizens must stop.

Mike McQuillan, Brooklyn

Editor's note: The writer teaches history at the Brooklyn School for Global Studies.