Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The First Amendment protects the right to disagree. The religious clauses encourage a diversity of faiths, so there's no philosophical majority weighing down on our moral thought. Freedom of speech emboldens the right to question authority. Most important to me: Establishing a free press creates a class of professional agitators. There are always questions about whether news has a liberal bias. I think it's because we think that the people who most want to rock the boat tend toward progressivism, and that's probably true. If news itself has a bias, though, it's more anti-authoritarian than ideological. We saw the rise of a conservative press in the 1980s not because there is an inherit left-wing skew to mainstream media but because, I think, the previous generation of intellectual elite had trended so far left—the authorities had changed. There's always room in America to find a new way to tell the story of us. Barack Obama did it in his second inaugural, which is my favorite of his speeches. In it, he told the story of the United States as one of ever expanding Revolution, one that started with the Declaration of Independence and will never end. It would have been nice if he'd embrace that worldview more in the practice of his presidency.
It means a great deal to me to live in a country so committed to tumult. The last two clauses of the amendment are critical, because they extend the right to ruckus into everyday civic life. And those rights were particularly challenged this summer, when the town of Ferguson, Missouri tried to peaceably assembly to redress a very real grievance: the killing of Michael Brown. It's especially heartening to see those protests couldn't be quashed.
First off, don't worry about the musicians. They're artists, so I'm sure they loved it. This is also probably the most memorable thing that will happen on the St. Louis Symphony's program this season.
Second, what a beautiful form of protest. What people think about the incident in Ferguson has generally fallen along a race class divide, and this is a glorious way to highlight it, shattering a bit of pomp. In fact, you can hear a guy in the front saying "He was a thug!" That's a lot of what the aftermath of Brown's death has centered on. There are some people who see an overly militarized police force that didn't want to answer questions after one of its members shot a teenager who didn't have a gun. And there are many, many others who want to wonder about Brown's behavior and character. It just doesn't matter. We don't let agents of our government summarily execute people on the street, we don't let them arrest reporters just for doing their jobs, and we don't let them disperse peaceful protests with tear gas just because they're worried the crowd might be infiltrated with law-breakers.
I've been thinking a lot about this lately, because if you draw a line from the outrages Edward Snowden revealed, to the Obama administration's heavy handedness with whistleblowers, to the killing of unarmed black men, it's an important time to discuss what Americanness is, and what the real threats to it are.