Independence, American-Style

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The powers that be seem mighty upset by "The Patriot" starring Mel Gibson as the Southern planter who takes up arms against the British to defend his home and family. The film is brilliant in many ways. It shows a new generation the original meaning of patriotism before it was corrupted by this century’s foreign wars: not worshiping the government or its leaders, but taking pride in American freedom, in a land where the natural rights to liberty and property are sacred. There’s much more to the story, as readers of Murray N. Rothbard’s 4-volume Conceived in Liberty know. But this film is not a bad start.

So why is everyone so upset? The outrage of the British is to be expected, of course. They can’t stand being accused of war crimes, even though British foreign policy has been singularly brutal and expansionist for centuries. No other country has beat up on so many foreigners for so long. It’s not that the Brits are incapable of self-criticism. They just can’t stand being accused by Americans, whom they have always looked down upon as backward and uncivilized even as they’ve dragged us into their wars. The film illustrates this attitude quite well.

Why then do American left-liberals hate the movie? There’s the notorious scene where Mel Gibson gives his young sons guns and instructs them to shoot the British officers. It’s been said that this scene is what earned the film an unjustified R rating, even though kids defending their property and family with guns was a staple of the Western movies as recently as the 1950s. As Gibson himself says, this is the way it was. How is it that the same people who are howling that "The Patriot" took liberties with real history are decrying the highly realistic portrayal of young boys taking up arms?

But that’s not the real reason left-liberals don’t like the film. Let’s face it: partisans of the current American regime are against any cultural phenomenon (whether movie, song, or book) that might raise fundamental questions about the current political order, even if only by implication. Reflecting on the war for American independence, you can’t help but notice that the taxes that caused the American revolt were a pittance compared with how we are looted now. The Clinton administration makes King George look like Tom Paine.

Are we supposed to believe that liberty was great in the 18th century but not necessary in the 21st? That high taxation was unnecessary then but shelling out 40 percent of our earnings to the state today is perfectly justified? That King George was an awful despot but the one million unelected bureaucrats and judges who run our lives today are our friends and protectors? Heavens no. If revolution was right back then, it is more right today. The left-liberal answer to this conclusion is to suppress all cultural signs that make government look bad.

Just as "Braveheart" emboldened the movement for Scottish independence against English imperialism, the American elites fear that "The Patriot" will provide aid and comfort to the millions who long to throw off the yoke of oppressive government, just as our forefathers did. That’s why they say they fear that "The Patriot" will encourage the "far right," as if the desire for freedom is restricted to a tiny sect of political extremists, while everyone else is just thrilled to be ruled by the most well-funded, well-armed, and personally invasive government in the world. After all, even Castro recognizes the right to smoke and doesn’t attempt to regulate the size of your toilet tank.

What’s more, the usual democratic channels don’t offer much hope for real change, any more than they did in the Colonial period. The Congress and the White House can throw us bones in the form of tiny tax cuts spread over ten years. But no legislative efforts are going to gut big government in a way that would have satisfied the signers of the Declaration of Independence, much less those who fought and died to throw off the British crown.

A huge swath of the American public understands this. Big government doesn’t set well with the American temperament. The prospect for mass revolt always lies just beneath the surface, and has since the ratification of the Constitution. Threats of secession and actual attempts to renew the promise of the first revolution are strewn throughout the late 18th and 19th century. The Southern secession in 1861 is only the most famous.

The impulse to throw off the yoke of big government has been suppressed in our own century because of the Great Depression and the wars. Ten years after the Cold War, big government is bigger than it has ever been, but there is no longer a practical or ideological rationale behind it. The state is just openly and aggressively ravenous, much more so than the original British oppressors.

The power elite’s greatest fear has always been rising public consciousness of the evil of the big government. This is why, for example, Colonial history is so rarely taught in high schools, and why there is so little attention given to the American Revolution in popular culture. Ever since Southern secession, it has been politically incorrect to discuss the subject of the American Revolution in any depth. We are told that the revolution was about "equality," not throwing off tyranny, and to think no more about it.

The Clinton administration speaks about the leviathan state as if it is permanent and indispensable. But all of history would suggest otherwise. No government is guaranteed permanence, especially not those that consistently rule against the will of the people. That is the key lesson of the last ten years. Neither will the present American regime last. Indeed, its days are numbered, as the new generation’s sense of loyalty to DC dwindles with each day, and the false patriotism of the 20th century is replaced by the authentic patriotism of the 18th.

What would a new American independence movement look like? After the colonists fought against the British crown, they put together a magnificent system of government under the Articles of Confederation. The idea was that the 13 separate colonies would retain all their freedom, political autonomy, and cultural identity, but would cooperate in the common defense if the need ever arose again. More so than the US Constitution that came later, that extreme federalist understanding of the "union" truly captures what the revolution was all about.

It’s common among conservatives to call for a return to the Constitution. But why stop there? Let’s return to the Articles of Confederation, the original founding document. Besides, secession by smaller government units is the most peaceful path. Fifty separate nations? Why not? Why not 500?

Even today, secessionist movements are springing up in every state. They are still small and lack mainstream influence, but all the hysteria about the rise of "neo-confederates" shows that they are starting to bother all the right people. It’s no wonder that the partisans of the welfare-warfare state fear anything that would stir people up. A film alone won’t do it, but too many more years of misrule from DC might trigger the same spirited defense of libertarian rights that caused the British military to pack its bags so long ago.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.

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