Sing For Freedom

Michael Kevane
January 2024

A brief conversation back in 1990 has longserved as a touchstone for me when I think about constitutional issues. I was ayoung economic anthropologist, living in a small village in Kordofan region, inSudan.  Shamu Ahmed, our host, was agarrulous, opinionated farmer, carefully keeping his family just above theabsolute poverty of so many villagers, who lived in thatch huts and farmed thedry, sandy soils with simple hand tools. “He is the son of the mek,” he explained to me, after a youngman had visited the village and I asked why everyone had shown him so muchdeference. The mek had been the localruler in pre-colonial times, more than 100 years earlier. “Why should hematter, and my son is nothing?” Shamu flatly queried, and spat into the reddust.

 As an American, with our distinctive,bred-in-the-bone aversion to aristocracy, his words rang true. The point of aconstitution, an agreement among everyone in society about the foundationalrules for organizing collective governance, is that everyone starts equal.There is no mek, there is no need fordeference, there is no one above the law. Each member of the society is worthyof equal respect. Each person has the same rights. Nobody is above the law, andthe law does not care about your birth. As a character in a well-knowntelevision show had it: "Hi, I'm Saul Goodman. Did you know you haverights? The Constitution says you do, and so do I."

 But laws, rights, and constitutions are fragilethings. Some people think that rights have to be defended with guns. Guns,however, compel a respect that is more akin to fear. True advocates of liberty,from Tom Paine to Mahatma Gandhi, tend to think that rights have to be earnedwith words. Whenever people are in contact with other people, whether in personin a crowd, or via the electronic connection of social media, we make splitsecond decisions about what words to utter. Words, and the actions that makewords full of integrity and conviction, instill the right kind of respect forothers. Engaged citizens, who want to defend their rights, their liberty, andtheir constitution have to be eager to let other people know that words matter.Our mutual self-recognition as persons worthy of respect hinges on that respectbeing reinforced, day after day, in our minds. It depends on our minds havingthe lyrics and the melody of freedom. Get out there and sing!

About the author: Michael Kevane is a professor in the Economics Department of Santa Clara University in California.

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