From Liberty Street: Freedom and Intelligence

John Turner

In the Washington Post I've just read the story of Elias Fishburne and it strikes me as being the fable -- or maybe the nightmare -- of modern America.  Mr. Fishburne, a Maryland hairdresser, was arrested and charged with being someone he was not. He was held in prison for a month before finally being released hundreds of miles from his home. The only evidence against him was that a fugitive criminal had used Fishburne's name as one of his aliases.

Throughout the process of his being jailed and transferred from one authority to another it would have been simple to have checked Fishburne's identity and to have discovered that he was who he said he was and to have released him. But nobody would bother to do it.

The Post presents his ordeal as part of a series called "Being a Black Man," which "explores the lives of black men through their shared experiences." It's a valid perspective but it's not the deepest examination of the case. It's true that this particular event would be most likely to happen to a black man or to someone encased in poverty. But the cause of it threatens every citizen of the nation since the cause, at bottom, was monumental stupidity.

At every stage of his engagement with the 'system" Fishburne encountered people with minds so dull it's hard to imagine they could ever do anything right or fair. Yet, they are the people to whom we consign the administration of justice.

We console ourselves in America with the notion that our ideals are noble, and that consequently, when any official action runs counter to them, it's the result of either a rare mistake or an atypical bad apple. But what if mistakes and bad apples are not atypical? What if they're the norm? Where then is our much touted freedom?

Can we say that Elias Fishburne is a free man after his life was turned up-side-down and severely damaged by stupidity run amok?

What would George Bush answer if he were asked whether Mr. Fishburne's experience comports with the freedom he so regularly proclaims? And if he answered that it didn't, what would he say he was going to do about it?

The stories of everyday injustice in America mount into the tens of thousands and our official spokesmen spend most of their time telling us how wonderful our systems are. Is it the act of intelligent people to continue accepting that message?

Last week a friend criticized me for saying that "we" do this and "we" do that when a goodly percentage of us are horrified by the way things work. She's right, in one sense. There are many people in America working as hard as they can to rectify the ravages of stupidity. I applaud every victory they achieve, every innocent person released from captivity, every instance of government corruption revealed, every abuse of power uncovered. Yet, I can't convince myself that simply attacking a portion of the outbreaks of boneheadedness adequately protects our future. We have reached a stage now in the history of America when we need to address root causes of injustice. The first step in doing that is to address fundamental truths, whether or not we find them flattering.

There's considerable evidence to indicate that, at the moment, the people of the United States are not intelligent enough to maintain a free system of government. I'm not going to state that as an indubitable truth. But I am willing to put it forward as a strong suspicion, one that needs careful and firm analysis. I'm also willing to continue saying that we, as a society, as a nation, as a people -- or any other name you might assign to our collectivity -- are responsible for that analysis and that if we fail to insist upon it strongly enough to bring it about then each one of us, including myself, is to blame. In short, that every person is responsible not only for having intelligence but, also, for using it.

If intelligence is not put to use, if the Elias Fishburnes of America can continue to be mauled by the stupidity of officialdom, then freedom can neither persist nor prevail.

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