Happy Fourth of July!

Dr. Malcolm Cross

The Stephenville City Council acted wisely in postponing our traditional Independence Day celebrations until Labor Day.  But its decision should nonetheless challenge everyone to think more carefully about the issue of governmental responsibility, as well as about our freedoms and the threats to them caused by too much governmental action.

The case for postponement is strong:  We’re seeing a spike in pandemic-related infection rates already following the reopening of much of the state.  Our Fourth of July celebrations normally elicit the sort of large crowds of celebrants which this year could have accelerated the infection rate even more.  Postponement is the sort of prudent, cautious, conservative approach which, to me at least, makes the most sense under these trying circumstances.  

Whether the postponement is actually correct, as opposed to being merely prudent, can never be determined.  If we don’t see a further spike in infection rates in the next few weeks, is that because the Council prevented the spike by postponing the activities?  Or would the absence of such a spike mean that the Council overreacted and cancelled fun-filled and freedom-celebrating events for nothing?  Until we can replay past events with time machines or observe alternative realities in parallel universes, we’ll never know.  But we can sharpen our thinking and improve our decisions in the future by pondering the larger issues the Council’s decision raises.

One such issue is that of governmental responsibility for the public health and safety of the citizens it’s supposed to serve.  Assume for a moment the Council had decided to proceed with some or all of the festivities with which Stephenville normally celebrates the 4th of July—the parade, the concert, the fireworks display, etc.  And suppose that within the following two weeks the infection rate in Stephenville and Erath County soared.  To what extent would we want to blame the City Council for a decision that may well have contributed to more infections, and possibly deaths?  Would we praise the City Council for nonetheless acting in an all-American tradition of promoting freedom despite the risks (after all, freedom’s never free)?  Or would we blame the City Council for making a criminally negligent decision contributing to more illness and death than would otherwise have happened, the same way much of America is heaping blame on President Trump for allegedly bungling America’s initial response to the pandemic?

But those who’ve commented on the decision to postpone have, for the most part, been critical, citing the reduction in freedom they believe the decision causes.  They have a point.  The postponement of activities this year could have long-range consequences.

All governments in times of war or emergency assume for themselves more power to curtail people’s freedom in the name of national security or public safety.  No government in times of peace or domestic tranquility fully surrenders the powers it acquired in times of adversity.  Each time a government takes an action, accepted by the public, to limit freedom, it establishes a precedent which makes future infringements easier.  That’s why I oppose limiting the freedom of speech of either Colin Kaepernick or the Ku Klux Klan—the easier it is for government to censor them, the easier it becomes for government to censor others as well.

Stephenville is currently blessed with a City Council consisting exclusively of members of intelligence, knowledge, reason, and civility, firmly committed to promoting both the welfare and the overall freedom of the citizens who have wisely elected them.  In fact, while I disagree with those who voted for postponement, I’ve had no problem voting for them in the past and will continue to do so in the future as long as they seek elective office.

But we can’t always be certain that future councils will be of the same high quality as this one.  It’s possible that future councils will contain members who, whether because of malice or negligence, will seek to more severely, and more permanently, restrict our freedoms.  The real danger posed by the current decision to postpone lies not in moving our Independence Day celebration back two months, but in setting a potential precedent which future councils could abuse.

But you can minimize this potential threat with a few simple steps that will strengthen your ability to be good citizens preserving freedom:

First, review the video of the special council meeting.  You should be impressed with the thoughtfulness and devotion to duty shown by all participants in the discussion, council and staff alike, no matter who took which side on the postponement question.  You’ll find a link to the video here:  https://www.youtube.com/user/CityofStephenville

Second, exercise, as many citizens already have, your right to speak out on this issue.  What you say is important; the fact that you’re saying it is more so.

Third, be sure to vote each Election Day.  I personally will support the re-election of all incumbents, but who you vote for is less important than that you vote.

Keeping yourself informed, participating individually and collectively in debates on the issues of the day, and voting on our servant-leaders are all necessary to develop, preserve, and strengthen the habits which help citizens keep a healthy democracy functioning.  Moreover, they’re all within the tradition of freedom symbolized by our Independence Day.  Indeed, while picnics, parades, concerts, and fireworks are all fun ways to celebrate, doing the heavy lifting required to be responsible citizens of a democratic republic is perhaps the best way to celebrate—and preserve—our freedom.

So — Happy Fourth of July, whenever that may be.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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