A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Mike Farrell: It’s New Year’s Day; time for resolutions — as in, what are you doing about freedom?

What would New Year’s be without the Rose Parade, college football, and, of course, New Year’s resolutions?

Resolutions and New Year’s are almost synonymous. But many of us would not feel obligated to make these pledges of self-improvement if we had eaten fewer Christmas cookies or reined in our gift buying. But alas, we didn’t.

Resolutions, according to history.com, are 4,000 years old, all the way back to the Babylonians. I’m not sure what they resolved, but I doubt their equivalent of January 1 found them pouring into fitness centers to start undoing the damage wreaked by Christmas cookies.

The secret seldom whispered aloud is that few of those who make resolutions actually follow through and lose the weight, lower the credit card debt, read a book a week or whatever. The motivation might be sincere, but the follow-through often doesn’t last until February. After all, we live one day at a time, and the essential functions of life crowd out time we could use to work off those extra 10 pounds.

Perhaps one of the most unusual resolutions I’ve heard this week came from a voice on Cincinnati radio. While signing off, he announced his resolution was to stop talking about Homer Bailey since the pitcher has taken his act and his bankroll out of Cincinnati.

But 2019 and 2020 are important years for Kentuckians. The 2019 election will determine who governs Kentucky for the next four years. The following year is a presidential election. I am not going to advocate readers campaign, donate or vote for any candidate.

Something much more important is at stake here. The great justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Kentucky’s own Louis Brandeis, wrote these words in an opinion in a 1927: “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.”

Inert, as in “too busy to watch the news.” Inert, as in “too lazy to read about the issues.” Inert, as in “content to get ‘news’ from the talking heads on cable who pretend to bring the news but really only spout their opinions authoritatively.” Inert, as in “resigned to believing the lies politicians tell these days with seeming impunity.” Inert, as in “relying for news on social media that might have come straight from Moscow or Tehran.”

An inert people, the great justice wrote, is the greatest menace to freedom.

If those “definitions” of inert fit any of your practices, you are a menace to freedom. It is the freedom that Nathan Hale died for during the Revolutionary War. It is the freedom that soldiers with torn uniforms and holey shoes shivered through the winter of Valley Forge. It is the freedom preserved by the great struggle between North and South that claimed 620,000 lives between 1861-1865, concluding with the assassination of President Lincoln.

It is the freedom preserved by our service personnel in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the freedom won and preserved by men and women who risked their lives to end desegregation in our country. It is the freedom that cost the lives of Presidents Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy.

Mike Farrell

It is a freedom fueled by public education and private enterprise and American ingenuity. There is nothing perfect about it. History tells of decisions that had horrible outcomes.

And those who are content to sit on the sidelines – to be spectators in the debates over immigration, health care, education, foreign policy and a dozen other topics – are menaces to this freedom so many have sacrificed so much to win, protect and pass to the next generation.

Citizenship requires more of all of us than paying our taxes, stopping at red lights and singing the National Anthem. Being born here does not grant you an exemption from being an informed participant in discussion about public issues and casting an informed vote in elections. We are not to surrender our responsibilities to the professional politicians, the advocates, those with money who fund campaigns or anyone else. We are to be participants and not spectators.

Justice Brandeis, in that same 1927 opinion, wrote that public discussion is a political duty. A duty of citizenship is not something we discuss or impress upon young people. Perhaps that is because we don’t want to talk about it.

Perhaps instead of making resolutions about the gym or credit cards we should all resolve to accept our responsibilities as citizens. We need to actually understand the issues. We need to read newspapers and magazines or watch real news and not the cable screamers. We need to participate in the public discussion of issues, learning more about them and listening to people who have different viewpoints than our own.

An inert people is the greatest menace to freedom. Don’t be an enemy of freedom. Resolve in 2019 to exercise your rights and fulfill your responsibilities.

Mike Farrell is a professor and the interim director of the School of Journalism and Media. He is also director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky. He was a journalist for nearly 20 years at The Kentucky Post. He is special projects editor for NKyTribune. His views are his own.

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One Comment

  1. Charles says:

    I want to first say thank you for your article; it was very informative and the call to action very much in need. The article may be overlooking the tide of change that is taking place in america as our two party system at the federal and state levels continue to not meet the needs of it’s citizens. I recently took a trip to India where my wife’s family is from. It was easy see how that society is very tight and defined at the family (family, religion/cast, ethnicity) level but so loosely defined outside of that. There is a widespread indifference to government at all levels, which is rife with corruption. Freedom, for them, includes not relying on government to solve their problems but increasingly (for better or worse) rely on that family organization. I feel that this is the tide that america is following as well. As our government (all parties) continue the decade long stalemate, and as our media increasingly becomes untrustworthy, we are retreating to our defined organizations (religion, race/ethnicity, social-economic status) to find our solutions (to define our freedom). With the continued growth of polarizing voices and ideas, along with a lack of an “American Voice”, indifference to citizenship and government will continue to grow. I’m not sure of the solution here, but we have ample evidence around the world of the result of the path we’re on.

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