Perched on the banks of the energetic Truckee River in Reno, Nev., is Clay Jenkinson's library, a place he calls his home. There, stacked in three compact stories, he carries on his work of writing, broadcasting, thinking and theorizing about American life. At the same time, he almost obsessively adds to his collection of more than 10,000 books.
Jenkinson is best known, perhaps, as one of the nation's foremost Jeffersonian scholars. He is a sought-after speaker and mesmerizes crowds by bringing the past president to life in a subtly dramatic portrayal based on the great man's life and writings. At the same time, he stays connected to his personal passion for the great plains of North Dakota, which is the subject of Messages on the Wind. This newly released book recounts his lifetime relationship with this expansive, windswept and sacred country.
But there is much more to the mental meanderings of this Renaissance man. He looks at democracy and the American way of life through the lens of history that reaches back to the classic Greek philosophers, and the ancient myths that somehow repeat themselves in the modern human experience. In this nation, that experience now includes a new factor -- the Internet and the integration of information technology in the process of governance. According to Jenkinson, this vastly expanded access to knowledge and communications that move at the speed of light will have an impact on democracy. And, the Sept. 11 attacks on America will affect civil liberties in both the electronic world and on the street.
"Jefferson used to quote a Roman adage, 'Law goes silent in war,' and that really is the history of civil liberties in the United States," he said. "We attempt to adhere to the Bill of Rights but we essentially do what has to be done. Security actually matters more in American history than liberty." Jenkinson recounted events in history, all the way back to President Lincoln, in which the government suspended constitutionally guaranteed liberties.
Cyberspace is a new frontier and it is yet unclear what liberty means in this realm. However, Americans have long prized their privacy and expect their Internet communications to be as confidential as the U.S. mail. The federal Homeland Security Act passed in December of 2001, makes Internet surveillance acceptable under certain conditions and trespasses on other civil liberties that citizens take for granted. Many states also passed their own version of security legislation that loosened the reins on the right to privacy, even between lawyers and their clients. As fast as legislation was introduced, it was opposed by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union. However, there has been no hue and cry from the people.
"We're lucky we have watchdog groups and we live in a culture which is characterized by groups that focus intensely on certain issues. In a way those groups are doing the hard work of democracy for us," Jenkinson observed. "Jefferson would want average citizens to be concerned in this way, to be watching vigilantly the growing powers of government, to be wildly protesting when their rights are eroded even in a tiny way. He said, 'Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.'"
Even though Jefferson was a man of great vision, he never imagined a world in which borders could be bridged by technology. "On 9/11 several things occurred. Jefferson's idea that America was separated from the rest of the world by a 3,000-mile moat called the Atlantic Ocean - that moat disappeared forever. We can never be isolationists again," Jenkinson said.
The country, he posited, was taken by surprise and surprise can lead to inaction, allowing government to make decisions that might otherwise lead to a public outcry. "Jefferson wrote a famous letter to Madison after Shays' Rebellion in western Massachusetts and he said