Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Endurance of "Freedom"

“SPQR” – “Senatus Populusque Romanus”, or “ the Senate and People of Rome” – was a government slogan used both when ancient Rome was a semi-democratic aristocratic Republic, and also when it came under the autocratic rule of the Caesars…when the Senate, and especially the People, of Rome no longer held any real power. “SPQR” under the Caesars was like a constitutional monarch permitted to remain on the throne as a symbol after the military overthrew his country’s democratically-elected government.

At the dedication this weekend for the new United States Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, President Bush said, quite correctly, that “A long blue line of heroes has defended freedom in the skies above.”

The Secretary of the Air Force, Michael Wynne, said “This memorial is a brilliant symbol of freedom and the spirit of flight.”

Ross Perot, Jr., a former Air Force member who can afford to be a chairman of the memorial’s board of trustees thanks to his dad, said “This memorial says to everybody who visits, today and tomorrow, ‘This is the spirit that helped build the Air Force. This is the sacrifice that helped defend our freedom. This is the courage that helped build our nation.’”




Let’s talk about freedom.

What does “freedom” really mean? How many Americans give a crap, what with their mp3 players, their cell phones, their SUVs, their high gas prices, their MySpace, TiVo and their American Idol, what freedom really is? How many Americans appreciate why they can watch what they want to watch, say what they want to say without fear, go after the job they want to go after, and vote for who they want to vote for?

How often does the average American think about what courage it took to create our country, and what courage it takes to defend it now? How often does the average American read over the works of Benjamin Franklin, peruse the Federalist Papers, or examine the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? How often do those engaged in the debate over gun control actually take a look at what the other amendments comprising the Bill of Rights say, about things other than “the right to bear arms”?

We Americans love our “freedom”, though I think we only really appreciate it on days when terrorists fly passenger jets into skyscrapers.

Self-righteous Hollywood stars like George Clooney think they are entitled to be taken seriously whenever they speak out about certain issues because, well, they are stars. Self-righteous commentators like Ann Coulter think they can insult whoever they want because, well, everyone else is wrong.

But they can only do that because the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, court decisions, government policies, and certain events helped foster a system, society and culture where ill-informed or arrogant “influential” people can thrive on playing on the general public’s general ignorance about a great many things. Thus emerges a situation in which whatever is said by the famous seems to be an expert opinion instead of just a prominent opinion.

“Freedom” is a word bandied about so much that the risk of it becoming as misunderstood or devalued as “conservative”, “liberal” and “love” is dangerously high. We take “conservative” to mean one thing, and “liberal” to mean another, and then use these terms either as a blanket endorsement or condemnation of someone or something.

For example, we associate “conservative” with “right wing”. Were the Nazis, on the far right-wing of the political spectrum, conservatives? In that they sought to uphold certain ingrained Germanic values, and thrived on that long-cherished European tradition of anti-Semitism, the Nazis were indeed politically “conservative”. In that they wanted to control everything, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party was definitely “big government” – not, technically, conservative.

And we associate “liberal” with “left wing”. We think of Communists or socialists as “left wingers”. Was the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics made up of a bunch of liberals? How would that label – we’re told liberals are anti-war, after all – square with the Soviet Union invading Poland from the east in 1939 after the Nazis invaded from the west? Didn’t those “left-wing liberals” in the USSR place nukes in Cuba in the 1960s, and invade Afghanistan in 1979? Maybe they were really right-wing liberals – or left-wing conservatives.

Did you know that the Liberal Party in the Commonwealth of Australia is actually, ideologically, conservative? Those blokes and sheilas Down Under in Oz sure are wacky!

A man might say “I love you” to a woman in order to try to get her into bed. Will one day our leaders speak of “freedom” just to seduce us, to rubberize our knees and emotionally compel us to comply with their desires and plans?

Or will this word, “freedom”, lose its meaning and patriotic value, becoming for us an emotional burden we no longer wish to be enslaved to or even hear about?

Paying lip-service to “freedom” like a broken record will not, in and of itself, help true freedom to endure. For many around the world, “freedom” as applied to the U.S.A. refers to luxury, wealth, decadence and materialism. So what? America has been blessed – and Americans work hard to capitalize on those blessings and make the country and themselves more successful, and more powerful. The rest of the world needs to deal with that, and take more than a lesson or two from the American playbook, instead of envying us and holding our success against us.

BUT if Americans think of “freedom” only abstractly, in a primarily materialistic way, forgetting everything else that the word “freedom” implies – politically, socially, culturally, technologically, scientifically, educationally, philosophically, etc. – then “freedom” might in the future become for America what “SPQR” became for Rome: empty; an idea formerly full of meaning; underappreciated and taken for granted by the populace; and an overused word later all but disposed of, kept alive and employed only when someone powerful wants to get us into bed.

1 comment:

Afterburner said...

I think Ross Perot was a Navy guy.