Monday, August 4, 2008

Random Americana: Freedom

Part 2 of a continuing series on America.

Think back eight years ago this month. This is two months before hanging chads, thirteen months before 9/11, two years before Iraq. A friend and I went to Russia in late August of 2000 to visit another friend who was studying there. She was staying with a family and we visited their apartment for dinner. On August 12, the Russian submarine Kursk had exploded, trapping and killing 118 men. It was a huge global story and this was our chance to hear first-hand what actual Russians had to say about the tragedy and about the government's slow response (Putin was on vacation at the time and didn't act right away). This Russian family was saddened and disappointed in their government. More than anything, though, they were delighted that they could be openly disappointed in their government. I remember the excitement in the mother's eyes as she spoke about how she couldn't always vocalize criticism of her country.

Freedom's a funny word in the US. How many times does it appear in the Declaration of Independence? Zero. "Free" shows up four times, but not until well below any famous passage, and two of those times in describing the colonies as "Free and Independent States". The Bill of Rights? One "freedom" in the First Amendement, one "free" in the First and one "free" in the Second. That's it. Other words are used to establish our freedoms, more active words. Freedom is too abstract a notion, but it's everywhere we turn. We are the land of the free. We let freedom ring. Our troops are fighting for our freedom. It's a word that gets thrown around to mean something on which we can't quite put our fingers.

Is freedom an all-or-nothing proposition? If the right to own a gun is taken away, is freedom shattered, or is just a freedom gone. If the government decides to suspend certain liberties in the name of security, are we no longer a "free people" as a whole? Everyone has their own interpretation of this. We live in a democracy, so the majority gets to determine the definition.

I can pretty easily make the case that we have lost freedoms over these last eight years, but I refer to them in exactly that word, "freedoms". No matter how much we fret over torture or the PATRIOT act or the lies leading up to the war, we still have important freedoms left. There are plenty of societies in the world, right now, where I couldn't complain about the government or talk openly about controversial issues, such as Iran, ranked among the worst countries of the world for censorship. I think about this and I can't help but remember how excited that Russian family was to speak freely. More than anything else, freedom is something that we Americans take for granted. That's a choice that we can make, if we like, but with all apologies to the original, with great freedom comes great responsibility.

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