Tuesday, December 07, 2004

"Freedom is not Free"

One of the ironies of the American character is that we fear the future. Thinking that only the future exists, that the past is ireelevant, that we can "start over" in a new place and be "cleansed" of the baggage of history, paradoxically doesn't set us free. It binds us to an unknown future, to that country no traveller has ever returned from; and the complete lack of knowledge about what it holds, terrifies us. So we cling to the past in different ways from our ancestors.

Some say Abraham set human history in motion, "going forward," as if the future were always ahead of us, the past always over our shoulder. The metaphor is so commonplace we think it has always been this way; we don't even question it. But in Abraham's time, the poles of time were reversed: the past, the known, was before you. The future, the unknown, was behind; and no matter how you turned, you could not face it, you could not see it coming. The future was always unknown, and the unknown was always the most dangerous condition. The past, the familiar, the safe harbor, was always kept before you, to offer comfort, even as the future came up behind your back, over your shoulder, perpetually out of your sight.

Now, of course, when we speak of the past, we speak of a burden. In a culture that more and more represents Gore Vidal's "perpetual war for perpetual peace," one great burden of the past is war. The burden of past wars, we say, is that we are always fighting the last one. The common use of the cliche is that we are trying to correct the errors of the last battles, re-shape the outcomes of the last wars. The contours of the past are familiar, the conclusions now seem inevitable. A little tweaking here, a little re-arranging there, and the present would be even more comfortable. But that isn't the true meaning of it; once again, we use our disdain for the past to hide our fear of the future.

It is true we are always fighting the last war; but that is because war has so powerfully shaped our national psyche. The Revolutionary War is our first national touchstone, our first act as a nation against another nation. Then comes the Civil War, our first act of definition as a Union, a nation not of sovereign states, but of a sovereign unity. Lastly was World War II, the war that cemented us together as a nation that tackles problem as a common people; not as members of disparate and separate states. War, in ways Chris Hedges never meant, is truly the force that gives us, Americans, meaning. Now, when we say we are fighting the last war, we mean, really, that we are still fighting World War II; that we still see the world through that cracked lens.

"Freedom is not free" has become the mantra of our nation, the excuse for our belligerence, the justification of our massive standing army, our enormous military, our determination to dominate the planet for our own sake. We think it is the lesson of our national history; but it is the lesson we have crafted for ourselves from World War II. Now we see ourselves as the champions of freedom, releasing Europe from the chains of Nazi Germanty. But, until Pearl Harbor, we cared nothing for the freedom of Europe or China; we only cared about our national freedom to be left alone. We tell ourselves now that the lesson of that war was the complacency of Neville Chamberlain; that it was Europe who tried to buy off power, rather than confront it, and we will never make that mistake again. But we couldn't be bothered to help England even when Hitler was staring at it across the English channel.

Now, we see that power everywhere, even where it doesn't exist; and we always see it threatening us. When we say we "won't make that mistake again," what we actually mean is that, after World War II, we were left alone as a great world power; and we won't let go of that power easily. Virtually untouched by war at home, we didn't not suffer the devastating loss of life of Russia, the waste that marched across Europe, the brutal campaign of bombing that was London in the Blitz. We had no equivalent Rape of Nanking, no Dachau or Auschwitz, no Dresden. Germany today is a completely modern country; Munich has great grassy mounds where the ruins were heaped up. There was no such recovery in America, except the explosive recovery of the 1950's and beyond. Our freedom left us free, and we took it as a sign to impose our own Pax Romana on the world.

We need an equivalent statement to that one, now, a "Freedom of Rome" to match the historical sting of the "Peace of Rome." Because now, when we say "Freedom is not free," we mean our freedom, to impose our will on the world, is not free; that it requires a price, and that price rises every year. We continue to face the shibboleths of the past, the Hitlers and Stalins and Hirohitos of our national imagination, and we are determined not to "make the same mistakes again." But in distorting history and the meaning of the past, we make worse mistakes than that. In the name of "Freedom," we are taking freedom away from ourselves. In the name of being free, we are forging ever heavier chains on our hands. Now, when we say "freedom," we mean "the freedom of the tyrant, the freedom of the all-powerful." And that freedom, truly, is never free. Never free of fear and paranoia and despair and threat and danger of being challenged. We declared our freedom to invade Iraq; and now we are stuck there, with very little freedom from that "operation" appearing soon on the horizon. Freedom, it turns out, is not free.

But not in the way we meant it. In the folktales, that's always the lesson of making a deal with the devil. What you ask for, never comes to you in quite the way you meant it.

Freedom is not free; but it is not ours to purchase, either. According to our most fundamental national documents, freedom is a condition of our existence, something granted us by our being, or, in more religious language, endowed to us by our Creator. We don't buy freedom; we give it, we acknowledge it; we believe in it. If we don't, then in the name of freedom, we destroy it for ourselves; then, in the name of freedom, clinging to the past, we keep ourselves from ever being free.

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