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Two recent sporting spectaculars began with two rather different musical intros; both relate to the cherished concept known as freedom.
It was hard to miss the contrast: “I will fight for the right to live in freedom,” sang Sir Paul McCartney at the Super-Patriotic Bowl. Days later, Robbie Robertson crooned “This is Indian land,” at the Olympic opening ceremonies, demonstrating that not all pop stars have adopted a patriotic persona, while reminding viewers that the freedom of indigenous peoples has been under attack for hundreds of years.
I don’t doubt Sir Paul’s candor for a cause. Linda McCartney was a staunch animal rights activist, and, I’m told, so is he. Nowadays Paul and fiancee Heather Mills are involved in the campaign to ban land mines, so sincerity is not the issue. The problem I have with this post Sept. 11 ditty is that I don’t know which type of freedom he’s talking about. And I’m not sure he does either.
To begin with, catchall concepts are easily exploited. As U.S. casualties in Afghanistan begin to mount, President George W. Bush has pledged to continue to “pursue those who want to hurt America and take away our freedoms.” This notion – that hurting or killing Americans, including civilians, is akin to taking away their freedoms – deserves a dose of critical deconstruction.
Historically, the idea of liberty yields two basic threads: “freedom to do,” and “freedom from.” In modern times, “freedom to do” evolved out of the Enlightenment, when it became widely acclaimed that not just kings and aristocrats are born with certain inalienable rights.
On the other hand, “freedom from” arose from amending documents such as the U.S. Bill of Rights, whereby certain provisions limited the coercive power of central government. Moreover, freedom from also is derived from a continually evolving set of ideas, laws, and customs including such proactive and state interventionist notions like affirmative action, welfare, and employment insurance.
Actually, the two strands of freedom are interwoven, since it is impossible to realize one without the other, and neither are fully realized, anywhere.
What do these nuances mean in a political climate dumbed down by crude rhetoric, jingoism, and Attorney General John Ashcroft’s brand of draconian justice? Specifically, what does all this have to do with a silly pop song?
Well, the United States is a big “to do” country – the biggest ever, actually. Freedom to do encompasses many things including the right to economic, social and geographic mobility. But freedom to do also has a dark, collective manifestation with an historic imperial mandate. From the days of gunboat diplomacy to George W’s “axis of evil speech,” freedom to do is evidenced by a strong tradition of unilateral military action.
And so, when the Bush administration “goes it alone” by thumbing its nose at a myriad of international protocols and agreements from Kyoto to the ABM missile treaty, to Sir Paul and Heathers land mines treaty, are we to rest easy knowing that a cherished principle is at play?
Pursuing life as one sees fit may embody the so-called American dream, be it myth or reality, for each individual. But freedom to do doesn’t work even remotely fairly, without healthy doses of freedom from.
This involves freedom from things like fear, poverty, exploitation, violence, racism, war, and yes, terror. President Franklin Roosevelt touched upon this strand of freedom in his so-called Four Freedoms inaugural speech on January 6, 1941.
The first two freedoms were freedom of speech and freedom of worship. But the next two clearly fall into the freedom from category. The third freedom cited was freedom from want, in which he envisioned “economic understandings” that would “secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants.” The fourth freedom, freedom from fear, was to be achieved by “a world-wide reduction of armaments…”
In this endeavor, the United States has reneged, and in many ways works to undermine freedom “from.” As underwriter for the global economic system, and leading arms salesman of the last century, the U.S. has propped up some of the great rogues of our time – all in the name of freedom of course.
A partial list reveals former allies Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Then there’s Marcos, Suharto, Pinochet, the Contras, the Turkish and Colombian armed forces – and that is just scratching the surface. Some of these leaders attacked other nations as well as their own citizens, all have brutalized people, and all are critical violators of the freedom from principle.
Evidently freedom from does not apply to the foreign victims of such callous and disgraced statecraft, whose names and lives rarely merit reference in popular discourse, and whose numbers are legion.
Nor does freedom from come into play for those that have been rounded up merely because of their Arab lineage. Actually, freedom to do no longer works for these unfortunate souls either, many of whom, are likely guilty of nothing. But not so for Enron’s Kenneth Lay who retains the privilege of “taking the fifth,” against self-incrimination. Other laypersons may take heed: the Bill of Rights still pertains to white-collar crooks.
The September attack on the United States, while a heinous crime against humanity, was not the only time that a civilian population has been made to pay a terrible price for the sins (perceived or otherwise) of leadership. It was surely an attack on freedom, but more of the “from” type than the “to do” type. Resilient Americans have more or less returned to the business of doing as they please, but now know what much of the rest of the world knows all too well. Freedom from fear, war, and terror on home soil has been lost.
The song “Freedom” was composed hastily in response to the events of Sept. 11, and I do suspect Sir Paul means both kinds of freedom, in a naive Beatlesque kind of way.
Afterall, despite his pot convictions, freedom to do and freedom from still work well for Paul in the land of the free (add British pop stars to the Bill of Rights club). But for the common rabble, the document is starting to look like a quaint oddity from a bygone era, sort of like that old vinyl copy of The White Album. It’s nice to dust it off once in awhile, but who is really listening? Because oddly enough, it is Ashcroft’s Patriot Act that ultimately threatens the freedom of Americans. What the government could not do, it now can and is doing. Is this the freedom that Sir Paul claims he would fight for?
For celebrities, a Super bowl gig carries considerable symbolism as does any Olympic appearance, even if they convey different attributes. It’s just a guess, but I doubt McCartney meant to question anything American. After all, it was John Lennon who penned Power to the People.
I cannot query Sir Paul, because it is hard for a lowly scribe to chat with knighted Beatles.
Oh, how we miss you John. And I don’t mean Ashcroft.