For John Dillinger, in hopes he is still alive...
I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. They'll talk to ya and talk to ya and talk to ya about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em.
— George Hanson in Easy Rider (1969)
As I post this, today is Independence Day in the United States of America, the 227th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. It is a national holiday intended to commemorate that document and to give Americans pause to reflect upon the freedom from tyranny that it demanded of a British monarch. Of course, the actual observance is a little different. For most citizens, the Fourth of July is a day off from work spent in outdoor recreation and leisure activities, often with family, friends and neighbors. Grand displays of patriotism are the norm, including parades, ceremonies honoring veterans, and an abundance of flag-waving. Great quantities of barbeque and beer are consumed, and the day always culminates in thousands of public fireworks displays that have become an icon of the celebration.
Being an American citizen myself, I have enjoyed this annual event since early childhood. As a kid, it's an opportunity to take pride in a sense of belonging and accomplishment without really having to understand why. When you ask your parents what it's all about, you get some cheery remark about how "It's the day we all celebrate our freedoms as Americans!" or maybe a quick history lesson that would still be legible if it were printed on the back of a matchbook. American history classes fill in some of the blanks when you're coming up through school, but little effort is made to impart upon students the frightening reality of what that declaration really meant, and the bloody consequences the men who signed it knew that it would have. The teacher's emphasis is usually on dates and names, and the next page of the textbook continues on with the events leading up to the American Revolution. And could you pick up the pace, please? We have to get through three more chapters before the end of the semester. Don't spend too much time thinking about what was going through John Hancock's mind that night in 1776 as he tried to get some sleep, okay? It won't be on the test.
Ask most any American what they think makes America great (or "greatest," if you disregard their general lack of international travel experience as a basis for comparison), and the most common response will be "our freedom." But believe it or not, President George W. Bush has stated that the terrorists of al-Qaeda orchestrated their attack on September 11, 2001 for the same reason: "They hate us because of our freedom." Freedom, it seems, is both a blessing and a curse. Americans have a lot of it, and maybe that's a bad thing. Maybe you can have too much freedom. Or maybe "freedom" has become nothing more than a catch phrase, representing only a fuzzy emotion in the American consciousness. You can use it to make absurd phrases like "Freedom fries" and keep a straight face because nobody much knows or cares what freedom really is. You can't measure it like you can unemployment, homelessness, poverty or crime. You just have it — up until the point that you try to use it. Then there are consequences.
What is freedom to an American? Ask a random eight year old, and you'll get anything from a blank stare to a rambling (and often amusing) attempt to distill a half-baked concept into words they learned from television. Ask a teenager, and you're bound to get a remark along the lines of "the power to do whatever I want and not be held responsible," with parents being cited as the usual source of oppression. Ask any working-class adult, and they'll probably recite a number of idealized portraits of life that have come to be known as the American Dream. Ask an elderly war veteran, and you're bound to get a thoughtful response that could bring a tear to your eye. Ask a politician, and you are certain to get a generous helping of platitudes and contradictory statements which, upon conclusion, completely avoid the question. How different are the replies of a civil rights worker in Los Angeles from an infantryman in Iraq? A poor black woman in Selma, Alabama from a rich white man in Kennebunkport, Maine? Two very different noders on Everything2? Is freedom completely subjective, or does it have some kind of objective basis? Was Jean-Paul Sartre right in thinking that every one of us are condemned to be free?(1) And finally we must ask ourselves, am I ever going to get to the point?
A few days ago, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down their ruling on Lawrence v. Texas (follow the link if you haven't heard the news). On the surface, it deals with a sodomy statute targeted exclusively at persons engaging in that particular activity with members of the same sex. In finding that state law unconstitutional, the Court has not only done the extraordinarily rare thing of overturning one of its prior rulings (Bowers v. Hardwick), but has issued a resounding message: The U.S. Constitution provides equal protection under the law which shall not exclude anyone on the basis of sexual orientation or the private sexual practices engaged in by consenting adults (emphasis and phrasing are mine). This landmark ruling sounds the death knell for a host of state laws discriminating against or otherwise denying equal rights and protections to homosexual men and women.
The thing is, this case is not just about who gets to share their semen with a friend. The Supreme Court is basically telling the state of Texas (and by extension, all states) that it can not apply any law unequally on the basis of private sexual behavior. The freedom extended by law can not be denied to a specific subset of people... period. Hail be to the Fourteenth Amendment! Had Texas failed to amend their law in 1973 to exclude heterosexual sex, it is relatively certain that this case would have never crossed a higher bench. While this is a superficial victory for all American sodomites, the full ramifications of Lawrence v. Texas have only just begun to ripple across the legal landscape. Freedom of this sort shakes up the foundation of accepted behavioral norms. And as always, the defenders of tradition are ready to take up arms.
In the Boston Globe's editorial section on July 3, 2003, writer Jeff Jacoby shares his concerns over the Supreme Court's decision in a piece entitled "The threat from gay marriage," the first of two columns (you can read it for yourself here). While I have not waited for Mr. Jacoby to conclude his remarks before commenting upon them, I do not anticipate that their nature will change in the second installment. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions from his article, but will summarize it by saying that Mr. Jacoby believes that the institution of marriage itself is gravely threatened by the likely prospect of homosexuals becoming legally wed (coming soon in Massachusetts, and later to a state near you). He cites some statistics from Vermont, makes some insinuations about them, and then proclaims them "jarring evidence" that the America way of life is on the brink of disaster. "The structure of norms and taboos on which healthy marriages depend will be buffeted beyond anything we can imagine," he warns. While I consider his conclusions to be alarmist and presumptive at best, there is a grain of truth to what he says.
On August 19, 1920, the United States Congress ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, extending suffrage to women. While few of us today would even question the value and necessity of this Amendment, it was fiercely opposed back in the day by conservative men and religious leaders. Surprisingly, some of the most vocal opponents of a woman's right to vote came from women themselves! They were certain that women's suffrage would lead to a dramatic increase in divorce rates, force women into the labor market, overburden already busy women with political responsibilities, and subject them to jury duty and its "repugnant details incident to murder trials and trials for other crimes disclosing unspeakable wickedness," for which women were not suited. (Nebraska) The opposition to women's suffrage was fueled mainly by a revival of evangelical religious thought which began sweeping the nation after the turn of the century. Picture decent church-goin' women with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces. The "new woman" was seen as a clear and present danger to the respect and status that these women enjoyed as wives and mothers. Women's suffrage was lambasted as a dangerous device which was sure to destroy the institution of the family itself.
Sounds remarkably similar to the arguments against gay marriage, doesn't it? Things got pretty ugly back then, with protests in the streets and violence erupting during Suffragist marches. Adolf Hult, a Lutheran minister during that era, claimed that the suffrage movement had been taken over by "lust and immorality," fearing that the "fall of women" would lead to the fall of the world. If he were alive today, I suspect he would have his own television network and web site. Of course, we all know how it turned out, and some of those predictions did come to pass. Did the end of the world come as a result? I guess it depends on how you look at it. Either way, most of us agree that we all have more freedom now than we had in 1919, and civilization has managed to adapt to the change pretty well. We're never going back, and why the hell would we even want to?
The point of my missive here is this: Freedom is scary. People are basically afraid of freedom, because it threatens the rules upon which they have built their entire lives. Americans love their cultural taboos, social mores and religious institutions because they are a prison that has become comfortable and safe. I can't help but think of James Whitmore's poignant film portrayal of Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption, as the old man who can't handle the freedom of life outside his jail cell, and hangs himself in despair. People become institutionalized to tradition. Freedom is very threatening to a pig, in a cage, on antibiotics. It facilitates change, endangering staid lifestyles and ideas about living. That's why freedom always has to be fought for. It takes away people's prisons, and many of the prisoners are unwilling to accept that.
While it can be argued that none of us will ever know true freedom, the Constitution of the United States of America has withstood the ravages of two centuries worth of ignorance, bigotry, stupidity, popular opinion, moral indignation, fear and hatred. In spite of violent and prolonged organized efforts to assert the will of a few upon the majority (with one temporary exception), the Constitution has weathered all storms and continues to insure and extend civil liberties to all Americans. It is among the greatest political documents ever written, and it wouldn't have come to be were it not for a handful of brave and angry men in Philadelphia who drafted and signed their names to the most eloquent "fuck you" ever written some eleven score and seven years ago today. I think they knew what they were doing. And I think they had no idea what they were doing. Collective human genius occurs less frequently than ice ages.
If you're an American and you believe in a god, fall on your knees and give thanks for the freedom you have today, for wisdom and sanity may not prevail. Dark clouds are forming on the horizon in the current political climate, for liberty and democracy are in jeopardy, as ever. But do not fear freedom, and do not feel threatened by a world that is larger than your understanding. Change is inevitable. Evolution is necessary. Our founding fathers commanded it: Let freedom ring.
The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil Constitution, are worth defending at all hazards; and it is our duty to defend them against all attacks. We have received them as a fair inheritance from our worthy ancestors: they purchased them for us with toil and danger and expense of treasure and blood, and transmitted them to us with care and diligence. It will bring an everlasting mark of infamy on the present generation, enlightened as it is, if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle, or to be cheated out of them by the artifices of false and designing men.
— Samuel Adams
Many thanks to izubachi and Starke for their suggestions.
1 This line was originally phrased with the opposite meaning (as a joke), but I discovered that it just looked ignorant.