A Yankee Notebook

September 26, 2016


MONTPELIER – If, throughout modern history, the aspirations of humankind can be characterized in one word, that word is “freedom.” It’s a major part of the national mythology of nations from Finland to Chile, frequently and powerfully evoked by orators from Pericles to John Kennedy, and shouted in many languages: Freiheit!, Liberté, Libertad, Uhuru!, la Libertà. It’s forever framed in bitter memory and unspeakable cynicism over the main gate to Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei.

In January of 1941, President Roosevelt, in a vain rhetorical attempt to move the United States from its posture of neutrality toward Nazi Germany and the rising threat in the Pacific, gave a brilliant speech – what would now be called a State of the Union address – in which, near the end, he articulated what he called “The Four Freedoms” that he declared should be available to everyone in the world. Briefly, they were:

Freedom of speech and expression (See the First Amendment to our Constitution); Freedom of worship, each person in his own way; Freedom from want through international economic understandings; Freedom from fear through a worldwide reduction in arms.

We know, from subsequent events, how well the world, let alone our nation, has taken those ideals to heart; yet they were “American” enough to inspire that most American of artists, Norman Rockwell, to produce his famous “Four Freedoms” tetraptych.

Our sainted and frequently misunderstood founding fathers, struggling between the rock of British colonialism and the hard place of the fractious colonials, had perforce much to say on the subject of freedom. Their speeches were recorded, however, by scribes using quill pens, at best an imperfect substitute for the electronics of today. Also, they were spoken almost 250 years ago, and a lot can happen to exactitude in that amount of time (The Bible, for example, according to scholars, has at least as many changes and revisions in its text as it has words). And finally, when extracted bits of speeches become watchwords, they tend to suffer oversimplification.

Did Patrick Henry actually say, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death”? Probably not, but whatever he did say is close enough to this that it’s usable as a slogan. Did Benjamin Franklin say or write, “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” Again, probably not, but that’s close enough, and (most important) true enough that it’ll do just fine. Those who need authority to establish the veracity of their quotes need to remember the little girl and the king’s new clothes.

There are thousands of takes on the meaning of freedom. Years ago, during Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society days, Outward Bound, for whom I worked at the time, was able to enroll hundreds of “adjudicated youths” whose sentences would be suspended if they completed the course. They often balked at the rigors of early morning dips in 45º water, high ropes courses, and camping in total darkness. Noting their choice between a difficult freedom and a sure punishment, I tried to encourage them with this mantra: “Freedom is the liberty to discipline yourself so as to avoid being disciplined by others,” Now and then it actually worked!

Here’s another one. I can’t identify its source, but it’s been in my collection of quotations for at least twenty years: An interviewer reminds a very old man, once a slave in the American South, that some ex-slaves had trouble adjusting to freedom after the Civil War. Yes, he agrees, some of them said that they were happier under slavery than in the uncertainty of freedom. How about him? the interviewer asks. “If I ever thought I was ever goin' to be a slave again,” the old man responds, “I'd just take a gun and end it all right there.”

Our current national conversation about security and civil rights has many of us tied in knots. Is Edward Snowden, for example, a traitor or a national hero? Those whose secret (and illegal) surveillance methods were exposed want him prosecuted for treason; others of us who could have been spied upon without a warrant or knowing about it have a slightly different view of his actions.

This year has seen a spate – even an epidemic – of fatal shootings of black men by jumpy police officers. The ubiquity of video creates the impression that the problem is worse than ever. But as actor Will Smith recently observed, “Racism isn’t getting worse; it’s getting filmed.”

In reaction to the seemingly endless incidents of violence against predominantly black citizens, a well-known National Football League quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, has taken to kneeling during the playing of the national anthem instead of standing at attention with hand on heart. This is his prerogative, of course, as protected free speech, but reactions are all over the place: Some tough-cookie soldiers in fatigues have burned his jersey on camera, while others staunchly affirm that the freedom of expression he enjoys is what they’ve been fighting for. Some coaches agree that he’s right to use his visibility to advance his cause; others threaten that “anyone who doesn’t stand doesn’t play.” Kaepernick is no longer alone: even high school teams are expressing solidarity. One school band even played the anthem kneeling on the field. It’s a conversation or an argument well worth having, because the subject is democracy’s greatest treasure. As my parents used to say, “Freedom the right to do whatever you please as long as you don’t interfere with anyone else’s right to do the same.”

Photo by Willem lange