Smile Politely

Lost freedom

John 8:32
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

Tao te ching, verse 59
The mark of a moderate man
is freedom from his own ideas.


Pardon my French, but I am kind of pissed at France this coming Independence Day. I want to kick their ass. The workers there have been protesting legislation that would change the official age of retirement from 60 to 62. Boo-hoo. They already have national health care to die for, four weeks mandatory vacation, incredible food and wine, and sunlight that shines down through the atmosphere in ways unmatched any place on earth. What’s their problem?

“And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.” (Bob Dylan)

Two years ago on the Fourth of July, I was driving through the Illinois countryside at dawn. While the rest of the country was preparing for a day off, for watermelon and fireworks and parades, I could see in the cornfields the heads of Hispanic migrant workers: men and women and teens, walking down the rows, working as the muggy atmosphere began to swelter, well into a day of hard labor while the rest of the country played. The scene looked like a photograph of cotton pickers in the South, hard at thankless work. Some things don’t change. Some people are always assigned to the role of underclass, their efforts despised, denied, criminalized, and unfree.

“Freedom is a word I seldom use without thinking…” (Donovan)

What is freedom anyway? It is harder to define than love. Only a complete idiot would attempt to define freedom, so here goes.

Freedom is something we seem to assume exists, something that can be earned and — earned or not — that we deserve nonetheless. And yet, I can no longer put a sofa on my front porch in Urbana.

Of course in the 1950s and 1960s, freedom was a lot easier to understand. Black people knew what freedom was by its very absence, by a pervasive and historical lack of equal rights, not to mention outright slavery. For the young, it also was defined by its absence, by strict standards of social conformity and by a military draft that threatened to send us to kill in an incomprehensible war thousands of miles away. They told us the war was about defending freedom. We knew that wasn’t true.

In my first year of college, the physical education professor slammed me up against the wall and told me to cut my hair. I wasn’t even in his class.

Amid the protests and be-ins growing out of that era, Abbie Hoffman changed his name to FREE and wrote it on his forehead.

“People everywhere just got to be free.” (The Young Rascals)

Money can’t buy freedom. But, one thing I know for sure in trying to tackle this definition: no matter how powerful the arguments are that freedom can’t be achieved with money, absolutely no one is going to accept that it applies to them personally. No one. Not you. Probably not me either.

Jesus, an out-and-out radical socialist if the Bible is to be believed, knew freedom was distinct from money. In the only real example of him throwing a fit, he kicked the money changers out of the temple (with no bailout). Jesus told stories that undermine wage labor (Matthew 20:1-16) and pitted rebellious peasants against the wealthy landowners (Mark 12:1-10).

He even encouraged the hungry to steal food (Mark 2:23), pretty much like Abbie Hoffman, or told his followers that food should be a gift from heaven. “Consider the ravens,” Jesus is quoted in Luke 12:24. “They do not sow or reap…yet God feeds them.” Not exactly the Protestant work ethic.

One really has to pervert the Bible and the historical record to claim Jesus would have anything to do with the capitalist system. Profit does not become him. He’s never going to sell his latest sermon on Amazon.

“Freedom’s waiting… at your Seven-Eleven.” (Negativland)

The idea that freedom can be bought and consumed has turned us into a nation of addicts. We’re addicted to television, to fast food, to brand names, to the latest pharmaceutical solutions, to personal vehicles, to corn-based manufactured items, to church or atheism, to oil, and always to having more.

It can’t last.

Most of all, we’re addicted to war. Teddy Roosevelt was blunt about it. He looked for a war to fight. “We need a war,” he said. And if he couldn’t find one, he’d make one. Things haven’t changed today.

Professional war reporter and paranoid Chris Hedges said it best with the title of his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, a work that is quoted at the start of the movie The Hurt Locker, the Academy Award-winning movie about our consistent addiction to war.

Cuba is the only country in the world that is set up for self-sufficiency when the collapse comes from our misuse of the world’s resources, according to author Michael C. Ruppert in Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post Peak Oil World.

“Set me free.” (The Kinks)

Addiction is slavery. Last year’s Fourth of July parade in Champaign-Urbana was rained out for the first time in history. Jesus wept. Maybe we should stop having a parade celebrating the glories of our wars.

We could have a parade in recognition of and lament for the history of slavery in this country. Our country was built upon the backs of slaves. Our beloved founding fathers, who drafted the great documents of independence and freedom, owned slaves. Our bloodiest and most divisive war, let’s face it, was because of slavery.

And now we’re all slaves, trying to be free by buying more stuff.

“I have tried in my way to be free.” (Leonard Cohen)

This vainglorious definition of freedom turned too quickly into a sermon without an answer. I knew it couldn’t be done. I had pages and pages more about the freedom that comes from within, about Emily Dickinson never seeing the sea, Wordsworth writing sonnets about nuns who knit, quotes from Shakespeare (“For aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing”), the Tea Party (both of them), anarchy, why Mexicans I’ve known have crossed the border to El Norte (it wasn’t about freedom), lines at airports, cell phones, credit cards, and liberty versus death.

But forget about all that. Go to the parade. Eat a hot dog. Lose yourself.

“He was playing real good for free.” (Joni Mitchell)

Available in July, my book Two Weeks in Guatemala with Ernie will be available for the Kindle, PC, iPod and iPad. Just $1.99!

Here’s a free excerpt:

“You know, today was almost a perfect day,” I hear myself speaking, my body starting to experience the philosophy of cerveza. “It began long ago at dawn when I took that Avenue 6 bus to the car rental agency. I didn’t know where I was going or one block from another. We made it out to the open road. We escaped the city, even if we did get suckered in by the Pollo Campero sign, with no one telling us how or where to go. We followed intuition. It was lousy intuition, but it was our own. And now hours later we are here, somewhere we never expected or planned to be, We are traveling and we have nothing before or after us to tell us what to do. It’s like being lost, or free. No one in the world knows where we are.”

As I stick the last piece of cheese into my mouth, I feel the satisfaction of being full, finding myself unconvinced that Ernie needs anything at all, not therapy, not drugs, not college, nothing except perhaps a whole new world, the one we haven’t yet discovered hidden away in the uncharted hills of Guatemala, the world that waits each new morning for the seeker who attends belief.

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