Monday, May 29, 2006

If Freedom Isn't Free: Reflections on Memorial Day 2006

It's a gorgeous Memorial Day in the Bronx. As I take my exercise stroll throughout my neighborhood, I walk past flag after flag either propped on porches or dangling out windows. It's been decades since this area was inhabited by working-class Italians and Jews who waved their flags on days like today. Now the patriots are Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Blacks of all nationalities and a smattering of Guyanese and Mexican immigrants. But not only do these residents brandish their flags, the cars in their driveways also boast stickers of yellow ribbons and the Twin Towers with slogans such as Never Forget, United We Stand, and Freedom Isn't Free.

Freedom isn't free. I admit to myself that I never understood that slogan. Every time I read or hear it, something inside me immediately resists. Try as I may to put myself in the shoes of the zealot patriots (some who I call family) and wrap my brain around that slogan, I just don't get it. If freedom isn't free, then is it truly freedom?

As I turn the corner, I find my mind drifting to my pricey college education at Columbia University. Columbia is reputed to be the most liberal of the Ivy League universities. It's the least WASPY of the seven colleges by far, located smack in the middle of multicultural metropolis where over two hundred languages are spoken. It's the Ivy League college known for its radical tradition as students protested the Vietnam war in the 60s and forced the administration to divest from the apartheid government of South Africa in the 80s among other acts of dissent.

At Columbia, I still had to immerse myself in the thinking of European men considered to be the fathers of Western civilization and all that is wonderful about it most notably democracy. Why does my mind float to my first year as a student at Columbia University on Memorial Day? Perhaps it is there, that I first grappled with the notion that freedom isn't free.

I eventually remember having to read and compare the theories of political philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. John Locke believed that man was not only by nature a social animal but an honorable one as well. Human beings naturally know the difference between right and wrong and, for the most part, behave according to that knowledge. We create governments out of an innate desire to maintain a natural state of peace because we recognize that occasionally we will disagree as to what is right and what is wrong. So we concede our right to exact retribution for perceived injustices against us as individuals to maintain peace. Despite my Catholic upbringing with its insistence on the sinful nature of man (or maybe because of it) and the Eurocentricism of Columbia's core curriculum, I kind of dug Locke.

Thomas Hobbes, I wasn't feelin' at all. Unlike most social contract theorists, Hobbes held an ugly view of human nature. Man was not a social animal by nature, according to Hobbes, nor did he have an innate sense of good or evil. He was a slave to his most basic needs. Hobbes believed that human beings have to be subjugated by an absolute power to keep them from being in a perpetual state of warfare against one another. We agree to be governed -- conceding most of our rights to the state -- in exchange for our very lives. Therefore, whatever the government does for the sake of keeping peace including wielding absolute force is inherently just.

In other words, freedom isn't free.

At least, now I understand why the slogan unsettles me. Reflecting on conversations I have had with my relatives who ascribe to this credo, I recognize that, yes, they indeed hold a Hobbesian view of human nature. And yet I also have no doubts that these people I love abhor fascism. Although they fail to recognize how such a pessimistic view of human beings can easily flow into a case for dictatorship, I know on this day they, too, are flying their flags commemorating those who gave their lives to fight that very kind of authoritarianism.

I pick up the pace, probably in a futile effort to make my feet keep up with my brain. I tell myself that my relatives and neighbors only want to remember those who died to preserve the specific liberties that we enjoy. What's wrong with that really? This is our conditioning as Americans.

But our conditioning is flawed. It is superficial and incomplete. We are conditioned on this day to memorialize men with pale faces in camouflage gear dying on foreign soil. But I cannot think only of them. I also think of dark men in street gear dying on this soil. I see the Chicago Police Department rain steel on Fred Hampton as he lay asleep in his bed. I imagine El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz assassinated as he stands at the podium at the Audubon Ballroom. I visualize Martin Luther King, Jr. executed on the balcony of a Mephis motel. I hear Filiberto Ojeda Rios say as he bleeds to death from an FBI sniper bullet in the doorway of his home, "P'alante siempre." Were not these, too, American men who gave their lives to secure and preserve the rights that all of us despite color or creed are supposed to enjoy? And what of the women like Audre Lorde, Gloria AnzaldĂșa andJune Jordan who die just as young and much more slowly in this ongoing civil war to make the American way of life a reality for all on the homefront?

I find myself making a right on Wheeler Avenue and immediately see the mural painted in memory of Amadou Diallo (note: you can see the mural, too, if you play the video on my profile at MySpace.) Like millions before him, the twenty-three year old had left his native Guinea to pursue the proverbial American dream. The dream ended in a barrage of forty-one bullets because the four police officers who shot Amadou did not see an industrious man on the path to citizenship. They saw a serial rapist.

Sensing that I have in some odd way come full circle, I turn back towards home, and I slow my pace. True to my conditioning as an American, I walk past the American flags and patriotic stickers, and I remember. I remember not only those who have died so that I may enjoy the liberties that I have, I also remember those who died trying to enjoy the same. I resist my conditioning by memoralizing those I have been taught were enemies of a state. And then I realize that despite my reflections this morning, I still do not buy that freedom isn't free.

It's repression that's so damned costly.

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