Today I am sharing an excerpt from one of my novels, “For the Love of Freedom,” which was set in Michigan near the turn of the last century. The text below is a newspaper column (in truth, an editorial) written by the novel’s protagonist, a political reporter.
Politics is a topic that interests me greatly. But please know that this fictional tome in no way represents my entire political world view. I feel, however, that the text continues to have relevance today, over a decade and a half further on in the history of our republic.
Mainly, my goal in presenting this is to point out that rhetoric and reality are two completely different concepts.
Breaking the Bonds of Freedom
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” So goes the old refrain to Me and Bobby McGee. In the late Sixties and early Seventies many young people understood freedom in just that way. After all, what else did that generation have to lose? Under the political banner of “making the world safe for democracy”, with the Viet Nam War hanging as a backdrop to SCENE ONE of their adulthood, there was little worth saving beyond their lives: no faith, no trust, no honor, no respect for the law, no ambition. Their trials and tribulations had all but severed them from society and previous generations. They cast aside the workaday world that had served their parents so well. Many ran afoul of cultural mores—standards that had stood for ages and generations. The phrase “generation gap” became a metaphor for the colossal failure of a society where young and old could no longer connect.
Marriage came to be viewed as confining, or worse—unnecessary. After all, love was free! Drug and alcohol abuse bled like an open wound across the patchwork tapestry of tens of thousands of young lives. Numerous young men fled over the border to Canada to avoid the draft and possible death from a war that held no meaning. Others, young men and women alike, were struck down for expressing themselves under their constitutionally guaranteed freedom to assemble. Like gruesome monuments to hopelessness, their battered bodies lay strewn recklessly across the streets of Chicago and over the grounds of the once idyllic campus of Kent State University. All the while, the former standard bearers for freedom—their parents—watched from the safety of their living rooms. With nothing left to lose, this generation was free. Free from society and the ties that bind.
A generation later, these events are viewed in an entirely different light. The troubles of our nation are behind us. America prospers, as do its young people—most of whom are conformists. Lessons have been learned from the Viet Nam generation. But even with peace in our land and some time to reflect, our understanding of freedom has not fully clarified.
As we look about us today we see that America’s success and her freedom are the envy of the entire world. All nations and people want what we have. But freedom is not, and has never been, free. There is a price that must be paid.
Our founding fathers toiled to buy America’s freedom and then fought to preserve it. These great men established the world’s most successful government, a democracy (or more rightly stated—a constitutional republic), a nation governed by the rule of law. Those who seek freedom in America must still submit to her laws, laws written through the genius of learned and gifted men, laws that are a large part of the price we pay for freedom today.
And so, we have now come full circle in a generation. Thirty years ago, in attempts to be free, young people threw off the shackles of society and its laws. Today we advocate the passage of more laws for the same ostensible purpose.
Which road to freedom is the right one? It cannot be both. And, while many are glad to be free of the memories of the war-torn Sixties, I cannot help but look back. When I watch as freedom fighters clamor for the right to carry concealed weapons, I cannot help but look back. When I hear political hopefuls spouting off about the laws they will advocate and the jails they will build to secure our freedom, I must look back.
If, as I have come to wonder, with the passage of each new law, some part of freedom is abolished, then it follows that more and more laws will bring about a society of less and less freedom. We are fooling ourselves if we think otherwise. Furthermore, freedom of choice is diminished in such a society, and there exists an ever-widening gap between right and wrong, as defined by the law.
So, considering the current propensity for legislating in the name of freedom, one cannot help but wonder how long it will take for the revolutionary atmosphere of the Sixties to once again descend upon us like a curtain on the final act of democracy. We can only hope for someone powerful and influential to recognize the trouble we face. (Now, please pardon me while I carry this logic to its ridiculous conclusion.) Since today’s society has gained such abundant freedom in the face of so many newfound laws, it therefore follows that the possession of such freedom leaves us with nothing much left to lose.
And, sooner or later, something has got to give. Look close; you can see it in the desperate eyes of our young students. They’ve been rammed through somebody else’s chamber. They’re not quite sure how they fit. They haven’t really been taught to think for themselves. Indeed, they are not free to do so, the mantra of our school systems being, “If you want to succeed in life—get with the program—follow our lead.” In other words: go with the flow or else! Or else what? Failure, perhaps, or exclusion. No one wants to be made a foolish example of the consequences of non-conformance. And children learn this painful lesson very early in life. They learn to go along, even though they may not really understand why. It’s the rule, we tell them, the law, the accepted way. And if they dare to be different, punishment looms over them like a threatening cloud.
Meanwhile, historians and freedom fighters and REAL Americans are out trumpeting the melody of rugged individualism. It is the underlying strength of our American Republic—or so they say.
Well, once again, and at the risk of repeating myself: You cannot have it both ways. If you want people to think like rugged individualists, you must encourage them to do as much—even teach them how. You can’t pour everyone through the same sieve expecting that they will come out the other side as glistening examples of independence and free thinking individualism. And, if you want to encourage freedom, you have to eventually set young people free—free to choose, to make mistakes, to succeed, or to fail—presuming, of course, that you have first taught them how to think. Instead of passing laws to fence them in, how about teaching young people to make good and proper decisions and then turn them loose? Teach them respect for others and their property, and you may not need laws to restrain improper behavior; they will know the difference between the two.
All of us want freedom to remain the hallmark of society. But, if that is to be so, we cannot allow this noble concept to further degenerate into an empty rhetorical rallying cry.
We want freedom to become real in our hearts, in our streets, in our society, and most of all, in our government. But I cannot be the only one who shutters as I read the news, or when I see a clip on TV, where yet another candidate promises us tougher laws and more prisons for greater freedom. There must be others besides me whose hearts’ cry “Stop! That is not the answer. How about demonstrating freedom by the example of your own life, how it is an empowering force—for good, and not for evil?” After all, this is what gets preached in our schools, our churches and the halls of our government. Is it not?
At this, the closing of the twentieth century—a century that has seen the most atrocious wars, and the most prosperous peace; in which most of the nations of the world have followed in our footsteps to democracy; where great strides have been made to wipe out poverty as we know it—indeed, while we still have the time, the strength, the resources and the hope, let us break the bonds of freedom into a new and glorious way.
Then, when a politician talks, some of us might begin to listen.