Give me liberty or give me Covid 19, says buddy’s sign.
Can’t we do both?
The reader might recall a most American – or at any rate most Republican – expression of political disgust during the run-up to George W’s disastrous Operation Iraqi Freedom, when the legislators retaliated for French refusal to play along by forcing the Congressional cafeteria to expunge all references to the homeland of the Gallic pantywaists, making them change french fries into, no fooling, “Freedom Fries”. It really said that on the posted menu, right after “grilled cheese”: “Freedom Fries”. I shit you not. Thus was the raw material supplied for one of Jon Stewart’s most hilarious quips, when he noted during the inevitable war that Baghdad and its environs were now pockmarked by huge bomb craters, or, as the Republican caucus referred to them, “freedom holes”. As Stewart had grasped with his usual acuity, to Americans of a certain bent, freedom always seemed to have something to do with smashing things and making a violent mess.
Time was, I wouldn’t have understood what mind-set Stewart was lampooning. As a kid, I thought Canadians and Americans were more or less alike in most of the important ways. We listened to pretty much the same music, watched pretty much the same TV and movies, ate pretty much the same food, bought the same appliances and cars, and so on. I watched The Forest Rangers, sure, but lapped up Batman and The Monkees too. Growing up in Halifax, with its blighted history of race relations – Google “Africville” – it didn’t seem like we had much in the way of virtue to lord over the States, either, even when we factored in their awful history of slavery, which nobody taught us had also been a feature of both French and British colonial life in Canada, including to some extent in Nova Scotia, right up until the British banned it in the 1830s. I might have gathered, when the 1970 declaration of martial law by our philosopher prince of a Prime Minister was greeted within wider Canadian society not just with acceptance, but mass approval, that there were crucial differences when it came to notions of peace, order, and good government, but heck, I was only nine years old, when the beginning of a solid liberal arts education in political science, history, and economics still laid a decade down the road. What did I know? We thought of ourselves as a free people, just like our cousins to the south, right? It wasn’t immediately obvious that our typically Canadian ideas of freedom could be so radically different from what I’ve lately come to regard as the peculiarly pernicious American cult ideology of individual liberty.
Perhaps Americans were a little different back then? Or did it only seem that way to a kid watching the Dick Van Dyke Show?
Maybe there was always something a little, well, skewed to the American approach to liberty, something a little selective, and sometimes, let’s face it, thoroughly dishonest. Their cultural mythology, often verging on outright propaganda, supplied plenty of clues for anyone willing to study the history dispassionately, by way of actual academic analysis rather than the output of Hollywood and the Disney TV studios. Like, what was the American Revolution really about, when you got right down to it? Liberty? Really? Looked at with a more jaundiced eye, it seemed mainly that they didn’t like paying the taxes necessary for the civil administration of their colonies, and chafed at British reluctance to allow unregulated expansion into the indigenous territories west of the Appalachians, which was sure to start bloody things the British didn’t want to finish – oh, how oppressed they were! The so-called Boston Massacre? Rioters surrounded a small detachment of British soldiers and put them in fear for their lives, until, after mounting various attacks with clubs and sticks, five of them were shot dead – unfortunate, maybe even unwarranted, but not exactly the Rape of Nanking, was it? Kent State was just about as bad. And what was with their endless mythologizing of the Old West? All that cowboys and Indians, John Wayne shit seemed rather to gloss over the heartless, essentially genocidal theft of Native American land by rapacious white folk looking to grab somebody else’s real estate, didn’t it? Maybe Custer and his crew had it coming at Little Big Horn, just a bit? Remember the Alamo, then? Well, the saga of wresting the Texas territory from Mexico wasn’t without its moral ambiguities, was it? OK, remember the Maine? Yes, but the damned ship blew up by itself, didn’t it – and what was it doing in Havana Harbour anyway? It wasn’t there indulging in a bit of the old gunboat diplomacy, was it? And what went on with the Philippines Insurrection? And what about all those interventions in the South and Central America, and the Middle East? Whose freedom, exactly, was being promoted by the United Fruit Company, or by the coups against Chile’s Allende and Iran’s Mosadegh?
No, if you’re keen to support a little healthy revisionism, you don’t have to dig very deeply into a history replete with testimony to the limits of America’s dedication to freedom and who deserves it, from the internment of the Japanese to what’s going on to this day at the border with Mexico; you don’t even have to get into slavery, and a Constitution that judged an African American to be equal to 3/5 of a person, to indulge in the obvious criticism.
Then there’s the guns, always with the guns. From this distance it seems that the morbid, essentially erotic fixation on firearms of ever-increasing lethality forms the quintessential expression of the warped American conception of an individual’s inalienable rights. They’re free all right – free to arm themselves on a par with the 101st Airborne, and to stand their hallowed ground against all enemies, real or imagined. Free to do selfishly as they damned-well please, no matter who gets hurt. Rugged individuals, that’s who they are, flaunting their cherished liberty by openly carrying their portable anti-tank weapons into the local Subway, the better to order foot-long meatball sandwiches while keeping an eye out for marauding tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, which, after all, could happen by, theoretically – you never know, do you?
That’s a real photo, snapped just about two weeks ago, but I don’t know, maybe the weapon’s a fake, some sort of replica. Maybe there isn’t actually a shaped-charge, fin-stabilized rocket up the tube, not really, I mean, c’mon, that thing looks exactly like an M136 84mm recoilless, which fires a missile that can penetrate over 15 inches of rolled homogenous steel armour out to over 300 yards. No way a civilian is allowed to own such a thing, even in the reddest corner of Red State Murrica, right? After all, those things are, you know, very dangerous – just the blowback out the ass end of that sort of recoilless would knock Grandma off her stoop halfway down the block. It’s frankly ridiculous to think you could buy such a thing down at your local fish ‘n tackle outlet, yes?
Still, say it’s a fake, why would you even want the poor dude behind the counter at Subway to think you were carrying around such a fearsome little rocket launcher? Because – freedom!**
This is a free country, they say, menacing the elected representatives at the Michigan State Capitol with their assault rifles. I woke up this morning in a free country says the guy trying to shop mask-less at the Walmart, coughing Covid all over the other patrons, as the exercise of his God-given freedom no doubt renders necessary and indeed highly desirable.
Yeah. All right, but listen, sport, what sort of a pinched, ugly, anti-social freedom is this anyway? Why, to these guys, does freedom never come paired with responsibility? Why is individual freedom always purely the freedom to pursue one’s own dirty little desires to the detriment of others, damn the consequences? Do any of these gun-totin’, Second Amendment-worshipping flag-wavers ever ask themselves who, exactly, benefits most from a conception of freedom that amounts to little more than the ability to operate without any sort of decent restraint within a system governed under the jungle laws of beggar-thy-neighbour and might makes right? Do they imagine it’s their own pathetic selves who’ll emerge on top in that sort of melee?
I’m sure there are a bunch of white plutocrats funnelling money to Mitch McConnell’s super-pac who’d love for them to think so.
There was a time when American leaders articulated a different vision of freedom, one that went beyond the liberties enshrined in their Constitution and looked towards a world in which true justice was achieved only when individuals, whatever their social station, knew security of the person. Too few, these days, remember Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, delivered at the 1941 State of the Union, almost a year prior to Pearl Harbour, in which the President, looking at a world already at war, set out the fundamental rights that all the globe’s citizens ought one day take for granted:
Freedom of speech
Freedom of worship
Freedom from want
Freedom from fear
Speech and worship were already protected in the Constitution, and to the extent that speech is interpreted to mean waving an AR-15 around, while worship is equated with stifling female reproductive rights (and has nothing whatever to do with mosques and such), not even the most staunch evangelical NRA member in the modern GOP could have any quibbles. But freedom from want? Freedom from fear? What in pluperfect Hell?
A real guarantee of freedom from both want and fear implies a societal underwriting of health care, education, income, the whole nine yards – there’s no end to it. Start down that road, and in short order a nation wouldn’t stand for much beyond ensuring a minimum standard of welfare and dignity for everybody who lived under its jurisdiction – everybody, even the losers. Holy shit sandwiches! That‘s – that’s [gasp] socialism!! God damn that commie FDR and his commie ideas!
Yes. There it is again, the dreaded socialism. Up here in Soviet Canuckistan, where our putrid political philosophy embraces a view of society and its rules not so much as a mode of government oppression as a means of avoiding the oppression of our fellow citizens – who, left to their own devices, will do things like form monopolies and oligopolies, concentrate economic and political power, cheat, steal, poison our waters, pollute our air, sell us rancid meat, turn us into impoverished wage slaves who don’t even get weekends off, and charge us 376% interest on our mortgages – we take a different approach to these questions. We believe there are other freedoms. Like, say, the freedom to take a drink of tap water without fearing what’s in it. The freedom to seek a medical diagnosis without dreading financial ruin. The freedom to rent an apartment, get a job, or buy a wedding cake without worrying about whether our race, gender, or sexual orientation bars us from doing so. The freedom not to wonder what that guy next to you at the fast food joint means to do with that really quite nasty shoulder-mounted infantry weapon.
Up here we hew to the (perhaps not so heretical?) belief that the high road to true freedom, to security of the person, necessarily involves obedience by all to a few basic rules, rules that strike a balance, setting limits on personal liberty which, as Section 1 of our own Charter of Rights puts it, “can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. Call us brainwashed.
Listen, I know I oversimplify when it comes to American attitudes. From where I sit it’s quite impossible to know the real America, if there is such a thing, no matter how hard you study the problem – and I’ve studied it avidly, believe me. What we see on the news is, perhaps, the monopolization of public discourse by a small minority of yahoos that make for good copy and goose cable news ratings, but hardly represent the bulk of opinion. A State populated by millions shouldn’t be characterized by 100 odd idiots with guns; and meanwhile, if I’m honest about the perils of coming on all holier-than-thou, it must be admitted that we here in Canada are prone to be too deferential to authority, and maybe a little too flexible when it comes to balancing liberty against the avoidance of civil unrest.
Such remains true even today, in a country enamoured of the Charter of Rights brought in, long after the fact, by the very same politician who invoked the War Measures Act in October, 1970. In retrospect the response to the October Crisis was a spasmodic over-reaction to a few frighteningly violent acts of a frankly half-assed cell of largely friendless terrorist separatists in Quebec, yet there remain many of us (me included, God help me), who secretly thrill to Pierre Trudeau’s debate performance on the steps of Parliament, when he ran circles around the well-meaning reporter whose heart was in the right place, but couldn’t muster the arguments needed to cross swords with a foe whose keen intellect had been honed by the Jesuits:
Just watch me. So help me, it should enrage me, yet somehow it never does. Some part of my mind, perhaps the scaly crocodilian bit wrapped ‘round my brainstem, hears that and goes fuckin’ ay, Pierre, you tell ‘em. Comes to that, if that’s my only choice, I’ll take Trudeau’s off the cuff authoritarianism over Buddy hauling an anti-tank missile into my neighbourhood Subway any day of the week, which I guess is what anybody from south of the 49th would expect from a goddam socialist like me. I swear, I’m no fan of authority. Like just about any Canadian, though, I’ll submit to some measure of authoritarian control before I endorse anarchy – or anything akin to Trumpism, which somehow manages to supply both.
I know, the points I make here are trite and obvious. I’m pursuing the theory that things aren’t actually as complicated as most intellectual analysis makes them seem. Lately I’ve been thinking that no, actually, it all really is that trite and obvious after all.
**Upon looking more closely at expanded versions of the photo, the launch tube is labelled “inert” and “safe”. Must be a training round, though it’s still odd that civilians can acquire such things.