Recoiling from the screen as an immensely large Smurf comes at you with a broadsword screaming, “FREEDOM”! Quickly rubbing your eyes as you awaken and realize it’s just an angry Mel Gibson doing his “mad as hell” thing. Clicking the TV back to March Madness (no Duke, but it’s still basketball — and the ACC lives), the echo of his scream still ripples across the room in smoky undulations. Where do those waves take you? Do the wisps bring you to dark, little bar with Janis throbbing huskily, that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose? Perhaps, a “you were there” moment on a hot August afternoon as Martin Luther King exhorted a nation trapped by its history and prejudice to let everyone know what the words, “free at last” meant to the core of their being? Yes, they waft by in the smoke — but my stopping place is in front of a crackly radio in January of 1941.
On that night, Franklin Roosevelt gave an incredible speech, one of my five favorite bits of rhetoric*[below] that aren’t trotted out on holidays or forced down sweet childhood throats. Don’t get me wrong, all kids should see and appreciate beautifully crafted prose, in an age where 140 characters is supposed to articulate policy? I grew up learning to declaim all the wonderful, inspiring words of history and Mr. Shakespeare, not to mention wandering through Mudville and knowing way too much about the sleep habits of Abou Ben Adhem. My Dad didn’t quite expect me to do the Demosthenes’ pebbles in the mouth (ok, he tried once), but “enunciation” was one of his top 10 favorite words.
Tangent aside, I love words — and the people who weave them into color full tapestries and speak them pulling you into the skein like a pinky-gold thread. FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech is one of those living, breathing, invite your participation documents. Listening to the “Four Freedoms” speech, as it came to be called, one can see each succeeding generation’s struggle and success with the promises of the republic. As the words are so lovely, let me share them, and then we can talk:
“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
- The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
- The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
- The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings, which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.
- The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”
Once you get past the beauty of an incredibly well spoken president, the freedoms are ones we still seek and the search for them has provided one of the great divisions in the American dream. As children learning opposites, “black & white”, “on & off”, “near & far” — this divide hinges on the simplicity of “to & from”. Before you think I’m crazy for relegating the whole of American thought to a pair of prepositions, let me explain.
The first and most important freedom that FDR names is freedom to speak and express oneself. As has been noted through the years, that’s not saying “fire” in a crowded theatre or other random stampedes, yet unpopular speech and expression is still ours. Kneel for the “star spangled banner”, burn the flag, scream damnation to workers at women’s health clinics — we have the freedom “to” and our friends and neighbors have the freedom to disagree. Conversely, should we embrace the freedom from, as have some of our allies, what happens? If we say we need to be freed from the press that criticizes us, can we ensure that the press doesn’t become just a propaganda or publicity machine? A US that tries to insulate itself from critical speech and expression, is it still the United States?
The second is the freedom to worship, each in his/her own way throughout the world. Thomas Jefferson felt “Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error” and that religion or no religion could serve that end. Muslims and Jews and Christians and Native Americans had helped America become free; and live and let live was the common attitude among many in the early Republic. As years passed, new people immigrated — wars and social change left people questioning — the idea of religious freedom changed for many. No longer did freedom open hearts and doors, it was freedom “from” any but that of the dominant culture. You have the dystopian image of the red-cloaked Offred or the bewildered Doremus Jessup — both taken unawares as religion no longer opened their world, but darkened it to a single path to be trod willingly or no.
Roosevelt’s third freedom has always seemed like a “no-brainer” to me. Freedom from want seems so simple — making sure America is fed, housed, and clothed — how hard could that be? Teaching and assisting the globe to do the same — the Marshall plan on steroids? When climbing a mountain, don’t you reach back to assist the person behind you? Sharing is one of those habits, like “please & thank you” that we are taught from infancy. Is it something we outgrow?
My beloved Max Weber explained how that happens, in “the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. In the mish mash of unlimited capitalism, prosperity gospel, and Rand-ian individualism — the poor are not only always with us, they are there because they either want or deserve to be. So every individual has the freedom to want, unless they pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become a fiscally contributing member of society. It’s not hyperbole. In the recent debate over health care, Jason Chaffetz argued, “well, we’re getting rid of the individual mandate. We’re getting rid of those things that people said that they don’t want,” Chaffetz replied. “Americans have choices, and they’ve got to make a choice. So rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care” — as if those in poverty are there because they are stupid. Don’t forget lazy too, per Tom Cotton, ever reliable for a deeply caring quote said, “Medicaid is a welfare program. It’s primarily designed for the indigent, elderly, the disabled, the blind, and children. It’s not designed for able-bodied adults. We want to get those people off of Medicaid, into a job and into market-based insurance.” What Cotton neglects to mention is that an “able-bodied” adult working 40 hrs. per week at minimum wage grosses just over $15k per year — the Medicaid program is designed to assist those making under $15,ooo — in other words, not lazy just poor.
FDR’s fourth freedom echoes his first inaugural address where he reminded Americans that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. We as a nation should and can be free from fear. Maybe in the old days you say, there was just Hitler, Japan, Stalin, and the A-bomb — we are living in a post-9/11 world where anything can happen at any time. You’re right; the freedom to fear is really easy to understand. In today’s world, with today’s deadly toys — even a shoe can be deadly. Yet, it wasn’t. He was stopped.
By its very definition terrorism is random. Yet, so too, is life. Can you prevent a kid’s cancer? A humiliating and hurtful relationship? A presidential election? Franklin Roosevelt crippled by polio and high expectations didn’t think we lived in a technicolor fantasy world where bunnies and bluebirds gathered to hear us sing (and for me, there’s a fantasy). He knew, he was ready, he prepared for fearful things — not all, and at some he willingly closed his eyes. Yet, he refused to believe that the United States would cower in an orange-coded, America First isolation when our neighbor’s house was burning down. Our enemies don’t have a religion, or a flag, or a nation — they are fanatics of every ilk — all wanting Americans to walk in fear. Should we? Should we give away all of our other freedoms? Should we ignore the world? Should we stop striving to be a ‘more perfect union’ because we’re afraid? That’s when you hold your head up and whistle into the darkness….
If “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose, [and] Nothin’, don’t mean nothin’…’if it ain’t free,” what holds us back? Are we using the “to” or “from”? When I was ten (?), my baby brother and I took swimming lessons for a whole week, hence my swimming — not so Olympian. However, the pool had a high dive over at the deep end that looked like Mt. Everest, though it was just the standard height of about 30 feet. Now my sweet 8-year-old brother wanted to jump off that board like nobody’s business, but being incredibly shy (you might not believe that now), I had to ask the lifeguards. Sure, Friday after class they told him through me — no problem. We’ll have some lifeguards hang around to help you. Friday arrived and as we walked towards the board, he stiffened like a Hogwarts curse and said there was no way that he would ever do that, no way, no how.
Now the dilemma was: 1) do I tell them he was too scared, after they were all prepared for him to jump and inconvenience them? Or, 2) do I take his place, climb a 30 ft. ladder (not my favorite) and jump into really deep water when I could not swim?
I didn’t want to embarrass him or make their assistance in vain — so I chose the latter. The ladder was horrific, the diving board made little wobbles as I walked and suddenly it wasn’t there — I had enough thought to tuck so I didn’t belly flop, though when I opened my eyes I couldn’t see the surface of the water. I had done it — I had jumped! Gleeful, I laughed & inhaled some sort of pleasure, adrenaline, and chlorine cocktail. I probably should have waited until I surfaced, given that gasping and choking is not my best look.
Every now and then, as I debate the freedom and the fear in my head — I recall that first moment in the water, knowing I had walked out into nothing, with nothing to lose but maybe fear itself.
Sing like there’s nobody listening
- The Freedom Train (Paul Weston with Johnny Mercer, Margaret Whiting, Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman, and the Pied Pipers) – written by one of America’s foremost cheerleaders, the incomparable Irving Berlin. Berlin came to this country as an immigrant from Russia at the age of 5. Publishing his first song at 19, he was so prolific and so popular that he was a legend by 30. In fact, Jerome Kern said that Berlin “was American music”. This little tribute to the electoral process is more that just a bit delightful, it may have replaced “I’m just a Bill”, in my poli-sci songbook 🙂 “You can write the President a letter/You can even tell him to his face/If you think that you can do it better/Get the votes and you can take his place/You can hate the laws that you’re obeying/You can shout your anger to the crowd/We may disagree with what you’re saying/But we’ll fight to let you say it loud”.
- Quiet (MILCK) — I first heard this song in the coverage of the Women’s March on 11/9/16. Women from all over had rehearsed on their own & via Skype, and came together to sing a capella on the streets of DC. There are chills and there are chills — this is the frisson of wonder down your back that pushes you to be better/do more/dream bigger. MILCK wrote the song in response to her own life experience and visceral reaction to the climate of the times. She said, “”In this time of fear, propaganda and discrimination, it is critical for our individual and collective voices to be heard. With this song, I’m saying I am NOT the woman who is going to stay quiet where there are figures who promote oppression. I want to encourage others to give a voice to whatever they may have silenced, political or personal.”
- Freedom (from Django Unchained) — I generally exercise my freedom to avoid a good part of whatever Quentin Tarantino movie I’m watching. Most of his blood and gore is superfluous and as I see it, real life offers enough without paying $10 for it. Yet, this song — its power is in its restrained, aching violence. It isn’t asking for freedom from what had already happened, but choosing the freedom to follow a new path. “Felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders…/Pressure to break or retreat at every turn;/Facing the fear that the truth I discovered;/No telling how all this will work out;/But I’ve come too far to go back now”
- And She Was (Talking Heads) — If freedom has a color and taste, it’s this song. It’s curves of deep blue & green billow up like lavender laced with rosemary — reaching for a peach sherbet sky. Synesthesia is the weirdest gift — it offers me palettes for just about everything. Random words, historical eras, songs, and emotions spill color in my mind like a drunken Jackson P (not really a stretch, I know). The colors of some things change as my life does — and yet there are consistents, like this song and its passionate free-ness.
- I Wish I Knew How it Feels to be Free (Nina Simone) — there are queens of music, yet only one high priestess. Born in NC, she had the most gorgeous contralto voice and soaring adventures to share with the world. Known as much for her social activism as her voice — she could perform Bach with the same depth of feeling that she could sing “How sweet it would be/If I found I could fly/I’d soar to the sun/And look down at the sea/And I sing ’cause I know/How it feels to be free” Billy Taylor, who wrote the song, said it was the purest expression of his words/music ever done (btw, librarian moment — the handwritten music is in the LOC).
- Free Your Mind (En Vogue) – In homage to the “girl groups” of the 60s, En Vogue was “manufactured” to be a top band. They were — ending the 90s as the 19th most successful band of the entire decade. The title/chorus came from George Clinton, “free your mind and your ass will follow”, while the opening line about prejudice samples David Alan Grier from In Living Color.
- Do you Hear the People Sing (from Les Misérables) – I know I should be all blasé about Les Mis and “whatever” about the music — it had its day, and now it’s done. Yet, this song has had a life of its own as a non-fiction, real life protest song for China, Turkey and others who wanted its clarion call to rally. So, perhaps it is cheesy — does that make it less of an enduring hope?
- Brother (or Buddy), can you Spare a Dime (Bing Crosby) — with a tune based on a Russian-Jewish lullaby, and released during the 1st campaign of FDR, this song became an anthem of the Great Depression. Considered anti-capitalist, swerving awfully close to socialism — it was on radios in spite of the programmer’s best efforts. Its bewildered “why” me lyrics spoke to a generation who’d fought a world war, came home, prospered, and watched it all fall apart. For something really weird and unexpectedly moving — check out George Michael’s cover.
- Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday) – this song breaks my heart every single time I listen, except for when Rebecca Ferguson said she would sing at this past inauguration as long as she could cover “Strange Fruit”. For the past few years, as I hear it, I see the set and plot of a friend’s novel. The words mist up from soil and leaf mulched land — reminding you of 2000 songs that were stopped short in those same quiet places.
- I Shall be Released (Bob Dylan, the Band & more) – In many ways; this is another song in America’s “prison” canon, like “Folsom Prison” etc. Yet, Dylan can almost be talking about how we imprison ourselves –unable to break free into the light. Sometimes it’s fear and sometimes self-confinement offers protection from an unsafe reality. Either way, when you “see my light come shining/From the west unto the east./Any day now, any day now,/I shall be released”. Stepping into that light may take a bit for your eyes to adjust, but you are free.
- Your Own Shoes (Emma Blackery)- she came from the YouTube vlogging world to solid success in the past few years. My youngest introduced me and I am taken with both her melodic style and her “take no prisoners” lyrics. Kind of jump off the diving board music: “And forget all the old things you knew/You’re about to live life in your own shoes /It’s gonna be one of the best things you can do”.
- The Land is your Land (Woody Guthrie) – Woody Guthrie was the voice of the Great Depression, every Tom Joad in America felt those chords like a primal heartbeat. Probably his most recognizable song, when he originally wrote it — it was a satiric response to Berlin’s “God Bless America”, called “God Blessed America for Me”. The lyric, still owned by his daughter Nora, read “One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office I saw my people. As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if God Blessed America for me.” As he daughter said — he waited to publish it because the McCarthy witch-hunts were gathering steam — and he didn’t want to be a shuttlecock. A line that has received more play over the years “There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’ But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing. This land was made for you and me…. One of my favorite covers of the song is that of the late Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings– this line she growls with such relish. Just a bit of a defense — Woody Guthrie loved America, despite the howls of the 1% of his time “When the sun comes shining, then I was strolling, With the wheat fields waving, the dust clouds rolling, The voice come a-chanting, and the fog was lifting. This land was made for you and me”.
- Political World (Bob Dylan/Carolina Chocolate Drops & others) – Gloria Steinem, said to credit authorship of the line “the personal is political” would be like saying you invented the phrase “WWII”. Most attribute the concept to an essay by Carol Hanisch, titled and published in an anthology edited by Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt. The decisions we make everyday determine our sense of freedom, what rights we cherish and those we abrogate. If you love a national park, or cherish friends who differ or think breathing is fun — when does silence become acquiescence and speaking up resistance? Will you have time to make the choice? “We live in a political world/Wisdom is thrown in jail/It rots in a cell/Is misguided as hell/Leaving no one to pick up the trail”.
If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom. → Dwight D. Eisenhower
*5 favorite speeches: Ursula K. Le Guin “A Left-Handed Commencement Address”, Elie Wiesel “The Perils of Indifference”, FDR “The Four Freedoms”, Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I a Woman”, Senator Margaret Chase Smith “Declaration of Conscience”.