Two weeks ago Felix Maradiaga received the Geneva Summit for Human Rights award for courage. This award was sort of personal, because I’ve known Felix for more than 10 years and for the last two I worked with his wife and others to try and get him released from Daniel Ortega’s (the Nicaraguan dictator) gulag. After two years in jail, he was one night unceremoniously loaded onto an airplane with another 221 Nicaraguan political prisoners and flown to Dulles on what has become known as the “Freedom Flight” (we cannot help but think here of the famous “Philosophers’ Ship” of dissidents being expelled by Lenin from Russia).
This year CATO Institute gave its 2023 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty to Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong retail billionaire turned freedom advocate who dared to defy Beijing.
A few weeks ago I attended the International Republic Institute 2023 John McCain Freedom Award which was given to the women of Iran in honor of their struggle to be free.
A month ago I attended Grammy’s on the Hill celebrating Afghanistan National Institute of Music with Dr. Ahmad Sarmast and honored the school’s flight to freedom in Portugal (in which I played a small part) and the struggle of the girls of Afghanistan to continue to play music despite the Taliban’s totalitarianism.
The idea of freedom is baked into the American experiment. And today, Memorial Day, is a day when we remember the sacrifices made by our soldiers, often the ultimate sacrifices, who fought and sometimes even died to keep us free.
Its for that reason, with not a little bit of sadness and frustration we see these days the word “Freedom” becoming overused, and in that overuse rendered meaningless. It has been profaned to sell beer and cars and widgets; it has been appropriated by everyone to use for their political agenda, whatever that agenda may be. Even in our own land, it has been emptied of meaning by libertarians who have become libertines (Patrick Deneen writes about this eloquently in his book “Why Liberalism Failed”) and used to advance the idea of “you do you”, a pastless, futureless idea empty of any responsibility except the satiation of the immediate desires of now, whether they be right or wrong; helpful or harmful – even those ideas themselves now seen as discrimination against the ‘liberty’ to do exactly as I damn well please.
Liberty has become license.
Liberty is complicated. It gets caught in difficult arguments about debt-ceiling limits; about adequate tariff policies to protect domestic industry; about the role of decentralization and the separation of powers; about what I have the right to do living tightly packed in cities with other people who might not want to see that, and might feel it is an infringement of their liberties. Because liberty, true liberty, is about restraint. It is about freedom from my baser instincts, with the help of God and family and community. It is about living a life of sacrifice. All of this is lost in the modern discussion of liberty.
But that does not mean that liberty has failed. The United States shows us this; as we continue to inspire the world. Whether its Nicaraguans, Iranians, Afghans or anyone else living in a place not where people have to show restraint, but where they cannot go outside without fear of arrest, cannot assemble in peace, cannot expect any due process when they feel they are wronged. Those people are not protesting to live a licentious life, they are protesting to be allowed to exercise their discipline, restraint, and committment to building their futures which has been denied them. Felix was denied a Bible by the oxygenless totalitarianism of Ortega. Afghanistan’s girls are denied, well everything, but in the case of ANIM the right to play classical music.
My final point, we hear a lot about China these days, as an alternative model to the United States and our free society. But is that really true? How many people have you talked to who say “Wow, I wish I could move to Beijing?” How many border guards do they employ to try and keep migrants from overwhelming their country? How many times do you hear “Wow there’s a new Chinese novel…” or “Hey we gotta go hear that new Chinese band…” or “Hey there’s a new Chinese movie that really touched my heart…”
Never. Not once, not ever. Because civilizational ideas – like the United States’ free society – are ones that inspire; and totalitarianism inspires no one.
That does not mean that we should not have the discussions about tariff policy; about protection of domestic industry; about the importance of morality and propriety in our society. About how to protect our environment; about how to control ‘fast fashion’ and other damaging business activities that produce waste and damage the world. We should not, as Deneen has outlined, let our free society fall pray to its own success; or put differently, be victimized by its own ideas. And above all, today Memorial Day, we need to remember to honor the soldiers who gave everything to allow us to keep having these pernicious debates in freedom.
So thank you!