We get goose bumps when we see streets full of people and somebody standing on a podium or at the base of a noble old statue draped in a flag and exhorting their people to stay the course, to count all costs for the cause of freedom.
Its something about our national narrative, about who we tell ourselves that we are. But freedom isn’t a man on a statue shouting; freedom is a concept, an idea. A principle.
And unfortunately freedom is a word we have abused lately; cheapened lately. It has been taken to mean all things, defend all things, compel all things and excuse all things. We use freedom equally talking of Nelson Mandela staring through the little window of his cell and over the sea to the place wherein his hopes were set; as we do defending the petty little obscenity on Saturday night television or the modern-day pillorying by the perpetually-outraged. We use it in our movies and our music and in every speech by every politician even as they are trying to take something from us. It is an irony not lost on me that even in America these days we are hearing people use that word to sell a pre-cooked Venezuelan revolution, rotten and stinking though it has become. “We should be free from inequality” they say, and we know they are coming for our paychecks. “We should be free from hate” and we know they are coming for our minds.
Socialism, that age old balm which does not soothe.
“Venezuela will soon be free,” we tell each other in America, and most yawn – for are they not there living the freedom that some are so anxious to impose on us at home? Are they not the beneficiaries of so great an experiment that people like Jeremy Corbyn and Sean Penn and Michael Moore and Danny Glover and Bernie Sanders went out of their way to applaud? Before the bread lines and beatings, that is. How long have we been hearing this debate, which no longer has any meaning apparently? How long has every petty totalitarian been using the word “freedom” and its mechanical vehicle “democracy” to advance their tyranny?
The ancients, when they wrote about freedom, were not talking usually in political terms. They meant freedom to mean freedom from our darker urges and our baser instincts. Freedom in discipline, to be discovered in self-control, in virtue and in a healthy sense of place and self. A wisdom derived from those who came before and a dignity which came from knowing ourselves. And it meant a freedom discovered in shame. But we are shameless these days; narcissists to the point of recklessness. A few months ago, in Germany on a work trip, I was having a debate with some friends. “Freedom should be our ability to do whatever we want, like if I want to walk around naked. Why should I not be able to?” A little taken aback, I answered, “What about my freedom to not have to see that?” – “Fair point” was his answer.
Our modern sense of the idea of freedom has purposefully robbed us of our idea of shame, of censure, of community mores and of how to live together. It has become legalistic, coded in laws written far away and argued in formal courts in order to assure that it is applied chokingly even across the rich colorful tapestry of our society. Our new sense of freedom is lonely, isn’t it? It is tired and worn; it is somehow petty and mean and wicked and greedy. It is envious and bitter. Our greatest trait has been seized, emptied of meaning in order to be filled up with ancient prejudices, hollow rage and the rising industry of offense.
These days Venezuelans are again marching and fighting – and dying – for their freedom. Not freedom to not have to read a book assigned by their teacher; not freedom to be naked where and when they please; not freedom to police the thought and attitude of those who come from the hills and dales and think differently or those who love their lands and traditions and who revel in the quiet study of the ancients. Not freedom to never be confronted by the presence of a moral and righteous God. No, they are fighting for real freedom. Physical freedom for those in jail and being tortured. Mental freedom to stand on the street corner and say what they believe about their leadership. Freedom to vote and have those votes honestly counted. Freedom to make their money, turn that money into property which adds value to their life and be assured that property will remain theirs. Freedom from “expropriate that” policies, freedom from judges who only defend a dying political project and freedom to embrace a rule of law which does not see the color of the t-shirt worn. Freedom to seek prosperity from a tropical “You didn’t build that” and a jungle “Now is not the time for profit.”
So as we hear that Venezuelans are again fighting for their freedom, lets stand in solidarity with them but let us do so with understanding of what it is they are fighting for, and that what they are fighting for is not that foreign from that which we also fight, and fight for; because the freedom that the socialists preach, whether at home or abroad, only ever leads to sadness, and the only equality offered ever will be the equality of the bread line.