The Burden of Freedom

I was inspired to write this piece by Roger Cohen’s OpEd in the New York Times entitled Why ISIS Trumps Freedom. And then I woke up one morning this week to the news that Julian Bond had died.

Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson. These were the heroes of my youth, young, idealistic, full of fire. My heroes were fighting for freedom.

So why, in the early years of the 21st Century, the Century of the Future to my mid-century-formed mind, does ISIS trump freedom? Why is the new ideal submission? What is so attractive about reduced choice, restricted roles. Why, god help me, do I suspect that one of the tenets of the right might be quite correct – that “they” really do hate freedom. And apparently a small segment of our young, of our most rebellious young, aren’t so enthralled with it either. How and why can freedom become a burden?

I think it highly likely that the most important element of my youthful rebellion – and the youthful rebellion of other young white people like myself – was that we grew up in a culture of relative stability, in a land of plenty, in a country, having just prevailed in the “good war,” that was high on its own ideals. And when we reached that certain age when the eternal verities begin to take hold in meaningful ways, we saw what happened on the Pettus Bridge, we read the headlines that proclaimed that we had to destroy a village to save it, and we started asking questions.

We were born, in many crucial ways, in spite of our prosperity, into a culture of limited choices, narrow understanding, and exclusion, and we set about expanding those choices, raising our consciousnesses, spreading the gospel of inclusion. We were WWII heroes – at least our fathers were. We stood on their shoulders. There was nothing we couldn’t do.

We aren’t so lucky today. We’re losing our homes, we’re losing our jobs, we’ve lost our innocence. We’ve lost the sense that anything’s possible. Freedom hasn’t set us free. Suddenly we find ourselves in a K-Mart aisle stuffed with hundreds of second-rate shoes to choose from, and everything swims before our eyes. Oh, if only someone would come along and tell me which pair fits me, which pair is right for the occasion, which pair will take my feet to where they should go. To where someone will tell me what my task is and how, by performing it, I will be fulfilled. Freedom can be a bitch when all you feel is lost.

The promises of freedom have turned out, in too many cases, to be false promises. Whole neighborhoods of young black men go to prison every day. The killing of the week makes a mockery of the Land of the Free. Forces on the right are trying hard to beat back freedoms won for women and minorities under a false flag that makes spurious claims that these freedoms impinge their own freedom to discriminate, to deny. Zealotry is a cozy comforter, for some of our own as well as erstwhile citizens of the caliphate.

There have, however, arisen some few alternatives to the snake oil of ISIS. Occupy, Dream Defenders and Black Lives Matter have found the marching shoes they were looking for. They are the people who may have given Julian Bond some peace as he lay dying, knowing that his work would carry on. Hope still lives.

As for the young who can find no better meaning in their lives than the nihilism of ISIS, Cohen puts it well when he reminds us that the jihadi temptation to escape from freedom into all-answering zealotry is there and will not soon be curbed. But I hope that some of them can be tempted by this summer's flame of Black Lives Matter. And I don’t think I’m diluting that premise when I say that the operative word there is “Lives.” ISIS is, essentially, a death cult. BLM is a movement for life. For mattering. And it’s only when Black Lives Matter that all lives will eventually matter. And it’s only when something matters that freedom is no longer a burden.