The Future of Freedom

Jon Quitslund

I’ve begun this on the eve of this year’s observation of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  At church this morning, the service was dedicated to Dr. King, and a passage from one of his speeches was read.

On March 22nd, 1956, during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King addressed a mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association at the Holt Street Baptist Church.  Here is a passage from his speech that I heard repeated this morning: “Freedom doesn’t come on a silver platter. Whenever there is any great movement toward freedom, there will inevitably be some tension. Somebody will have to have the courage to sacrifice. You don’t get to the promised land without going through the wilderness. Though we may not get to see the promised land, we know it’s coming because God is for it.”

My immediate response to these words was complicated, and in my thoughts about the passsage now I’m trying to unpack some of that complexity.

Today, more than fifty years after Dr. King’s nonviolent struggle for freedom and racial equality, a great deal of progress has been made, and other disadvantaged minorities have also achieved a good portion of the acceptance and respect that they have sought.

Today we live in a multi-cultural society, in which no minority group is invisible or disregarded, except by people who have withdrawn into isolation or exclusive enclaves.  It must be admitted, however, that there is no agreement within the general public that the present stage of our cultural evolution is an achievement to be proud of, and to build upon.  Many people regard the complications that come with our diversity as an awful predicament, and an affront to their own basic principles and sensibilities.

People of color still encounter prejudice, and still struggle for acceptance and respect, and they are not alone in facing huge gaps between the lower rungs on ladders to success.  In the mainstream and even in its elite strata, our culture is acutely status-conscious, protective of the status quo and nostalgic for an imaginary status quo ante.

Our first African-American president has now been elected twice, quite decisively, but a well-organized minority of the powerful and the gullible have been reluctant to acknowledge his legitimacy.

* * *

I am completing this after President Obama’s inauguration, having listened to his second inaugural address, as well as to Senator Schumer’s call for “faith in our future,” and to the fine invocation delivered by Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers.  I heard what the President said about what “you and I as citizens” can and must do to secure our future, and I feel a renewal of hope – cautious optimism, if you will, although I think that ‘optimism’ and its opposite are worn-out  words, inadequate responses to our many challenges.

One of the thoughts that I started with yesterday was that freedom, as Dr. King conceived of it, has a solid history now in our nation, and it must also have a future, at the center of our discourse and as a motive for our actions.

I also think that now is a good time to reflect on the reasons motivating various individuals and organized groups to rally for freedom.  Those reasons are not all legitimate; some of them rise out of selfishness and resentment, rather than a real grievance.

Freedom is enjoyed by individuals just as oppression is suffered by individuals, but when freedom is guaranteed by law, as it is in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, it is extended to groups of people without regard for individual needs and interests, but rather in the interest of fairness and the common good.

There are, however, demands for freedom that have nothing to do with the guarantees of the Bill of Rights.  Some forms of freedom are privileges accorded to the fortunate few through the machinery of free market capitalism.  I can understand the need for government support of industry, businesses both big and small, investment, innovation, risk-taking, and insurance against losses, but that support should not include freedom from appropriate regulation and a fair share of the taxes levied on property, profits, and income.

During the so-called debate on health care reform, many people complained that their freedom as individuals was being violated by an overbearing government.  Some opposition came from special interest groups that thought they had something to lose from the changes being proposed (some of which had little chance of passing).  Opposition also arose from misunderstandings, and from crafty distortions of provisions in the legislation, designed to play upon the fears and biases of vulnerable people.

We hear a lot about freedom these days, not so much from people who are oppressed or neglected, but from those in power who are used to having things their way.  Will they always have the upper hand?

Martin Luther King spoke not only of freedom and fairness, but of suffering, courage, and sacrifice, all of which were essential to achievement of the understanding, reconciliation, and equality of opportunity that were his ultimate goals.  The freedom to do as one likes, regardless of the consequences, was not what Dr. King had in mind.

To reach my conclusion, I need to shift the focus from individuals to communities, and to a problem more deep-rooted and harder to handle than racial prejudice and discrimination.  What follows is the opening paragraph in “The Future of Agriculture,” a short speech by Wendell Berry that appears in It All Turns on Affection (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2012):

Our fundamental problem is world-destruction, caused by an irreconcilable contradiction between the natural world and the engineered world of industrialism. This conflict between nature and human interest may have begun with the first tools and weapons, but only with the triumph of industrialism has it become absolute. By now the creaturely world is absolutely at the mercy of industrial processes, which are doing massive ecological damage. How much of this damage may be repairable by economic and cultural changes remains to be seen.

Mr. Berry goes on say that industrialism “is our disease. Most of our most popular worries – climate change, fossil fuel addiction, pollution, poverty, hunger, and the various forms of legitimated violence – are symptoms.”  I would add to Berry’s mention of poverty and hunger that the widening gap between the extremely wealthy and powerful few, and the many who aren’t impoverished but find themselves and their children vulnerable, unsure of their future, is another symptom of the disease that has thrown our “engineered world” off kilter.

Perhaps reactionary defenses of individual rights and contempt for the rights of others are further symptoms.

Our health – the health of individuals and communities together – can still be found through strong connections with Berry’s “creaturely world,” which is not entirely a thing of the past.  Though in need of stewardship and repair, it is all around us – out the door, in the woods, on the beach.  We need to be part of that world, and it’s just possible that with a concerted effort, we can improve it.

President Obama spoke of taking action together, now, with the future in mind, four years from now, and 40, and even 400.  My highest hopes for the world as we know it don’t extend 400 years out, and I myself don’t expect to live 40 more years, but our sons may, and our granddaughter, so that future concerns me personally.  And the next four years will make a big difference, one way or the other.

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