America is heralded as “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.” We assume that government serves the collective public interest and protects the weak and vulnerable from the tyranny of self-interested power. But the concept of “Freedom” exhibited today makes a mockery of the legendary ideals our forefathers fought and died for. Freedom does not mean we are all free to do whatever we want, wherever we want, whenever we want as a right. This is not freedom but selfish indulgence. Freedom is granted as a privilege but implies responsibility and accountability for our actions as they affect others.
The generation that fought together in World War II shared a bond of common commitment to face down evil and stand for the moral high ground of humanity. Service above self, to the ultimate sacrifice of life itself, bound the citizen-soldiers of that time together, and set up the conditions that built the greatness of America as a world leader, and as a model for progress. But, in the aftermath of that war, the spirit of cooperation in governance, in institutions, in aspirations began a slow erosion decade by decade. My Father was a paratrooper in Donovans unit of Special Forces, and later served in the United States Information Service. He would not recognize the America he fought for, and the government policies prevalent today would shock his sensibilities to the core.
The sense of making life better for our children, the sense of making life better for everyone together has evaporated into a governance framework driven by corporate interests. Business and government have fundamentally different objectives. The special interests of multi-national corporations now drive public policy to the detriment of the health and welfare of the people, as a collective whole. Tax and financial policies have deliberately skewed the distribution of wealth to an increasingly bloated top 5% of the people, leaving more and more people in the clutch of poverty, even if they are working full time, or have multiple jobs. The system is rigged for people who make money from the returns on their invested money. Corporate profits are at an all-time high, while wages stagnate or fall. Working hard does not guarantee success, or even a viable life. The poverty in America is a deliberate political decision. This time of COVID-19 pandemic reveals the injustice embedded n our economic system today: “essential workers” are al the bottom of the wage ladder. People whose work is critical to food supplies, health and basic safety stand out of their own sense of duty in the face of daily danger, yet these are paid least, hold lowest status, and are treated as disposable people. This is not the America my Father and Grandfathers, uncles and brother fought for!
Likewise, the assumption that clean air and fresh water are guaranteed is fraying in America. As pollution runs rampant with regulatory controls rolled back, rescinded or unenforced, millions of Americans suffer from living in polluted air and unsafe water. Contamination from industrial operations disproportionately affects communities of color, and people who cannot afford to move away. The COVID virus compounds the insult of having to live in unhealthy places, with no recourse, and no hope of escape. Rolling back basic environmental protections to promote business undermines the basic health and safety of the nation, and the globe as water and air pollution respects no borders. The laws of Nature are not negotiable- physics, chemistry, biology operate whether our laws take science into account or not.
Unlike the specific, horrific crimes of Nazi Germany, the slow violence of corporate greed raises few objections. The country increasingly splits over ideology, politics, race and religion. There is no sense of urgency to move in a collective effort to preserve a fair, equitable, healthy future for our children. Everything rests on short-term benefits. There is no sense of collective action to make better options for our children. Any policies that purport to curtail the “rights” of individuals or corporations to profit, regardless of the consequences, are viewed with derision and trounced as burdens on business or curtailing freedom.
What of the burdens on the next generation? What of the obligation to protect the innocent and help the indigent? Where is our higher calling to improve the community in which we live?
As the conditions of the world continue to deteriorate, it is necessary for everyday people to take up the mantle of moral conviction to make things better. It is imperative that people learn from the brave men and women who laid down their lives for justice, freedom and respect for human dignity. The rampant racism underlying many of the current policies in America must be called out, and trounced for the precursor to tyranny. Democracy is not automatically viable, it requires active participation by an informed and caring citizenry. There is no way to honor those who stood for the America that united together to defeat tyranny without reclaiming the moral imperative. We must be willing to stand and fight for the dignity and respect of all people, for the right for life to exist as intact living systems that serve our Earth, for the fair and equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth, and for the rights of people to express their opinions openly and to receive respect.
We must remember that we are a nation stronger as a community joined in common purpose than as a group of individuals, each striving for his or her own goal. It is the common sensitivity of caring communities, built on mutual respect and recognizing the inherent dignity of each person, that will prevail over tyranny. The injustice visited on any one of us is owed an answer by all of us. That is what makes a nation great.
On this Memorial Day 2020, there are few parades, few traditional ceremonies of honor, few gatherings at cemeteries, or family picnics. On this Memorial Day strangely isolated and mourning the 100,000 lost to COVID-19, we can each stand in honorer those who stood for us. We must each take up the burden and the privilege of Freedom to hold that high standard of taking responsibility for our actions, supporting those who hold that space of concern for the least among us, and respect the inherent dignity of each fellow citizen. The mark of a truly free person is the generosity of spirit each shows to others. The mark of a truly free country is measured in the quality of life the least of its people can enjoy.
In homage to the Citizen Soldiers who served to defend America, we can each take up the honor of holding our freedom by holding responsibility for defending it daily, ourselves in our actions, words and deeds. We can hold our freedom by demanding accountability from our leaders to keep the standards of a moral and ethical government.
The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor welcomed my Father and my grandparents to a land of opportunity, a land yet unshackled by the bonds of class and tyranny. We must remember what made America truly great: her people, their hopes, aspirations and collective sense of purpose.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”