Friday, March 28, 2008

The Cost of Freedom

American political debate and discussion these days seems to be a matter of dueling bumper stickers. The bumper sticker discourse is not unique to any one side–I enjoy sporting a barbed comment on my truck as much as my conservative neighbor. My favorite is “Fundamentalism Stops a Thinking Mind” but “Resist Much Obey Little” is also a pointed message. I like to think that my left-wing catchphrases are more clever than the right-wingers but then I am naturally biased toward my own ideas and preferences. In the end this debate of the bumpers is more about asserting a particular idea or cause and excluding others. Sometimes a particular sticker will make me think but, by and large, it’s simply a statement of belief as doctrinaire as any religious dogma.

One bumper sticker in particular, though, does make me think: “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE”. But I don’t believe my thoughts are quite what is intended. As with most bumper stickers, the intent is to end debate with the idea that national defense and military action are the cost of freedom; anyone not understanding this simply does not understand the trajectory of history, is unwilling to defend freedom and fails to appreciate the sacrifices made by American service men and women . I mean, who can argue with the idea that we need to fight to protect our freedom, that great legacy bestowed by the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution?

I don’t disagree with this concept; freedom and liberty are always at risk, something the Framers knew all too well. I do take exception to the implication that it means I must support every military action my country undertakes because that is the “cost of freedom”. American military history is less about freedom than acquisition of land, resources and power. Sure, the American Revolution was about self-determination–for white male property owners, at least. And maybe the War of 1812 had something to do with freedom (of American commerce) on the high seas. After that, I don’t see much freedom in our military actions. The Civil War was not about freeing slaves, although it did have that unintended consequence. The Spanish-American War led to an extended and brutal American occupation of the Philippines. World War II is perhaps the closest America has come to battling an actual threat to our liberties but, for the most part, our military has been largely an agent of American economic expansion. Just ask General Smedley Butler.

The great threat to freedom in America is homegrown, either from an economic elite that denies economic freedom and opportunity to the mass of citizens or from fellow Americans who insist that only their views have merit, to the exclusion of all others. Defending freedom is citizens--from Suffragettes, civil rights workers, small entrepreneurs, labor and other marginalized Americans--demanding that the rights guaranteed in the Constitution be honored. This defense of freedom is as costly and dangerous as any military action overseas; many of these patriots paid with their lives and fortunes so that others could enjoy that liberty.

The Framers of the Constitution, most of whom risked their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in defense of American independence were all too aware of the dangers to that hard won freedom. They knew it was not free and were hardly certain that it could be maintained in any mass society. That’s why they created a three branch government with shared powers and why Benjamin Franklin described the new government in conditional terms–“A republic, if you can keep it.”

All this does not mean that an effective military is wholly irrelevant. After all, we live in world populated with other human beings who have a long history of aggression and mayhem. But those kind of threats to our freedom are few and far between. The real threats to our freedom are nothing that soldiers and weapons can do anything about. The real cost is in defending it from ourselves.

But that’s a bit much to expect from a bumper sticker.