Hennessy Goes To Washington
By Trish Hennessy
This excerpt from The Newsroom is making the social media rounds, and it got me thinking about the paradox of the word freedom.
The language is saltier than I like to share, the character’s a bit of a jerk in this clip, and I disagree with his assessment of a certain generation but, this rant somehow reminds me of my trip to Washington, D.C. in May.
I’d never been to America’s capital city before and I’ve always wanted to go, but I haven’t travelled to the U.S. for many years and I wondered if the post-9/11 heightened security measures might make entering the country difficult. I’ve written in support of the Occupy movement — would I be on some kind of watch list? I warned my partner that if I was asked questions about this, our travel plans might go awry.
Going through customs, we were asked the usual questions: What is your purpose for this visit? Business, I said. What kind of business? I’m giving a public talk. We engaged in some lighthearted banter and just as I was beginning to think my worries had been unfounded, the customs officer glanced at his computer then looked up at me and asked: So, the Occupy movement — didn’t that start in Canada? It caught me by surprise, but my partner shrugged and quipped: Didn’t it last for about a day? The customs guard said a derogatory remark about protestors — something about agitators — then stamped our passports and sent us on our way.
I tried to shake off my unease with that encounter by taking an afternoon walk to glimpse the White House from the front gates. I happened upon this:
Look closely: It was a fake President Obama, complete with fake security detail, right in front of the White House. Only in America. If stumbling across Fake Obama wasn’t enough, I could buy an Obama bobble head doll or drop a few dollars to snap a picture of myself at a fake White House Press Gallery.
I’ll admit it: I did both.
There were museums and all manner of tourist traps, but for a country whose politics encourage you to look up and revere the individual potential of being able to rise from rags to riches, it’s what I saw when I looked down at the sidewalk that lingers.
Many sidewalks — especially in Freedom Plaza — were inscripted with quotes from earlier Americans reminding their fellow citizens to think not only of their own personal fortunes, but that of others too.
Quote after quote reminded Americans about the power of the many, acting together for the benefit the majority.
An indestructible idea: This was borne of the dream that a nation built on the value of equality could be the driving force of hope, opportunity, and shared prosperity.
Empowered by the grandness of this idea, Americans looked to their President as a reflection of the will of the people – as Walt Whitman wrote in 1855, embedded on the sidewalk of Washington Plaza: “The sum of all known reverence I add up in you whoever you are, the President is there in the White House for you, it is not you who are here for him.”
The spirit of equality was at the root of the democratic notion. There was freedom, too, but in earlier times the word freedom represented the value of equality; it was about a promise that America could be a destination for those wishing to break free of the hierarchy they’d been born into in other countries. (At least in theory).
Words evoking the value of fairness and equality could be seen throughout the sidewalks of Washington, and beyond. On the cab ride to the airport, I passed the Commerce Department Building with this inscription embedded on its archway: “Commerce among nations should be fair and equitable” — Benjamin Franklin.
In 1800, John Adams expressed this hope for future Americans, embedded on the sidewalk of Freedom Plaza: “May the spirit which animated the great founder of this city descend to future generations.” In those early days, America’s founding fathers could never have imagined a Wal-Mart, let alone the reality that Wal-Mart’s six heirs would be worth more than the bottom 40 percent of Americans today.
Walking the streets of Washington, months after the Occupy movement in that city had taken over Freedom Plaza, it was impossible to shake the disconnect between America’s founding belief system and what’s changed. As this Truthout essay notes, America is in trouble:
“How do we detect when a society is in trouble – real trouble? What canary in the coal mine signals danger? The real signs of major trouble are to be found not only in huge deficits, unemployment, even terrorism. The time to pay close attention is when people begin to lose belief in things that once mattered profoundly – like the most important values that have given meaning to American history from the time of the Declaration of Independence: equality, liberty, and democracy. The long trends are ominous: … there is now massive evidence that for decades Americans have been steadily becoming less equal, less free, and less the masters of their own fate.”
While the Occupy movement attempted to speak truth to power by staring down Wall Street and reframing inequality as the 99% vs the 1%, the signs of anything changing soon aren’t obvious. In part, it’s because the notion of freedom in America has been delinked from the value of equality.
Freedom, especially post-9/11, is a word that strikes me as tapping into America’s darkest fears, rather than its greatest hopes.
“Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, and our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist attacks.” — George W. Bush, September 11, 2001.
“Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what they see right here in this chamber — a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” — George W. Bush, September 20, 2001.
“Extending the reach of freedom is the urgent need of our nation’s security and the calling of our time.” — George W. Bush.
The special irony is that, in the name of freedom, America has restricted movement between borders and placed restraints on the right to free speech, as illustrated in this essay by Naomi Wolf.
One evening, we went to the outskirts of Washington, to a suburb the locals described as a community in the process of gentrification. A group of young Americans walked up to the bar, to celebrate after an evening of ball playing. We got to talking about America and its greatness.
But what about health care, I asked.
Oh, I have health care coverage, one of the young men said.
You must have a good job with benefits, I responded.
I do, he said.
What about Americans who don’t have a good job with benefits like you have, I queried.
Yeah, I don’t have health care benefits, his friend acknowledged.
Oh, I’ll take care of him if he needs health care, the man said to me with a wink.
In Canada, I said, no one has to hope for the generosity of such an offer. If I fall ill and need health care, I’m covered — we all are. That’s the gift we give each other.
His friends started nodding in appreciation.
Well, the man said, raising a glass. Here’s to freedom.
Now I knew I was a guest in their country and I should have been a polite Canadian and raised my glass to freedom, but having spent the day soaking up the ethos of those words written out on the sidewalks of Washington, I simply couldn’t get myself to toast a word that has become so associated with military security, that has become so devoid of its original meaning.
Instead, I quoted an old Kris Kristofferson song, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” You live in one of the most prosperous nations in the world, I said. You’re among the most prosperous generations to have ever lived. You should walk the streets of your fine city and remember the spirit with which America was built. In an era where six wealthy Americans own as much as the bottom 40% of Americans, it’s hard to fathom a system that makes it OK to enjoy your own private good benefits without striving to make them available to all. Freedom from the worry of falling ill, the worry that cancer will jettison you into a battle not just for your life, but also for the health of your bank account. Your generation has every opportunity at its disposal to go back to those founding values of equality and fairness, to set it right. That, not freedom, is what I’m happy to toast to.
His friends moved to raise their glasses, but he did not. I wished them all good health.