Monday, May 29, 2006

Yah want freedom with that?

The other day I was reading about the monument to be built at the site of the World Trade Center in New York, and I discovered that the new tower, to be built just off to the side, is to be called the Freedom Tower. I confess, when I read this, I found myself mildly perturbed. Something about the use of the word "freedom".

Is it just me, or have you noticed that lately, the government, institutions, and even the people of the United States are using the word "freedom" a little too blithely? I don't know... it's like a sort of mantra, something uttered to soothe a troubled soul, like "Jesus loves you" or "it'll all be over by Christmas".

I've noticed that ever since the Reagan administration, the word's been minted with the same sort of disregard as the Federal Reserve Bank's been printing unbacked US currency. Just keep cranking out the word and spreading it around and hope nobody notices how cheap it's getting. I remember when the International Space Station was supposed to be a US-only effort to be called "Freedom", do you? I think that was the first time I found myself taking issue with the use of the word. There was a presumption about it I didn't care for...

Let me come to the heart of my objections. First of all, the word is being used too, shall we say, liberally. Have you ever noticed that if you say a word often enough, it starts to loose meaning and becomes just a weird sound coming out of your mouth (a really good word to experiment with is "clean"... say it over and over for half a minute and you'll see what I mean). It starts to sound foreign. This is one problem with the way the word's being used. George Bush uses the word to stifle opposition, grease the wheels of military deployment, justify staggering deficits, subvert civil liberties (how's that for ironic?) and allow the use of torture, overthrow foreign governments and needlessly slaughter civilians (pardon me, "collateral")... Operations are called "freedom". Awards are called "freedom". Medals are called "freedom". Even in World War II the word wasn't bandied about like this. "Liberty", which to me connotes a higher, more formal political idea, was the order of the day back then. "Freedom" sounds more personal, and little more hinky... like your parents not actually objecting if you blow off chemistry class to go to the mall.

My other objection is to the subtle, but palpable, usurpation of the word. People in the US have pretty effectively done this with the word "America", reserving it to themselves when in truth it belongs to everyone in this hemisphere. Now, increasingly, it's being done with the word "freedom". The suggestion is that "freedom" is really a function of living in, being of, or serving the interests of the United States. Other people may pretend to it, but their versions are quaint, ersatz, and approximations at best. This attitude is obvious in such uses as "freedom fries", a deliberate jab at the French: implicitly, the freedom of the French nation is to be scoffed at, denied, derided, all for the sin of objecting to the military brutalization of a country that did not attack the United States. This use in particular is objectionable and offensive; others less so. But the fact remains that the people of the US are sticking the word on ideas and concepts the way corporations ply the words "new!" and "improved!" until they're utterly worthless; de rigeur to a sales pitch.

Equally cheaped by overexposure, especially lately, is the US flag. Always proud to show it, they have gone to extremes lately. The thing is to be seen draped everywhere, even over disaster sites, as though a coloured cloth, a symbol, had the power to retroactively defend the dead, or erase the event, or deny the presence, power, and even the existence of others in the world; a multicoloured bandaid of pride alone that purports to magically heal all wounds; a use that seems to me vaguely inappropriate and slightly disrespectful to the flag, and, dare I say, faintly silly, like holding up a cross to ward off vampires. And where one used to do on a building or a bridge or a monument, now scores of the same are demanded, until the thing becomes of little more consequence, prominence, or meaning than the myriad dishrags stuck into any convenient corner of the kitchen of a greasy spoon, readily at hand to wipe a dish at a moment's notice — or in this case, reassure the viewer that he is still someplace safe and familiar and has not slipped into some strange foreign land which, in spite of the best efforts of 50 years of global Americanization, may stubbornly adhere to their own ways. I can't help but see this as whistling in a graveyard; as if the more flags there are, the louder the chants of "USA!" are, and the more the word freedom is splashed around like verbal whitewash, all adds up to the more hydrogen still left in those fifty stars, and the easier it is to ignore the fact that they have, in fact, begun fusing helium, economically, politically, and militarily, and that nothing practical that might head off or at least ameliorate it needs to be done about it.

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