Freedom Fetish

Posted on September 27, 2017

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Today’s one of those Indian Summer type days. The remnants of Hurricane Maria are pushing a block of warm, humid air up the coast. It’s brilliantly sunny between bouts of fog rolling in once in a while all day long. The light shimmers on the water. I’ve gone for my daily swim, which is more like a glorified float. I see gulls dancing above the water fifty or so yards from where I am. For these moments all is well, somewhat well with the world.

Before I started teaching and before we got our son, we used to take our vacation from Labor Day on. We’d head to the old cottage in Niantic (before we tore it down to build our present house) for a week or so, and then finish things off with 3 or 4 days in Truro, lingering by the Atlantic at Long Nook Beach. Or sometimes we’d start in Truro and end in Niantic. Either way, the summer crowds have gone, the weather and water still warm. A perfect way to end the summer. A perfect way to culminate unwinding.

This year, it seems like I’m only unwinding now. Kinda paradoxical because it’s still the first weeks of the new semester and there’s a chaos of activity — back into work modes, back into learning about a new crop of students. Back to everything.

This summer’s not been the best. Yes, definitely a first-world problem for me, what with all the catastrophes happening in the country and throughout the world. So I do count myself lucky. For starters, it was a lonely summer of sorts. Back in April, a cousin who’s a year younger than me died in a car accident. We grew up together, spending summers at my grandparents’ house on the water in Giants Neck. We bunked together and hung out with the same friends until our mid-teens, when his father bought the house from our grandfather, and then later asked our family not to come down to that house any more for summers. (Which was when my parents bought our little cottage on the hill overlooking the water.) We sort of drifted apart through college and he married and started a family. Only after his parents sold our grandparents waterfront house unexpectedly and when we got our son, did we start seeing more of him. With no longer having access to the beach, he had an open invitation to our cottage. And when we rebuilt and moved into the larger house year-round, we saw more of him during summers. More than one Sunday was spent in chairs on the sand by the water listening to him talk and talk and talk. One of the nicknames we had for him was “Motormouth.” When he called, I could just hold the phone away from my ear for 10 minutes or more and he’d keep on going. So, this summer I was always waiting in vain to hear the front screen door open and hear his voice yell up the hallway, “Hey, Gianni, ba-bee! What’s cooking?” This summer I just didn’t have the heart to take a chair and a book down to the beach. Would not be the same.

And before the summer began, I kicked off Memorial Day weekend by getting my back operated on. Outpatient surgery. Nothing too extensive, but the disc bulging on my sciatic nerve made standing to make my breakfast almost impossible. It was impossible to walk more than 50 yards without having to sit down. For someone who likes to walk and stroll about, who teaches on his feet, pacing back and forth in front of the classroom, this was sheer hell. I could see why Kurt Cobain could commit suicide because he couldn’t deal with his stomach pain anymore. In a spurt of naive optimism I thought everything would be back to normal after the operation, but learned the whole summer long that the nerve can take up to a year to fully heal from the damage of the pressure of the disc bulge on it. Now, almost 4 months later, I find great improvement. I can walk without thinking or scouting out places to sit. I can teach on my feet. I can think again on my feet. But the process was slow and required patience.

So, in many ways, the physical and emotional pain blotted out some of the summer. That’s not to say all was bad. The upside is that we took ten days at the end of June and made good on our promise to our son to take him back to Romania, the country where he was born. So, we did that as his high school graduation gift, and as probably the last family vacation/trip we’d take for the foreseeable future. So we took him to Bucharest, and then flew to Timisoara, and rented a car. On the way to Baile Herculane, we stopped in the village of Paltinis and visited one orphanage he stayed at. It’s now a day care run by Mennonites. The next day, while we were on our way to Sibiu, we stopped briefly in the town of Otelu Rosu (Red Steel) where he was born. We stopped in front of the house where his birth mother lived when he was born (and possibly where he was born), the hospital where he was abandoned, and the orphanage across the street where he ended up. This time, he did not want to get out of the car and explore.

I found myself remembering and comparing how the country had changed in seventeen years. In Bucharest, we visited many places we last saw pushing his stroller around. I could see the trip opening my son’s eyes, and his mind and his heart. That was beautiful to partake. He moved from the concept of Romania that he had built in his mind over seventeen years to the reality of what he experienced. He gained an appreciation, and a love, of where he was. And this appreciation was not without noting its flaws. And, also importantly, he gained a new perspective and appreciation for where he had been living for the past seventeen years.

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Travel does truly broaden your horizons.

But now I’m finally getting the point of this blog post. While there in Romania, recovering from the back surgery, trying to keep up with my son and wife, trying to deal with a monster head-and-chest cold, I stumbled upon a minor epiphany when ruminating between then and now, and between the States and Romania.

What flashed to me was that the downfall of our nation is also something we tout as our major contribution to world culture: Freedom. Why it’s our downfall is because it has been fetishized and worshipped in the United States. In the U.S., freedom means the right of any individual to do whatever they please. They are free. No one can tell them what to do. There’s an absolutism there in this concept of freedom. I’m not sure exactly what triggered this apprehension in Romania, but somewhere entwined were the lessons I tried to teach my son over the years that freedom was really not absolute, that it was tempered by laws and rules, and by the very fact that we must all live with each other. That fact — that we must all live with each other — seemed to be very self-evident in the culture I saw in Romania. The subtleties in how I saw people interact, how cities and towns and villages were organized. It just seemed so self-evident that the excesses and mistakes of the U.S. can be tied into the fallacy that freedom is absolute and infinite. We, at home, tie it into worship of the free market, into worship of the 2nd amendment, into a warped view of the 1st amendment. It was so evident that this fetishism of freedom could be used by demagogues of any sort (right, left, center) and/or snake oil salesmen of any sort to manipulate people. While musing in Romania (I can’t recall the exact spot, but it might have been while ambling and hobbling around the streets of Sibiu by myself), one example came to mind: How the Republicans exploited this fetishism of freedom by latching onto the fact that the Affordable Care Act mandates that individuals have to buy health insurance or face penalties. The Republicans exploited the misguided notion by many Americans that freedom is absolute and that the government was trampling on their freedom by making them buy health insurance. This fetishism is at such a high pitch it is its own religion — a religion many will fight and kill over. Obama, and some Democrats, found the ACA as a reflection of how we need to change to live with each other. With the ACA, we still have the right to vote for whomever we want, to worship whatever religion we want, to say whatever we want (within reason). The ACA was just one way we acknowledged that for the good of everyone — collectively and individually, we had to make accommodations individually. However, the Republicans astutely noted that fetishized segments of our population would regard this as a deliberate full-frontal attack on Freedom.

Now I’m seeing a version of this fetishism being played out over taking a knee, or not standing, during the national anthem. Doing so is disrespecting the flag, and by extension, everyone who made the ultimate sacrifice of freedom to defend freedom. Again, like the ACA, rational arguments won’t work. The same way a rational argument won’t work on a two-year-old who is throwing a fit because you, as a parent, put a limit on their freedom to cram as many candies into their mouth as they wanted.

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