Public Freedom, Private Freedom

Freedom, part 3

Public freedom
Freedom is about relationship. My seven-year-old self in front of a mirror, in the grip of wonderment about an idea, was playing out a relationship through ideas with my father. My eleven-year-old self, running, yelling down the hall on the last day of school, was swimming in a joyful shared celebration with his friends and classmates. It was our togetherness that made it freedom.

Private freedom
The freedom of mindfulness lies in the more direct relationship with the people and things of the moment, less filtered through preconceived purposes. The freedom of working with others for a shared cause certainly lies in that relationship, but even the freedom of the loose cannon tenured professor is, if it is worthy of the name freedom, about bringing her idiosyncratic pursuits to a relationship with students that – while observing the appropriate boundaries – is also deeply intimate. Love is both cause and result of true and free teaching.
“I have an instinct that tells me that I am less free when I am living for myself alone.” (Thomas Merton)
Freedom is about relationship. Some of the Quotations from this month's issue of On the Journey illustrate.

There’s Clarence Darrow saying, “You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free.”

And Audre Lorde writes, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of color remains chained. Nor is any one of you.”

And Rosa Parks, who saw the purpose for her struggle for freedom in the freedom of others: “I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free so other people would be also free.”

And Barack Obama, in his speech accepting his party’s nomination at the 2012 convention, declared: “A freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”

Freedom is about relationship. Freedom is something we make together. This was the lesson of the Passover story: no Hebrew walked out of Egypt alone. Nor could any have survived the wilderness alone. Freedom is a collective enterprise. We need each other to be free. Yes, there is necessary work only you can do. And part of our collective work is ensuring greater opportunity for individuals to engage in projects of self-creation, heeding their own inner and private call. Protecting the spaces of privacy and aloneness in which a person can give birth to herself is itself a collective enterprise – requiring, for example, great libraries where your solitary discovery of obscure texts that seem to speak to you alone enrich the uniqueness you can then bring to the world.

This is the public work of facilitating private self-creation, and that is what freedom looks like.

Aside from the labors of self-creation, there is also other necessary work: the work of shoring up our democratic institutions, securing the rights that we all need, protecting freedom of speech and press, guarding the independence of the judiciary, honoring the findings of science even when we don’t like them, providing social safety nets and lifting our neighbors from poverty. This work we can only do together and publicly; it is done with shared touchstones of value rather than unique and idiosyncratic fascinations. The public and joint creation of US, and the private and individual creation of ME are the dual, equally necessary, projects of creating freedom.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Freedom"
See also
Part 1: A Feeling. Mostly.
Part 2: Things That Feel Like Freedom


Things That Feel Like Freedom

Freedom, part 2

When my Journey Group talked about our experiences of freedom, we mentioned a number of features that contribute to this feeling.

A new way of seeing things sometimes feels like freedom (like seeing a certain hypothetical computer and the world as the same thing).

Sometimes it feels free to be freed from some chore or responsibility. I have a memory of the last day of school at the end of fifth or sixth grade, making our way up the hall and out of the building on that last day. There was supposed to be no running in the hall, but our energy was uncontainable and in the last minutes of the school year, the teachers were not inclined to try to contain it – and so we ran up that hall and we cheered and yelled as we ran toward the door. That was an experience of freedom.

On the other hand, sometimes stepping into new responsibilities was freeing. Remember when you were hired for your first really significant job? Or getting married. Or maybe the first time you moved to a new house. It felt exhilarating, and you were free at last of the life that you had had up until then. A few years on down the road, the same set of responsibilities that once were liberating might now be stultifying.

Mindful presence is a path to freedom. Directing attention to just what is there, without reactivity or distraction, liberates us from the tyranny of our reactivity – and our endless distractability, being continuously in thrall to the next shiny object. Mindfulness breaks the grip of automatic thinking – those unconscious habits of thought – and lets us see the moment more for what it is and less for only those features that relate to our own attachments. We can then engage that moment in more fresh and creative ways.

Sometimes freedom comes from being part of a larger thing that gives purpose and meaning to life – contributing to the goals of an institution. A life without purpose might be one in which you could do whatever you wanted, but if nothing you do matters – or if it feels like it doesn’t matter -- then that’s not really what liberation looks like.

But freedom also comes, sometimes, from creating your own projects that are yours alone, even if there is no market for them. The unappreciated artist or writer engaged in the deep task of self-creation through her work is embodying freedom – accountable to an inner call to become something unique rather than to make something useful to others. In this context, I think of something Richard Rorty wrote.

Let me first share a word about the meaning Richard Rorty had in my life. I discovered his work as a grad student at Baylor, and I went from there to study with him at the University of Virginia. He was my model and mentor and primary professor. When he died he 2007, I hadn’t seen him for 15 years, but the news still hit me like a body blow. As his student, I read all his books and his voluminous papers. And as my actual father had started me thinking about freedom, Rorty, too, helped me think about the subject.

In a 1989 essay, he drew a distinction between the kind of education that high schools are for and the very different function of colleges. High schools, he said, need to, and rightly should, focus on what students should know by graduation. But the question, “What should they learn in college?” had better go unasked. Such a question, Rorty explained, suggests
“that college faculties are instrumentalities that can be ordered to a purpose. The temptation to suggest this comes over administrators occasionally, as does the feeling that higher education is too important to be left to the professors. From an administrative point of view, the professors often seem self-indulgent and self-obsessed. They look like loose cannons, people whose habit of setting their own agendas needs to be curbed. But administrators sometimes forget that college students badly need to find themselves in a place in which people are not ordered to a purpose, in which loose cannons are free to roll about. The only point in having real live professors around instead of just computer terminals, videotapes and [photocopied] lecture notes is that students need to have freedom enacted before their eyes by actual human beings. That is why tenure and academic freedom are more than just trade union demands. Teachers setting their own agendas – putting their individual, lovingly prepared specialties on display in the curricular cafeteria, without regard to any larger end, much less any institutional plan – is what non-vocational higher education is all about.” (Philosophy and Social Hope)
Students need to have freedom enacted before their eyes – and this freedom is possible when professors are granted the space to develop idiosyncratic projects not ordered to anyone else’s purpose.

The experience of freedom arises in many different ways in different contexts. What they all have in common is relationship.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Freedom."
See also
Part 1: A Feeling. Mostly.
Part 3: Public Freedom, Private Freedom


A Celestial Sense of Place

LoraKim's sister Linda died three years ago, and in the gatherings of remembrance and grief, we met Linda's best friend, Dale, and her husband, John (names changed because, well, they're kinda private folk), and Dale became LoraKim's friend, and by extension, Dale-and-John became friends of LoraKim-and-me. I don't think it was explicitly stipulated in Linda's will that we would inherit her friend, but it may as well have been. Since we met Dale and John and hiked together with them several miles down western Virginia woodland trails to a waterfall where Linda had wanted half her ashes scattered, Dale and John have been encouraging us to come visit them in east Tennessee. The years were rolling by, and I don't know if we ever would have gotten around to it. In fact, it took a major cosmic event aligning the heavens to make it happen: a solar eclipse path of totality passing over their home.

Dale and John live on a 100-acre farm in a county the same area as mine (Westchester County, NY), but with scarcely one-twentieth the population, amidst surrounding counties that are as sparse or sparser. They grow pecks and pecks of corn and vegetables, but most of the land is pasture for 41 head of cattle, and one donkey. Dale has a tender heart and a particular soft spot for suffering animals. In and around the house are maybe a half-dozen dogs she has rescued and in some cases bestowed significant nursing exertions upon to bring back to health. (The cows, meanwhile, will be sold to feedlots to spend the final six months of their lives in abject misery before being slaughtered. I remind myself that I, too, am inconsistent.) Dale and John were born and have spent their lives in this rural region between Knoxville and Chattanooga, as had their parents before them. In ways both overt and subtle, they manifested a grounded sense of place that my life, with all its moves, will never know. They know who they are, for place and identity have merged. As Wendell Berry said, "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are."

When the hour of the eclipse approached, we drove up a country road to a hill where stood an old community center that was once a one-room schoolhouse. About 50 or 60 folks gathered there, $5 per car for parking: a mix of locals and out-of-state visitors. The visitors included five young Hasidic Jewish men from New York who came south to see the eclipse and seemed to have randomly stumbled upon this particular hill. Dale earnestly invited the Hasidic men back to her home for dinner, though I'm pretty sure she had no idea what their kosher needs required. They thanked her, said they would enjoy that, but must decline, and gave a credible excuse that made no reference to diet.

Then the sky darkened. A few stars appeared. The blocked sun was high in the mid-day sky, yet 360 degrees around us the horizon glowed red as if at sundown. Cicadas and crickets struck up their eventide chorus. The temperature dropped.

Imagine the Earth scaled to a one-inch diameter. Imagine a quarter-inch moon, two-and-a-half feet from the Earth. At this scale, the sun is nine feet in diameter and nearly two-tenths of a mile away. For two and a half minutes, the moon's quarter-inch disk fit precisely over the sun's nine-foot disk. A couple Unitarians, a handful of Hasids, and a whole passel of Baptists stood in dim, platinum-tinted awe beneath a fiery, hollowed-out corona -- on a tiny hill on the inch-wide planet we share. For a time -- and the fading sense of it lingers with me still -- we knew where we were in the universe, and who we were.


Confederate Monuments and Me

Charlottesville, Virginia: I went to nursery school there when my parents were graduate students, and I returned there in adulthood as a graduate student myself. During both the pre-school and post-graduate stints, I attended Charlottesville's Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist. Many TJMC-UU members were among the counter-demonstrators last weekend. The combination of the large University and the nonurban southern setting makes Charlottesville a logical place for clash between strong feelings for and against Confederate monuments.

I didn't remember that Charlottesville had a Robert E. Lee statue. I grew up in various southern towns, most of which probably had Confederate Monuments, though I scarcely noticed. Carrollton, Georgia, where I lived from 4th-grade through high school, had a generic Confederate soldier statue in front of the courthouse, though I have had to cudgel my memory to recall it. (A quick internet search confirms it is still there.) As a child, what did I think of this? Not much. I remember most that Carrollton's statue faced north, serving notice that northerners were seen as enemies. Since my parents were northerners -- and my accent differed from most of my peers -- the statue was one more way I was made to feel not at home. While Carrollton's generic soldier statue was easy to ignore, the bas-relief sculpture in the side of Stone Mountain, 90 minutes away in a park we sometimes visited, was more impressive. It is enormous and depicts three particular men on horseback: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. When I try to recollect what would have been going through my pre-teen brain as I looked at that display, I don't come up with much. I suppose I had some dim apprehension of the white supremacist message, but, immersed as it was in a white supremacist culture, the size of the thing stood out but its racism was ordinary. Anti-racism efforts of the time were focused on de-segregation, and no one, it seemed, was voicing objection to monuments. I'm sorry to say it did not occur to me to wonder how these monuments made my African American classmates and their families feel.

These monuments represented neither me nor a threat to me personally. I had the privilege to simply ignore the monuments and what they signified. I'm now thinking more about Confederate monuments than I ever did when I lived among them. I've learned that, as of a few years ago, there were roughly 700 Confederate monuments in 31 states, and they were erected long after the Civil War ended.
“'The vast majority of them were built between the 1890s and 1950s, which matches up exactly with the era of Jim Crow segregation' [said Mark Elliot, history professor at UNC-Greensboro]. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s research, the biggest spike was between 1900 and the 1920s." (Becky Little, history.com)
These aren't war memorials. They are expressions of backlash against Reconstruction. They were erected during the time when the KKK and lynchings were resurgent, and they were unambiguously intended to affirm the supremacy of white people against a threatening possibility of racial equality. Original funding was usually organized by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization which has become fairly innocuous in recent decades, but which historically was unambiguous and vociferous in promoting white supremacy and a romanticized view of slavery. The KKK was also often a significant fundraiser for the monuments (including, for instance, for the one carved into Stone Mountain).

We know that these monuments are not about preserving history. We are able to remember the Titanic disaster just fine without building an Iceberg Monument. Monuments are about choosing what to glorify, not what to remember. When US troops in Iraq helped topple the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the defenders of Confederate monuments voiced no objections, no outcry about "remember the history even if we don't like it." That's because they understand, even if they don't like to admit, that monuments don't merely memorialize but aggrandize.

The monuments are symbols of white supremacy. That's why African American voices urge that they be removed. That's also why explicitly self-identified white supremacist groups rally to defend them. It's time for those of us who are in neither group, and who, like me, have had the privilege and luxury to largely ignore these monuments, to recognize what those struggling most directly against white supremacy, as well as those seeking most explicitly to advance white supremacy, have long understood the monuments to mean.

It's time they all came down.