Wednesday, May 04, 2011

What Does Freedom Mean Today?

Yesterday, May 3, was World Press Freedom Day, a day to think about all that print and media journalists do to bring us the news of the day, a task that increasingly puts their lives in danger. The most recent occurrence was the deaths of two noted photojournalists, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, in Libya last month. Just this past weekend, CBS-TV journalist, Lara Logan, reported the horror and terror of the mob sexual assault she endured during the joyous revolutionary celebration in Egypt. In so doing, she broke the long-established code of silence on the part of women journalists who for years have been routinely and broadly sexually assaulted, particularly in world conflict zones. In addition, journalists being kidnapped, beaten, injured and even murdered has become all too commonplace in Asia, Africa, South America, Central America, and the Middle East. (May 3rd as World Press Day was established by the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization – UNESCO – in 1993.)

As a news junkie, this troubles and concerns me. Equally distressing is the ever-degraded presentation of the news, by tabloids, but even more egregiously by television news, which is undeniably guilty of sensationalism; so dangerously blending news and entertainment that infotainment has become the norm; misleadingly combining straight news reporting with analysis and opinion; and giving inordinate airtime to people, organizations and issues that are more sideshow than news (e.g., Sarah Palin, Donald Trump/birthers, Charlie Sheen et al).

Perhaps worst of all is the fact that news outlets have openly, even aggressively, struck very definite political postures, so that simpatico viewers can get their news from their own established perspective, rather than hearing other opinions and ideas. This is polarized and polarizing media that fuels political partisanship and eschews all decent journalistic standards. (Social media is a whole other ballgame, but it must be noted that this, too, has become a news source, as well as a platform for political organization.)

To say the least, this kind of news delivery is not what earnest, sincere, committed journalists are putting their lives on the line for. A free press must be allowed to function as such everywhere in the world – but isn’t the idea, as well as the reality, of a free press, being alarmingly corrupted? And therefore, where is the public’s civic freedom?

Indeed, the freedom of American citizens in general concerns me as much as the freedom (and safety) of the press concerns me. Since the successful, covert assassination of Osama bin Laden, America has been engaging in a lot of cloying patriotism, blathering on about democracy and freedom without, I fear, truly understanding what democracy means and what freedom is – and therefore have not noticed that our freedom is being frighteningly eroded.

The causes for this go beyond the still extant limitations imposed by Bush’s Patriot Act as well as the intrusive, lengthy, and deeply flawed methods of national security, typified by what people have to endure in order to get on an airplane.

But the most serious threat to our freedom is speedily increasing income disparity between the rich and everyone else. It’s great that Americans are free to come and go as we please, but if we don’t have the resources to do it, freedom becomes a moot point. It wasn’t like this in the heady youth of Boomers; even with fairly limited resources, we and our parents were quite free.

Politically, our freedom to express our views, say what we want to whomever we want, is in ways systemically useless. Our general election campaigns go on for the better part of two years. Yet despite the countless polls, Americans have no formal, impactful way to express their opinions and tell our leaders/representatives what we want. Yes, we have the freedom to assemble, but the tactic of demonstrations doesn’t carry the weight it once did. We can carry on like yard dogs at town hall meetings and write letters to our reps, but discouragingly too often, our reps are more beholden to special interests than to us. And while we’re told that voting is essential and every vote counts, the arcane Electoral College voids the votes of large blocks of citizens in every state, because states themselves shine red or blue after all the votes are counted, and the minority in each state is discounted.

But I want to get back to the money part, because money is power, money is freedom, which is what makes the poor powerless and much less free than the rich (even the upper middle class, such as it still exists). This is true in ways both big and small. I, for example, cannot afford much-needed dental work, new eyeglasses, and new major appliances to replace ones that are decades old. I also need hearing aids, but I’m likely doomed to spending the rest of my life blasting the TV and asking folks who are talking to me to repeat themselves again and again.

Yet it’s the little things that get to me more. I went out yesterday – something I rarely do – and it was very upsetting. My NYC neighborhood, which used to have a Woolworth’s, small medical building, news/card store, and other local staples, now has more new high-rises (for people who can afford $2,500 for a one-bedroom apartment) surrounded by Starbucks, high-priced frozen yogurt shops, high-priced restaurants, gourmet (high-priced) supermarkets, etc. I can’t afford to go into any of them.

So no, I don’t feel particularly free. I can’t see a recommended medical specialist or choose which hospital I go into, because those decisions are determined by my managed health care plan. So no, I don’t feel particularly free. I can’t afford to go to the movie multiplex, or The Theater, or much of anyplace else. So no, I don’t feel particularly free. I can’t travel, or buy clothes in boutiques and top department stores. Cabs are a luxury (and a misery, but never mind that), food prices are going through the roof ($1.50 for a cucumber? Nearly $5.00 for a half-pint of blueberries? More than $5.00 for a box of cereal?). So no, I don’t feel particularly free.

I understand that freedom isn’t just about the things you can buy. But having a solid personal economic base is an important part of freedom. And far worse than my circumstances are those of millions, indeed billions of others around the world, people who live in shacks and tents and wear rags, people who have no fresh water or sanitary facilities, people who are starving, people who don’t get even the most basic health care and education. People who are as free as the air they literally live in – until they die in childhood, or childbirth, or of old age – in their 40s and 50s.

As we wave our flags and sing our songs and take ghoulish public joy in the death of a feared enemy, let us give renewed thought to freedom: what it is, what it’s not, and how we can get it if we don’t have it. And yes, Virginia, class warfare is always a possibility, one might say necessity, when some people are rich and free and most people are poor and not. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” sang Janis Joplin. If she was right, America and soon much of the world, will be the epitome of freedom.

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