Tomorrow is our nation’s Independence Day. A few hundred years ago, the thirteen British colonies freed themselves from the mother land. A few months ago, Egyptians freed themselves of their decades-long dictator; then Libya, Syria and Yemen rose up against theirs, are still fighting. Crucial to both of these historical events: the free flow of communication. I’m going to discuss this word, “free,” think about what it meant in 1776 and what it means now.
“Free” is an adjective, verb and adverb. The first definition in my Macbook dictionary: “not under the control or power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes.” Farther down the ‘page’: “physics: disengaged or available.” “Historical: not a slave.” “Frank or unrestrained in speech, expression, or action.” Free has meant many things throughout space and time. Unrestrained energy particles, unchained human beings, in no one else’s control, either body or mind. Maybe this is why it feels like an abstract concept to me; it mutates, it’s too big to be pinned down.
Similar to beautiful, hideous, good and evil, free is a subjective state of being. It’s relative to time and place. Most people would agree that North Koreans are not free, but are restrained ideologically, economically and socially by their dictatorship. Afghanis are not free people, as their country has been ravaged by warring factions for decades. They democratically elect their leaders, supposedly, but the Taliban restricts the people’s freedoms of expression and movement, and keeps up a perpetual atmosphere of fear. In the U.S.A. I’m free to say whatever I want to on my blog or to people walking down the street; words are our primary currency of freedom. Especially when money influences our government so blatantly, so thoroughly.
But if I break my leg in a car accident, it won’t be a free fix. I don’t have health insurance; my meager assets would evaporate after a few days in a hospital. In the majority of western civilization, people have decided that health care is a basic human right, and it should be free. Broken, slow, and in a state of endless economic denial, we lag behind.
I don’t take the many hard-won freedoms of the United States for granted; our Constitution was the first of its kind, that’s no small point. I might even feel patriotic at the fireworks tomorrow night. The hard part is accepting how far we still have to go, before people are free from their most basic human worries. Will there be anything left to help to me, be it social security or clean water, when I’m an old woman? Will we ever establish universal health care, make doctors and nurses and medicine and information available to everyone, everywhere? How much longer until same-sex couples consistently receive the same civil rights as everyone else?
This brings me back to whatever original thought started this off: what free meant to the American colonists in the 18th century vs. what it meant to an 20-year-old Egyptian man in Tahrir Square. American colonists demanded representation for their taxes and sacrifices to Britain. Egyptian people demanded representation, period. The bucking of monarchies. Freedom was the center of both revolutions, freedom of choice. Thomas Paine circulated ideas in pamphlets printed on a printing press; the Muslim Brotherhood circulated ideas on facebook and twitter. The technology of popular media was vastly different, but the rallying cry was just as raw. I don’t speak Arabic; perhaps that language has many words for freedom. I think it’s pretty likely someone somewhere else in the world is also thinking about what it means to be free, right now.
I have no conclusions and I apologize for this; I’m no closer to defining ‘free’ now than I was two hours ago when I started thinking about it. All I have is an instinctual kind of understanding; at this moment, writing quietly, I’m a free human being. Outside, across the street, someone sets off fireworks in the trailing-off twilight and the ringing echo rises up, travels the whole block.