Marching backward into the future

No one looked particularly enslaved — yet a return to the “freedoms” of the past was the theme of a Tea Party rally in Cortez on April 15, the most painful day of all for those who believe they pay way too many taxes to support a bunch of slackers.

Speakers treated the gathering of about 200 to the dollar menu of right-wingradio talking points, which contained no real policy arguments or discussion and consisted mostly of a condemnation of the current political reality, as well as battle cries of “Take the country back!”

The crowd’s demographics included uniformly white people with an average age of 60 or so, all nicely dressed (a few in cute Revolutionary War garb) and from what I witnessed, congenial, wellmannered and respectful of others. They also looked pretty prosperous, with the many expensive cars, trucks and SUVs parked around the edges of City Park attesting to this.

Being in the 60+ white crowd myself, I got to thinking about how the average citizen’s freedoms and blessings today, stemming from our present government of the people, compared to those in the earlier periods of my own life.

Around the time I was born, thousands of Japanese-American citizens were being rounded up on the West Coast and shipped to detention camps in Colorado because of fears they might be supporters of Japan, which had sparked the Pacific theatre of World War II by attacking Pearl Harbor. There were no reasonable (or even rational) grounds cited for these concerns, but the roundup was considered justified by the American government because of the enormous stakes involved in the conflict. Many of these patriotic families lost their homes and businesses as a result of this dislocation, but it wasn’t until several decades later that they received any compensation for their unconstitutional imprisonment.

So things were not all that “free” for this particular segment of our population in the 1940s.

When I was a child, segregation was still in full bloom in the deep South, with millions of African-Americans still being assigned to subservient positions by mandates of law (and never mind the outlawing of slavery the previous century). Southern black children were given inferior schooling, and the results were cited as proof that they were incapable of scaling the heights of academia anyway. (Besides, someone had to pick crops and clean houses, and it didn’t take people who could understand calculus. Ever think about where the term “slave wages” came from?)

So here was yet another group of American citizens for whom the terms “equal justice” and “equal opportunity” rang hollow, and for whom freedom meant being free to be lynched, demeaned and otherwise abused by a resentful white majority whose ingrained feelings of superiority were being threatened.

When I was a teenager in the mid- 1950s, communist witch hunts were in vogue, with the drugged and drunken Sen. Joseph McCarthy accusing anyone to the political left of Edmund Burke of being card-carrying pinkos infiltrating our government to bring it down. The Un-American Activities Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives also took up the cause of ferreting out “traitors,” holding hearings that would have been comical had not so many lives and careers been ruined by these contemptible charades. The freedom of some of our most creative citizens, who had expressed their passionate opposition to the widespread inequities in our democracy, was curtailed by their being jailed and put on “blacklists” that prevented them from working. But, of course, they still had the freedom to breathe and, when enough pressure was applied, to rat on “fellow travelers,” thus destroying their own integrity and the lives of others who were supposed to be their friends.

In the 1960s and ’70s, many young guys my age were involuntarily inducted into military service to become cannon fodder in Vietnam, a war that proved both pointless and nearly endless. I was exempted from the draft for medical reasons, but I knew lots of others whose lives were shattered by being forced to participate in this carnage sponsored by American war criminals. Of course, what the draftees got for free upon their return was cursory care by an indifferent Veterans Administration and the contempt of antiwar activists.

Then (speaking of pointless and endless), in the 1980s President Reagan began the great War on Drugs, which continues to this day to throw people in prison for using any drugs other than the most harmful of all — alcohol — a discredited approach to a problem that is, unfortunately, far too profitable for everyone involved (except the users) to want to change. So the victims in this war have had their freedom stolen twice – once by their addiction and then by authorities in a legal system mainly interested in keeping prisons full and their own jobs secure.

More recently, under the Bush administration, many of our rights to privacy (aka personal freedoms) were assaulted under the guise of fighting terrorism. American citizens were imprisoned without being charged with a crime, and eavesdropped upon by government agents who opened mail, tapped phones and spied on other electronic communications using the excuse of national security. (And as Benjamin Franklin said, those who would sacrifice liberty for the promise of security deserve neither.)

So I got to wondering which of these “freedom-loving” eras the Tea Party supporters want to return to? (Or do they want to go back even further, to the revered Colonial era, when women couldn’t vote and blacks were still in chains?) Certainly they don’t want to get rid of those socialistic programs that provide many of them with monthly Social Security checks and Medicare coverage, which makes receiving good health care possible without the prospect of losing one’s home and moving to the county poor house, another unappealing feature of the good old days.

Me, I’m not entirely happy with the way things are either, what with other needless wars being waged, an ultraright- wing Supreme Court bent on curtailing some of our remaining freedoms, and a growing gulf between the rich and the poor.

But what I don’t want is a return to some past where “true freedom” allegedly existed – a reality that, upon closer examination, turns out to be nothing but a nostalgic mirage.

David Grant Long writes from Cortez, Colo.

From David Long, May 2010.