Usually on the 4th of July I spend the day on Lake Champlain, grill up some ribs or a pork shoulder, and drink a couple 6packs of IPA around the fire. This year, I spent the day in national parkland in northern Montenegro hiking around some of the most dramatic alpine terrain I’ve ever seen. I didn’t see a single Old Glory flying in the park, and to be honest I totally forgot it was American Independence Day.
I’ve been a long standing critic of the USA and the rhetoric about protecting freedom that it trumpets to justify its many imperialist missions around the globe. I tend to be pretty vocal about my position, especially in the face of the blind patriotism that comes out every year in early July. I like to remind my fellow countrymen that the USA is not built on protecting freedom, but on violently taking it away from people. I gently point out to them that before there was a USA, indigenous people flourished for tens of thousands of years on that same land, living a much different kind of freedom, and that only by systematically slaughtering them and eradicating their culture was America able to be founded “in the name of freedom”. I also like to remind them that until a few hundred years ago, more than half of the USA was actually Mexico, and that their complaints about loose border security and illegal brown people ruining the economy are entirely untenable.
Some people don’t like to hear about the past though, certainly not on God Bless America Day. They say, “Yeah, we did some bad stuff, but that was then, now we are the greatest nation the world has ever seen and the international symbol of freedom.” Without being too confrontational I usually ask what they know about Iraqi children and American sanctions, or if they’ve heard of Guantanamo and what still goes on there. They just get bright red and tell me sternly, “This place has given you every advantage. If you don’t like it, get the f**k out!”
Well, this year I did just that. It gave me a lot of time in relative isolation to reflect on what my American citizenship really means. Everywhere I’ve been in the world I have encountered passionate anti-American sentiment, and I think a lot of it is well founded. The USA has turned entire nations of free people first into debtors, then defaulters, and finally into wage slaves with their economics. They have overrun cultures and traditional lifeways with a relentless industrial-military machine unparalleled in human history. They have poisoned and denuded every last inch of the landscape, and they have refused to acknowledge that their consumption comes at the expense of almost every other living being on the planet. I don’t want to be a bad guy wherever I go, but I realize in a lot of ways I am guilty by association, and I’m not sure what to do about it.
I thought going into development might be a good starting point. Maybe if we could change the model things might start to improve. Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to development has a lot of appeal to me. It emphasizes capacity building in areas like healthcare, education, and environmental sustainability, rather than on aid conditionality, export building, and foreign direct investment. Maybe I could help these ideas gain some traction and set the ship right. Our trip to the US Embassy today however confirmed what I have been fearing since starting this course of study; that the American fangs are in much much deeper than I could have even imagined, and that a voluntary altruistic change of heart is absolutely not in the cards.
After going through a predictably overblown security process in the corridor, I found myself in a sterile conference room half listening to a couple of young diplomats who have managed to climb the ladder a little faster than their colleagues. One woman was going on about the importance of getting Bosnia and Herzegovina into the European Union and how that would secure for them the desperately needed foreign investment that is certain to make this a stable country with a booming economy. It was a lot like reading a World Bank report or something Kissinger might have written. Regurgitated Western wash, a confident statement about the benefits of capitalist integration and the standardization of exchange. All this relayed defiantly in the face of countless examples that this is a fatally flawed model. Sen might have called her out as a servant of racism and fascism, but I just stopped listening.
My eyes wandered over to the brand new mahogany book cases that lined the walls. I noticed a few titles; Waging Modern War, a five volume series called Policing the People, and some ironically titled book about Woodrow Wilson as a great champion of freedom. It was he of course who locked up for life perhaps the greatest proponent of true freedom in American history in Eugene Debbs. Then, just as I was about break out of there and run to the nearest pub or armory, I noticed all alone on a separate shelf a pristine copy of Thoreau’s Walden & Civil Disobedience. Fondly recalling its message helped me collect myself enough to survive the final few minutes of my peers eagerly asking questions about how they can join this wonderful institution doing so many fantastic things around the world.
After a quick scolding by one of the security officers for wandering outside for some fresh air as an homage to Thoreau, and passing back through the overstaffed security corridor, I made my way out of that place, fully appreciating my own freedom in that moment. It dawned on me how large the task of expanding true freedom really is. These people working at the Embassy are highly intelligent and motivated people, and they honestly believe they are doing something positive.
I feel impossibly isolated in my thinking about these issues, but Bosnia is proving to be an excellent place to stay inspired to keep resisting. Many residents of Sarajevo that I’ve chatted to about my philosophy and my work here have had a question for me which I am only beginning to grapple with. They want to know why I would come here to help them, when the country I come from is in far greater need of real help. With institutions like private prisons, state run media, genetically engineered factory agriculture, and hydraulic fracturing, they find it inconceivable that I would asses Bosnia as a less capable and less developed place than the USA. It is an extraordinarily valid criticism, and one I know I will struggle with during the rest of my stay here. America could learn a thing or two from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In the end, if freedom is going to be expanded to the highest possible degree, and mutual cooperation is going to be restored as the guiding mechanism by which we advance as a species, then the kind of freedom that the United States upholds will need to be abolished. It is in fact an unfreedom, currently standing squarely in the way of real human development. It remains a luxury commodity for the rich white man and his cronies, always just out of reach for the other seven odd billion people on the planet. Freedom is not something divisible. It is not a privilege. It cannot be privately owned, hoarded, and guarded with weapons. It cannot be subsidized, taxed, or rationed. It cannot be manipulated as justification for rape and plunder. It is also not finite. It is a universal right of all human beings, and it is the paramount element of a meaningful life and a sustainable future. Any other definition is an assault on the truth.
If the United States adopts this notion of freedom and reorders its institutions and policies around it, you might one day see me raising the Stars and Stripes in my own front yard. Until then, my Grateful Dead flag is going to keep waving in its place, proudly and unmistakably symbolizing the kind of freedom I stand for…
Wave that flag, wave it wide and high!