Land of the Free?

Patriotism looks different in 2013, but America is still home of the brave

Patriotism is different in 2013 but America is still home of the brave

American flags on a white picket fence
The Fourth of July brings out the patriotism in all of us, but let us not whitewash the ills of America in the process. Photo by Claire St. Amant
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden
The United States has revoked Edward Snowden's passport after he revealed proof of widespread government surveillance.  Photo courtesy of The Guardian
Fourth of July picnic in Ukraine
The scene at a Fourth of July picnic in Western Ukraine. Photo by Claire St. Amant
American flags on a white picket fence
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden
Fourth of July picnic in Ukraine

One of the many privileges of growing up in middle-class America is an unawareness of your own privilege. The fact that half the world lives on less than $3 a day is practically unfathomable when you’re running through sprinklers on finely manicured lawns leading up to brick homes with multiple bathrooms and ice-cold air-conditioning. 

This all seems so normal, so average. When in reality, it is a remarkable testimony to modernization, capitalism and democracy. I grew up in that “average” American home, where my days were mostly leisurely, with a few painless chores thrown in to build character. 

But when I joined the Peace Corps after graduating college, I got a new taste of normal. Living with a family in rural Northern Ukraine, I had to fend off a territorial goat to access the outhouse. I washed my clothes by hand with water pumped from a well.

My travels, Peace Corps and otherwise, have resulted in a handful of Fourth of Julys spent on foreign soil. There have been chilly July 4th’s in Uruguay and sweltering ones in Ukraine. And the surprising weather is just the tip of the iceberg.

 Running miles on end by choice and using expensive machines to dry my clothes and dishes is ridiculously privileged behavior.

I learned that practically everything I do, from running miles on end by choice to using expensive machines to dry my clothes and dishes when air is free, is ridiculously privileged.

That’s not to say that life in America is perfect or fair. Recent headlines have revealed shocking truths about assaults on our freedoms. Government programs capture communications from a broad swath of American citizens with no warrants, save for those from a secret court with rubber-stamp approval.

More shocking to me than the program itself was America’s nonplussed reaction. A Pew Research poll found that 56 percent of Americans think that the government spying on them is no big deal. To them, I say consider that Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old man making six figures and living in Hawaii with his dancer girlfriend, gave it all up so that you could scoff at the truth of widespread government surveillance.

Snowden’s passport has since been revoked, and he’s believed to be living in the Moscow Airport. As the saying goes, freedom isn’t free.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, I taught English at a local school. One of my fellow teachers came up to me once during a faculty meeting and clasped her hands in mine.

She told me about her father, who had been sent to a prison camp in Siberia when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. She told me that he’d be amazed to see an American allowed in Ukraine — and teaching English, no less. She shook her head in disbelief. Her father was punished for reading unapproved books and writing poetry.

 It is vital to the American way of life that we protect the rights of people to say things that we disagree with or even find offensive.

He told his daughter he survived his imprisonment because he learned to live inside his mind. Tapping her finger on her temple, she relayed the words of her late father. “In here is the only place you can truly be free.”

The quintessential American outrage at a violation of one’s freedom of expression is dwindling. Increasingly, people are erring on the side of privacy violations in the name of security — and worse, patriotism. The government says its systematic spying programs have thwarted about a dozen attacks; of course they can’t tell us what those were. It’s classified.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a massive surveillance project made us safer from the bad guys. But at what cost? If we instituted martial law and put in place an 8 pm curfew, I’m sure crime would go down dramatically. I’d rather take my chances with my fellow man than live like a prisoner in the U.S. of A.

The idea of being protected by an all-knowing government shouldn't be a comforting one. It's a nightmare that has played out tragically in the history of too many countries. 

The beauty of the American legal system is that the law is applied without prejudice, at least in theory. In practice, it is increasingly used to silence dissidents while strengthening the reach of the government.

It’s true that we live in dangerous times. But the relatively small danger of terrorism pales in comparison to other threats on our freedom.

I don’t want to protect the rights of someone to walk into a crowded room and yell “Fire!” But it is vital to the American way of life that we protect the rights of people to say things that we disagree with or even find offensive. Because one day we could find ourselves on the other end of the spectrum, with our beliefs in the minority and labeled dangerous by people in power. 

When children are jailed for making off-color jokes, we have lost sight of the American way of life. When flippant comments and harebrained theories are treated as criminal threats, we have destroyed the marketplace of ideas.

The America I know and love is a country that embraces the uncomfortable reality that it’s counterproductive to protect our citizens by taking away their freedom of expression. The privilege of being an American comes with a responsibility to defend her from all enemies foreign and domestic, on the battlefield and in the court of public opinion.