Thursday, February 08, 2007

Do we know what it is to be free?

This has been a question which ahs plagued my mind over the past few weeks as every day we hear more and more news stories coming in about how protesters want the War in Iraq to end and how troops wonder why it people say they support them and not the war. In addition to this, I cannot help but also notice a great deal of hatred and dissent found all over the blogosphere as some people limit what others are allowed to say by banning them from their blogs, shouting down contradictory opinions, or just blasting a member of our government for deciding they want to vote for something they feel in the heart is morally right or wrong.

And so I ask: do we truly appreciate our freedom? The automatic answer from everyone is yes, but I sometimes wonder. I sat in my classroom and listened to students debate. When one student said that freedom wasn’t free, a response which was given to him was “Freedom isn’t free and what is the cost of life?” Under normal circumstances, I would not think twice about it, but it was the tone of voice which the statement had going behind it which upset me. It sounded as if this student did not care or take it seriously. Just a flip comment that would otherwise be forgotten, but one which I cannot help but hear echo in my mind.

In looking back at history, I found that some of the events we live in today are reminiscent of another time period: Reconstruction. After the end of the Civil War, the nation was placed at the heart of a very difficult position. The entire South was ruined an 4 million people were now free. Does the Union protect all the free slaves on the plantation, or protect their own? There was a development of a strong insurgency which threatened the “peaceful” balance of the South and prevent all the freed slaves from enjoying the benefits of a free society. There was also an imbalance in the government: would the Republican version of Southern government take hold or would the old order, or a semblance of it, come back into power?

These questions were very prevalent then, as many of the questions we face today in Iraq are prevalent in our minds. We hear a lot about how people on the home front talk about what is and is not going on in Iraq, but do they know what they are talking about? Just recently a reporter wrote a false story about soldiers raping and pillaging towns in Northern Iraq. Why is it then folks here in the states grab on to those stories and proclaim them to be true? Is there justice there? Is there honesty?

Recently, my history students were watching the film "Heaven and Hell: North and South Book III". This film looks at Reconstruction from multiple angles. One view point that is looked at is from Isaac Cano, a former slave who now works on the plantation he was born into servitude to. When he was attending a meeting for freed slaves near his home, he admitted that while he was yet to be paid, his boss gave him something more than just money: pride. The question was asked to Isaac why he should keep on working at a plantation which would not pay him. The response Isaac gave shows great integrity when he said:

You can’t see how it is down here cause you’re from up North. But you best take a long hard look and listen. What we do, now, what we give, we do and give cause we wanna, it ain’t like it was before the war. It’s different now. We’s free, now. And free men choose. What the point is there in being free if you can’t choose.

The point Isaac is making is that he chose to stay at this plantation to work there. In the end, his employer not only gave him pride for the work he has done, but also showed that he was truly a valued member of the community that was being created around the plantation.

If we take these words to the present with Iraq, many people will argue a great deal of rhetoric and basically tear about many of the things I am trying to say here, but lets not forget one thing about the Iraqi people: they are free. At any time, the people there could have voted the opposite way and denied the creation of a new government, the creation of their constitution, the creation of the new Iraqi state we see before us. Democracy in the Middle East will never be like democracy in America. There are too many cultural difficulties to over come in order to make that kind of transition.

But even with those differences, there are many similarities between ourselves and the Iraqis. The desire to be free and treated with respect is something that can never be denied by anyone. Even in this country, we see politicians speaking about two or three Americas and others about how immigration is destroying our country. The lack of respect that is given to the people of this world is appalling in all stretches of the imagination.

Once again, I go back to North and South and the words of Isaac Cano, where he is joined by Francis Cardozo, a free black from South Carolina, who would become the Secretary of State for South Carolina and eventually work in the Treasury Department in Washington DC.

These words are very powerful and spoke to the students in my history class:

Isaac: I ain’t by no right some kind of speaker. But, uh, I’ve been doing me some thinking real recent like. I was thinking a lot about bein free man, something I never knowed as a child. Now as a married man, thinking a lot about having a family, I’ve been thinking about the rest of my life. I’ve been thinking some about dying too. Well, I…I reckon this here proclamation ought to show some of them white folks that we just like them. Not different. Know why we’s feel like the. We love like them. Bare babies like them, Lord knows a lot of their daddy’s give some of us their blood and, uh, a lot of our mamas done fed a whole lot of them with their milk and I’ve been figuring somebody ought to tell some of them white folks that when they dies and when we die we alls gets put into the same dirt and how when we get to heaven, we all gonna share the same good Lord. I reckon…I reckon enough has said about all them differences. I thank you.

(Thunderous Applause and Cheering)

Cardozo: Listen to them Mr. Cano! Listen!

Isaac: I just said what I thoughts.

Cardozo: So pure and simple. Every man’s heart soared. God bless you Mr. Cano.

Isaac: Thank you…

Cardozo: For what?

Isaac: You called me mister. It ain’t ever been done before.

Dignity and respect. Two words which have seemingly lost all meaning in our society. Enough HAS been said about the differences that exist among all of us. What is not said are the similarities and the commonalities which can be used to help all of us work together. People are so embroiled in their own petty and twisted sense of political rhetoric that there is no more sense to the world what so ever.

Reports indicate the Hillary Clinton, if elected president, would want to pull us out of Iraq and leave that country to the mercy of terrorists and anyone wishing to destroy a Middle East democracy. While I cannot say this is either true or false, abandoning those people in Iraq need our help.

Have we not learned anything from the lessons of the past? Do we not remember what happened after Reconstruction. African Americans found themselves in a state of virtual slavery. Jim Crowe laws were passed and it took almost one hundred years about the problems were addressed and corrected. If we abandon Iraq, must we wait another hundred years for the injustice committed by terrorists to be pointed out and then eliminated? Or shall we close our eyes and be blind to the fact that the here and now is when these problems must be address and these problems must be faced not only to help our selves, but our children, our children’s children, and our children’s children’s children.

So I ask you: do we still know what it is to be free? Do we even care? Have we learned nothing from the past? I fear this new generation growing up does not know what it is to be free, cares for what it means to be free, and might not have learned anything from the past. I do not condemn all young people that are in school today, but there are those who I feel fall into the category I just described.

As for Isaac Cano, after giving his speech in Charleston, South Carolina, he and another man were riding home. On the way, members of the Ku Klux Klan stopped them. Isaac was hung only a short distance from his home. His final words were, “Jesus…watch over Jane.” (Jane was his wife) After that, he let go of the rope around his neck and choked to death. We cannot allow the noose of tyranny to strangle the emerging freedom and democracy that people in Iraq are enjoying. It may not be perfect, but neither was our when it all began. There are bumps in the road and more than likely many more will come. However, to turn our backs on what is going on over there is just like what happened when the North ended Reconstruction. Can we truly allow something like this to happen again? I pray we don’t, but I fear we will.