Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Land of the Free

Growing up in America, as I did, one word you cannot avoid hearing over and over again is “freedom”. Along with “liberty” it is one of those buzzwords that underpin the image Americans have of themselves as a nation. It was true enough during the Cold War, when the US saw itself as a bulwark against Communist tyranny, and it’s still true today.

For Americans, “liberty” and “freedom” are so-called “virtue words”, words used in politics to reinforce particular political beliefs.

I’m not sure what comparable “virtue words” would be for Finland. Perhaps, “itsenäisyys” (“independence”) and “isänmaa” (“fatherland”), but certainly not “freedom”. You don’t hear a lot of people here going on and on about “vapaus”. And I would say it’s not because Finns feel any less free. They just don’t harp on about it.

Americans’ conspicuous focus on freedom and liberty may be peculiar to the US. It often seems Americans assume that they enjoy freedom like no other nation, because, well, simply because they are Americans, and Americans are, of course, freer than anyone else. It's like a law of nature or something. Or so they think.

In some ways this is understandable, seeing how the United States was born out of the grievances of British colonists who were convinced their liberty was threaten by a faraway Parliament. The obsession with freedom started early on. (The “liberty” of African slaves, however, was entirely another matter.)

I’ve sometimes wondered whether this early American sense of grievance was overblown. Were North American colonists really that badly oppressed?

Or did it have more to do with those colonists taking exception to the way the British government insisted on them paying for the British military defending them? Or for not allowing the colonists to squat on Indian land beyond the Appalachian Mountains? Was that the liberty that was being infringed upon? A radical notion, no?

Anyway, “freedom” – like almost anything else – can be fetishized. Some Americans, especially on the right, seem to have an over-developed sense of “freedom” as being central to their lives, something they are constantly in danger of losing, something under constant threat.

This was partly the rationale of the right-wing extremist militants who occupied, for some forty days and nights, a parcel of protected landscape in southeastern Oregon called the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

This motley group of heavily armed men (and some women) took over the refuge, which is apparently a prime environment for migratory birds and for somewhat migratory birdwatchers, after disputes arose between neighboring ranchers and the Federal officials managing the refuge.

A couple of days into the illegal occupation, the group led by Ammon Bundy, a second-generation anti-government agitator, named itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. “Constitution” is another important “virtue word” in the American lexicon.

Ammon is the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who successfully defied the American government two years ago when Federal officials tried to take action against him over the one million dollars in fees and fines Bundy had been refusing to pay for twenty years for the privilege of grazing his cattle on government land.

When the Bureau of Land Management, the Federal agency managing most of the Nevada rangeland in question, tried to seize Cliven Bundy’s illegally mooching cattle, all hell broke loose in the American right-wing extremist subculture.

Bundy declared his dispute with the BLM to be a “range war” and told Fox News that “It’s a statement for freedom and liberty and the Constitution”. (A trifecta of super-patriotic buzzwords!)

Hundreds of anti-government militia types traveled from all across the country to join the protest against the roundup of Bundy’s cattle. And, of course, they brought their guns.

Before long, the confrontation between Bundy’s supporters and law enforcement turned ugly and developed into an actual standoff, with the extremists blocking roads and both sides pointing guns at each other. As it turns out, pointing a gun at a law enforcement officer is a punishable offence. In fact, pointing a gun – or in some cases, a knife, or a cell phone, or, who knows, even a ham sandwich – at the police, is a good way to get yourself killed. It happens all the time.

But not in the case of the Bundys. Rather than risk bloodshed, the BLM and law enforcement backed down. They suspended the roundup and released the 400 or so head of cattle they had seized up to that point. Bundy, who considers himself a “sovereign citizen” and doesn’t recognize the authority of the Federal government, no doubt saw this as a victory.

It did look like a humiliating defeat for the BLM. Like many liberals, I was disappointed that the authorities gave in so easily and let hostile right-wing extremists get the best of them.

At least, no one was killed. Well, not quite directly. A husband-and-wife team of domestic terrorists, who had been motivated to join Bundy’s standoff (but were asked to leave because they were too extreme), murdered two police officers and another person (a “good guy with a gun”, as it happens) in Las Vegas a few weeks later. Apparently sharing Bundy’s hostility toward the “tyrannical” Federal government, they were hoping to spark a “revolution” all on their own. They died of gunshot wounds on the floor in the back of a Wal-Mart after a shootout with police.

Some liberals feel that Bundy’s son Ammon was emboldened by the government capitulation in Nevada, setting the stage for Ammon to travel to Oregon this year to hold his own armed confrontation at the Malheur Refuge.

The fact that the FBI initially took such a standoff-ish approach to the Malheur occupation – electing to simply surround the refuge and wait out the militants for over a month, not even cutting electricity into the compound and, in some cases, letting people go in and out at will – seemed like a repeat of the tepid, kid-glove treatment the Bundys got in Nevada.

Actually, it seems the FBI was playing it smart. At least smarter than the militants.

On January 26, when Ammon Bundy and other leaders of the occupation set off in two trucks for a public meeting in a town two hours north of the refuge, they were stopped by the FBI on a deserted stretch of highway. The whole thing was filmed from the air by a police drone.

Ammon Bundy cooperated with FBI agents, seemingly offering no resistance and staying in his truck until arrested. 
However, the second truck, after sitting still for a few minutes, suddenly spun off. It was driven by LaVoy Finicum, one of the more outspoken and militant of the Malheur occupiers. The truck, followed by the drone overhead, continued down the highway at full speed before encountering a police road block. Finicum had nowhere to go. He plowed his truck into a snowbank, then got out to face the police with his hands up – at first, that is. 

As the aerial video shows, Finicum suddenly lowered his arms and appeared to reach for the gun he carried with him wherever he went.

He was shot dead instantly.

Finicum, who had written a book subtitled “Regaining Lost Freedom”, stated during the occupation that he would rather die than go to prison. He got his wish.

The occupation itself went on for another couple of weeks, with four holdouts camping on the refuge grounds until, after the Feds started closing in, they finally surrendered. They did not go quietly. No, they did not.

In a remarkable mishmash of modern technology and primal “Lord of the Flies” mayhem, the last hours of the standoff were live-streamed over the internet via the occupiers’ cell phones. The audio recording documents for prosperity some four hours of the holdouts screaming obscenities at the FBI agents surrounding them, as well as at each other, as a sympathetic lawmaker from Nevada tries to intercede with the FBI over the phone.

In the recording, you can hear how absolutely unhinged the holdouts sound. Literally insane. Freaked out by Finicum’s death, they seemed convinced they were about to be “murdered” by the FBI. Until the very last moment, the final holdout to surrender, David Fry, was reportedly teetering between giving himself up or blowing his brains out.

And while this hysterical dénouement was playing out, Cliven Bundy, as if on a rescue mission, left his home in Nevada and flew to Oregon, where he was promptly arrested – to the delight of liberal commenters all over the internet.

As tragic as even one death is, the ending of the standoff went about as well as could have been expected, especially considering the disasters at Rudy Ridge and Waco, which resulted in multiple deaths. Let’s hope that ends the issue, but I’m not entirely optimistic.

I haven’t read Finicum’s book, and probably never will, so I’m not sure exactly what “lost” freedom he’s referring to. In what ways was he NOT free? What freedom did he lack? The “freedom” to take over public buildings by force of arms? He was clearly willing to die for that one, since he could not have helped knowing that such a rash act would land him in prison. And he’d rather die.

This is what I mean about “fetishizing” freedom, obsessing beyond all reason over an idealized vision of what it means to be “free”. You see a lot of this on the fringes of right-wing politics.

And I don’t mean to say being free isn’t something to be craved. Everyone wants to enjoy freedom. Sadly, in parts of the world many are not able to. Masses of people are trapped in truly despotic countries (North Korea, is the clearest example) or in repressive situations (sex slaves the world over). Such folks are truly oppressed and have a right to consider themselves “not” free.

Cattle ranchers in a rich, democratic country who see themselves as victims because they are forced to abide by laws they don’t agree with do not have that right. But that’s just me.

I once got into an argument with a stranger over the internet (always a bad idea). The topic was health care in America and Finland, but it morphed into an argument about freedom. It boiled down to the question of whether Finland’s social welfare system makes people here less free than Americans.

It’s a question worth thinking about. Am I less free living in Finland? I don’t think so. Not in any way that matters to me, not in any way compared to when I was living in America. Not in any way I would die for.

Does paying a higher tax rate than Americans make me less free? Not the way I look at it. Does being unable to legally carry a handgun on my hip when I go grocery shopping make me less free? Maybe in an absolute sense, just as being unable to drive down my street at 100 miles an hour with impunity infringes my freedom of reckless joyriding.

The thing is, I don’t expect absolute freedom. Freedom, like most everything, is relative, and relatively speaking things are pretty free here as it is. In fact, freer than almost anywhere else.

And where’s the proof of that? I’m glad you asked.

The NGO, Freedom House, publishes a yearly survey on global trends in civil and political liberties. In its “Freedom in the World” report for 2015, Finland was given a perfect aggregate score of 100. It shares that distinction with only four other nations: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and tiny, tiny San Marino.

The US had a score of 90. That, by the criteria of Freedom House, is still considered “Free”, but is lower than most European countries, including Mother England (score 95). This might set Thomas Jefferson spinning in his grave.

Naturally, such comparative surveys have their faults and shouldn’t be taken too literally. And Freedom House, partly funded by the US government, has itself come in for criticism over its activities. 

I’d like to dig into the details of the survey’s methodology sometime to suss out exactly where American freedom falls short compared to Finland’s.

In the meantime, I’ll take its report at face value as evidence that, despite American right-wingers’ constant fretting over “liberty” and the dangers of “socialism”, countries like Finland are relatively freer. And that has nothing to do with the “right” to squat on a bird sanctuary. 

Headquarters of the Malheur Refuge. I would like to visit someday, 
now that the hooligans have departed.

Photo credit: Cacophony

1 comment:

  1. I envy the fact that you live in a relatively free country with relatively positive attitudes toward knowledge and learning. Stuck here in the USA I am often reminded that I live in an insane asylum.

    "Freedom" and "liberty" are just words babbled by the most insane of my fellow citizens.

    I was actually surprised that the FBI tactics worked against Bundy and company. Everyone involved on the FBI side should be given medals--it was brilliant work. I personally was completely frustrated while it was all going on, but in the end the FBI was right. They only had to kill one of the neo-Nazis. And they tricked even Papa Bundy into getting his crazy ass arrested. All in all, hell...I give the FBI high grades for tactics.