“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
- Thomas Jefferson
Freedom is never beautiful.
Here we are, free people, talking about freedom as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. We render freedom in symbols like peaceful protests, leaders smiling towards the rising sun, peace signs and peace symbols, and the dove flying with an olive branch in its beak. Freedom; beautiful freedom.
By freedom we mean what, exactly? Before we claimed freedom for ourselves, those before us fought for it. We paint and sculpt our heroes in the pink of health, we sanitize them with determined eyes and imposing poses, but fail to render the bullet-wounds, the fatigue, and the starvation that came with their fight so that we can be free. We put smiling faces on spectators and participants of revolution, but fail to paint the ugly backgrounds of squalor and poverty and hopelessness that forced them to revolt. We herald free speech, we declare free expression, and forget that these freedoms we invoke often cause people to lose their jobs and livelihood and, very often, their lives.
A friend of mine wonders about freedom, and I do too. Tom Morello once wrote that there are two freedoms in the Land of the Free: the freedom to enter into a subservient role, and the freedom to starve. We talk about freedom, but in terms of the compromises we make for it, the borders we draw so that we can be nominally free. You wonder about freedom when there’s no food in the table. You wonder about freedom when, by invoking it, you lose everything free people are entitled to. You wonder about freedom when people draw it in the form of broken chains, without seeing the bloody wrists and mangled arms that came with it and before it.
Freedom is never beautiful. For some, freedom means a spot in the unemployment line. For others, freedom is a missing limb. For some, freedom means having no food on the table. For others, freedom is the gore and horror of a war-torn field. For some, freedom is the cold steel of a cell’s bars and thick gray walls that keep them from the free world. For others, freedom is a bullet in the head.
We invoke freedom; yet we keep freedoms like trophies in a case, away from all the mangling and the torturing and the threat of death, because as free people we do not have to fight. Only those who struggle for the freedoms we enjoy will use what little freedoms they have as weapons. For every person who believes that freedom can be achieved by a speech and a march, there will be a person who carries out that freedom in the name of the very same principles we have with a gun.
Freedom is not free.
It makes you wonder about freedom. If it’s so squalid, war-torn, poor, selective… why bother?
Freedom isn’t beautiful, and it never will be. Those who fought for us, and continue to fight for us, are not broken by the things that would probably break us – and even kill us – in a snap. Their blood feeds the tree of liberty, as much as it is fed by what threatens that tree’s survival. As long as we desire freedom, it lives; when we take it for granted, it dies.
From the walls of his prison cell in Ireland, the Irish poet Bobby Sands once wrote, “They won’t break me because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people, is in my heart.” I think we fight for something so ugly, so compromising, something not absolute, because there are worse things than freedom; things that we probably cannot fathom, or things that we cannot imagine. For all its faults and compromises, we can’t imagine what it’s like not to be free.
Freedom is never beautiful. But a world made possible by freedom is.