On Freedom

Listen to this while reading this. Or don’t.

September 11 happened barely six weeks after my 18th birthday, and the world changed. America was shortly thereafter at war in Afghanistan, and then, with far weaker justification, with Iraq. Baby boomers seemed to become even more hubristic over the next few years in their quest to wreak havoc with the world’s financial system. Brought face-to-face with their own mortality, the Dick Fulds of this world lived like there was no tomorrow, making short-term financial bets on toxic assets with the sort of reckless abandon that people with a view to a longer-term future might have eschewed. Most painfully for a teenager in New Zealand who could barely speak to a girl, the next season of Sex and the City was maudlin, trying in a truncated eight episodes to capture what the city was really about. (Apparently it was about a guy named Berger, Weight Watchers, growing old disgracefully, and divorcing Bunny McDougall. And SJP was surreptitiously pregnant the whole time.)

14 years later, I have now lived in New York for more of my adult years than anywhere else. If it’s not home, it’s doing a damn good impression of it. I am now an adult in a place where the defining moment of my adulthood took place. And for the last four years, September 11 has remained a little maudlin – but for reasons not connected to the attacks. For my first couple of years here, America was at war. Sometimes, the government shut down in a heap of bipartisan bickering. Most years, there have been instances of senseless racial violence, political intolerance, and manifestations of unjustified and unfathomable bigotries in the newspapers. The whole disappointment has apparently been personified in the form of the President: so young and so hopeful in late 2008, but looking ever more grey, ever more beaten down, challenged in the courts on one hand and in the legislature on the other, at almost every juncture, over things that have often seemed pretty daft.

New York, of course, has remained brilliant and indomitable. My midtown job has seen me hunched over a desk almost every September 11, working on the sorts of deals that many of the people working in the towers went in to execute on that day. In reading the papers and watching the news all this time, though, I’ve had a nagging sense that America could and should be doing better. The best sources of news in a functioning democracy really shouldn’t be caustic comics. It would be nice if election districts weren’t quite so polarised, and if laws and the economy didn’t seem to favour certain groups above others. On September 11, the people who took down Flight 93 and the first responders and Rudy Giuliani showed us what this country really could be at its best. For much of the time since I’ve arrived here in mid-2010, I feel like I’ve been seeing this place at its worst, with names like Cliven Bundy and George Zimmerman gaining hero status rather than being written off as nutjobs. Was this the spirit of those first responders, the people coming together to protect Sikhs and Muslims from vengeful attacks all across America? What resemblance has this humourless selfishness to Mayor Giuliani asking Lorne Michaels why he would start being funny now only a few weeks after the attacks?

I’ve had cause to feel a little more hopeful during the past few months. Yes, change is in the air on the airwaves: Leno is off the air, and Fallon, refreshingly, is on. Colbert seems to be moving from sarcastic conservative caricature to the mainstream, and John Oliver may be the most authoritative Englishman in the United States since Cary Grant. (I miss Letterman, Craig Ferguson, and Jon Stewart, of course.) More than that, in a year that has still been marred by countless shootings and senseless, racially motivated deaths at home and the worrying rise of a fringe group overtaking Syria and Iraq in the vacuum left by American military travails abroad, there has been a major glimmer of hope, and of change. And it has come in the form of 30-odd pages written by a then 78-year old Catholic man from California.

It’s hard not to be hopeful about the fate of this country when reading passages like:

rights come not from ancient sources alone. They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era. Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here. But when that sincere, personal opposition becomes enacted law and public policy, the necessary consequence is to put the imprimatur of the State itself on an exclusion that soon demeans or stigmatizes those whose own liberty is then denied. (Obergefell v. Hodges, Pages 18-19)

or

The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right. The Nation’s courts are open to injured individuals who come to them to vindicate their own direct, personal stake in our basic charter. An individual can invoke a right to constitutional protection when he or she is harmed, even if the broader public disagrees and even if the legislature refuses to act. The idea of the Constitution “was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.” West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U. S. 624, 638 (1943). This is why “fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” Ibid. (Page 24)

It’s a tenuous connection, but I’ve always believed that those 19 hijackers were attacking American – and by extension, Western – freedom 14 years ago, much more than they were avenging some perceived slight to their religion. There were all sorts of freedoms that they disliked. My shortlist includes the electoral, the political, the financial, the religious, and, of course, the sexual. (There’s a brilliant article by Christopher Hitchens, which Vanity Fair refuses to put up on its website, about the links between sexual frustration and suicide bombing. Hitch set this out in much better prose than I ever could.) In some of the measures that this country has taken in response since September 2001, it has seemed almost to be caving – if not to those terrorists’ ideas, then to baser, more fearful instincts that are taking it away from being the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

Of course Obergefell sounds no death knell for NSA wiretapping and ridiculous security measures at airports, but perhaps, just maybe, some of the spirit that ignited the civil rights movement (and, dare I say it, for which so many people were unwillingly martyred 14 years ago) may still be alive when decisions like Obergefell are able to come out. (Yes, that pun is entirely intentional.) We still care about freedom, Justice Kennedy seems to be saying, and about basic decency. We will let people express their love unhindered by the state and the shallow bigotries of their fellow citizens, because that’s what democracies with bills of right do: they understand fundamental rights of their people, and empower rather than crush them. It would be demeaning and stigmatizing to do otherwise. As an idea, this is America at its very best. So much of what has happened since 9/11 has been disappointingly other than this. With same sex marriage now legal, and people of all stripes and types being freer than they were before, this place appears, again, to be making strides towards being the sort of country that the hijackers hated. Again, this is a very good thing. (Of course, New York legalised same sex marriage in 2011. But then, it would.)

Every September 11, I try to do something thoughtful and reflective. Normally this involves buying a girl a drink and gazing at my reflection in the bottom of an empty pint glass. This year, for the first time, I built up the courage to go down to the memorial site. It’s still a little bit of a morass of construction down there, but the memorials are accessible and I witnessed a small ceremony featuring bagpipers and speeches. There’s also a new tower that’s now open and fully functioning. There were certainly two eerie beams of light staring up at the sky and kissing the clouds this year, as there have been every year since 2001. There was also this edifice standing tall, in this: the greatest city of a country that seems once again to be living up to the tower’s name.

Freedom Tower
Both as an idea, and as a tower, I think that freedom is pretty fabulous.

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