Freedom and democracy in America 2022. What it means. Why we guard it | Charles D. Allen

To believe in American democracy requires us to act to address all forms of injustice within our nation

November 24, 2022 6:30 am
Replica of the United States Bill of Rights (Getty Images).

Replica of the United States Bill of Rights, documenting the 10 amendments to the US Constitution (Getty Images).

Over the past two years, I have thought quite a bit about what it means to be an American citizen, and about my responsibilities as a government employee, even beyond my years of uniformed service in the Army. While I have engaged my U.S. Army War College students on the topic, I offer the disclaimer that my comments do not necessarily represent the official policy of the War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense. 

As Americans approach the close of 2022, we have a lot to reflect upon from the era of COVID-19, its associated economic turmoil, ongoing international conflicts, and the political rancor of the mid-term election season. Domestically, we continue to struggle with this great experiment called democracy for our society and its national culture, which defines the daily experience of the many peoples (citizens and those who aspired to be) inside of our American borders.

Today we will celebrate Thanksgiving Day and follow the tradition of Presidential Proclamation established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. In November 2021, it opened with: “Thanksgiving provides us with a time to reflect on our many blessings — from God, this Nation, and each other.  We are grateful for these blessings, even — and especially — during times of challenge.”

Addressing global chaos and turmoil with the emergence of the Second World War in his January 1941 State of the Union Address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of four freedoms as values of democratic societies.

In preceding years, totalitarian and fascist regimes of Germany, Japan, and Italy continually demonstrated disregard for such values. In his exhortation, FDR was building the case for U.S. intervention for the sake of others — that is, the security of allied governments and their people.

Here are the words of FDR:

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.”

The themes of FDR’s speech are poignantly captured by the imagery of Norman Rockwell’s series of paintings, “The Four Freedoms” featured in The Saturday Evening Post. For each issue, the respective painting was accompanied by an essay from a renowned American writer.

As I re-read each one, the essay that spoke to me most in the current context of our American political and social debates, and as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, was penned in March 1943 by Filipino immigrant, Carlos Bulosan. Rockwell’s iconic cover painting features the happy American Family of multiple generations sitting eager with anticipation around the holiday table laden with plenty.

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Bulosan, whose parents suffered economic hardship in his native Philippines, and as he also did as an immigrant laborer in California, recasts the “Freedom from Want,” in his essay. It is clear that Bulosan sought the American Dream to overcome the privation of his country of birth to become a citizen of his country of choice — the United States of America.

Bulosan wrote: “It is only when we have plenty to eat — plenty of everything — that we begin to understand what freedom means. To us, freedom is not an intangible thing. When we have enough to eat, then we are healthy enough to enjoy what we eat. Then we have the time and ability to read and think and discuss things. Then we are not merely living but also becoming a creative part of life. It is only then that we become a growing part of democracy.

We do not take democracy for granted. We feel it grow in our working together — many millions of us working toward a common purpose. If it took us several decades of sacrifices to arrive at this faith, it is because it took us that long to know what part of America is ours.”

As a veteran and educator, I add that it is important for us to consider that immigrants “do not take democracy for granted.” Unlike our American citizens who may say “it can’t happen here,” immigrants have such lived experience of failed democracies, which should provide us warning.

Bulosan continues, “Our faith has been shaken many times, and now it is put to question. Our faith is a living thing, and it can be crippled or chained. It can be killed by denying us enough food or clothing, by blasting away our personalities and keeping us in constant fear. Unless we are properly prepared, the powers of darkness will have good reason to catch us unaware and trample our lives.”

I am sure that you have observed that, now eight decades later, the challenge to faith in the American Dream extends beyond the immigrant ‘other’ to our citizens who continue to suffer from economic and social inequities. To believe in the American democracy requires us to act to address all forms of injustice within our nation.

We must share Bulosan’s hope and affirmations that, “Sometimes we walk across the land looking for something to hold on to. We cannot believe that the resources of this country are exhausted. Even when we see our children suffer humiliations, we cannot believe that America has no more place for us.

We realize that what is wrong is not in our system of government, but in the ideals which were blasted away by a materialistic age. We know that we can truly find and identify ourselves with a living tradition if we walk proudly in familiar streets. It is a great honor to walk on the American earth.”

With the year 2023 ahead, let us make this an American decade and rise to establish freedom from want for others in our society and for our democracy.

In reflection of the past 12 months, Roosevelt’s “Freedom of Speech and Expression” seems to be the most endangered American principle. Bear with me. The past year has been marked by several national discussions about social and political injustices, as well as by political division and turmoil — each discussion marked by a very uncivil discourse.

Technological innovations allow anyone to have a public voice through the ubiquitous social media platforms, news services, internet blogs, and omnipresent cell phones.

Paradoxically the more access we have to make public speech and to express our views, the less likely we are to listen to others. This is apparent in the polarization not only between political parties, but also within them. Our ability to make public proclamations has become paired with unswerving belief in being right and that others must be wrong. It has use of rhetoric to support one’s interpretations of “fact.” This applies to both sides of the political spectrum.

A proffered remedy to the rancor is to engage with others to gain alternate perspectives and develop empathy with those who hold different views. In several forums, we were invited to participate in uncomfortable and difficult conversations.

What I have observed of several such engagements is the need for practiced facilitation, lest the conversations devolve into unresolvable debates. I am reminded of a quote attributed to actor Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock of Star Trek): “Those who cannot hear an angry shout may strain to hear a whisper.”

In conversations that move to debate, as the tone, volume, and passion increase, so too does the inability to hear and listen — the deaf ear surpasses the brain as the dominant organ. Eventually it comes to a point where the exchange stops completely, and we lose the freedom of speech and the desire to express ourselves.

Even among well-formed groups, I have noticed the tendency of individuals to self-censor. Potential speakers do not want to take the risk of saying something that would jeopardize relationships with others they respect. In remaining silent, they do not allow others the opportunity to gain empathy with them. This happens among friends, in small family and social gatherings, as well as learning environments.

Those of us who saw the play or movie “1776” will remember the contentious debates that preceded the first Independence Day.

It was also a time of ambiguity and uncertainty for the rebellious colonists. In the closing scene, there were several differences among the delegates from the 13 Colonies that seemed irreconcilable.

It was through the frank and candid exchange of views that negotiation and compromise led to the Second Continental Congress’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July. Its formal signing did not occur until Aug. 2. This founding document became the underpinning for future engagements on difficult issues that would face the fledgling nation.

We still struggle with implementing our founding principles so clearly expressed in the Preamble to the United States Constitution: “… to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Accordingly, the right to express and present differences was specifically addressed with the December 1791 adoption of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution such that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In preparation for this commentary, I took the opportunity to visit Roosevelt Island in New York City as part of our annual War College trip.

On the southern tip of the island in the East River is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. I enjoyed a beautiful, serene afternoon in a place dedicated to hope for the future. Just across the river was is the United Nations Plaza.

You might imagine my surprise, as I read the granite wall inscription, to discover that FDR’s Four Freedoms speech was delivered on the 6th of January. The last line closes with “That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time.”

This coming January, we will witness the democratic process of the installation of elected leaders to the U.S. Congress and await the State of the Union Address by President Joe Biden. We expect challenging times ahead. 

Above it all, we should remember our American history and hold ourselves, as well as our government accountable to preserving freedoms for all, and to embrace the promise of America.

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Charles D. Allen
Charles D. Allen

Opinion contributor Col. Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, ret’d) is a professor of Leadership and Cultural Studies in the School of Strategic Land Power at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.