Dear Reader: I wrote “Freedom and Independence Day 2020” in July. I ask for your indulgence in revising my thoughts for this current season.
As Americans approach the close of 2020, we have lot to reflect upon from the era of COVID-19, its associated economic turmoil, and the political rancor of a presidential election season. Domestically, we continue to struggle with this great experiment called democracy for our society and its culture, which defines the daily experience of the many peoples (citizens and those who aspired to be) inside of our American borders.
On Thursday, we will celebrate Thanksgiving Day and follow the tradition of Presidential Proclamation established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
In November 2019, it opened with: “On Thanksgiving Day, we remember with reverence and gratitude the bountiful blessings afforded to us by our Creator, and we recommit to sharing in a spirit of thanksgiving and generosity with our friends, neighbors, and families.”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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 experiences, 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.”
Nearly 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 onto.
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 2021 ahead, let us make this an American decade and rise to establish freedom from want for others in our society and for our democracy.
Col. Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, ret) is a professor of leadership and cultural studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.