November 11, 2010

The Limits of Liberty

Free is when you don’t have to pay for nothing or do nothing
we want to be free free as the wind
Free is when you don’t have to pay for nothing or do nothing
we want to be free free as the wind
Frank Zappa

Sometime in the mid-to-late 80’s, the Grateful Dead were playing a three-or-four show run at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland. Thanks, allegedly, to an arrangement with late great promoter Bill Graham, the park across the street was a kind of free zone. People set up tents, smoked dope openly, generally did what they wanted, while police, for the most part, stayed away. It was, in essence, a de facto hippie anarchist utopia, as long as the Dead were in town.

When a cop appeared on the grass, leading a guy out of the park in handcuffs, a crowd formed almost instantly, shocked and angry at the sight of The Man disrupting this peaceful, happy scene, and dragging a kind brother away.

One of the great paradoxes of the Unites States of America is that of a society as dedicated to resisting authority as imposing it…born in throwing off the authority of the British crown, grown by conquest, and maintained, like any nation, by putting down dissent. As such, it’s not surprising to find an overarching concern with personal freedom leading to a libertarian and even anarchist spirit all along the political spectrum…from dope-smoking, acid-eating hippies to tea partiers carrying signs reading Cut Taxes, Not Defense and Keep Your Socialist Big Government Hands off My Medicare, from far left to far right, even at the center and, as much as anywhere, among the apolitical.

Americans demand the right to be free from discrimination and the right to discriminate, the right not to pay any more taxes than we feel like and the right to everything taxes pay for, the right to guns and the right to protection from people with guns, the right to pollute and the right to clean air and water, the right to use fossil fuels as wastefully as we please and the right to energy independence. Ideals of liberty and security (which might be called freedom from fear) are held up side by side, continually, as if there were no inherent conflict.

Bottom line: if there’s one thing Americans don’t like, it’s The Man.

Certainly, that was the case in the park that day. While most simply yelled insults and general expressions of outrage at this authoritarian incursion, one intrepid soul, an older guy with handlebar mustache, tie-dyed t-shirt, and grey ponytail, stepped forth to demand truth from power.

Spitting words at this walking symbol of everything the freedom-loving hippie hates, the defender of liberty posed a pivotal question:  “so what did he do?!”

The cop, young, clean cut, and clearly frightened by the hostile mob rapidly surrounding him, sputtered out “he attacked a girl!

The revolution, suddenly silent, halted in its tracks.

After a pause, its handlebar-mustached spokesman spoke: “fuck him,” before turning on his heel and walking away. The rest followed promptly.

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