December 2003 #1

Freedom is the Word

Freedom is the word on everybody's lips at present. We're free to pursue our dreams. We're free to chose private health care or schooling. We're free to choose our life course. We're free to commit crimes if we want and we're free to make choices at the next election.

Pauline Hanson said her time in jail makes her appreciate her freedom even more and Rene Rivkin can only dream of what it's like to be free. After all he never did time did he. Then there's the so called leader of the free world, George Bush.

He's free. He's free to travel the world stage. He's free to pursue the great American dream. He's free to lead the world in any way he chooses. But is he?

Last week he chose to fly to his newest satrapy, Iraq. But he chose to do so under conditions that, to any right-minded person would seem to be anything but free.

We're told he was spirited away from the White House in an unmarked car wearing a disguise. He was then placed in an unmarked plane which only identified itself once it took off. He then landed in Iraq in the middle of the night and spent less than 3 hours on the ground, never once leaving the security of a hangar in the most remote part of the airfield. So I guess that's his experience of the freedom currently enjoyed in Iraq.

One letter writer to a US daily, commenting on the trip, wrote that the visit reminded him of Bob Hope's visits to troops in Vietnam. They were, he said "window dressing" to mask the death and dismay going on beyond the entertainment area and security barriers behind which the troops and performers gathered. Another letter writer noted that if the President had gone to buoy the troops, he should have done so with no media in tow and who the writer comments, must be complicit in this, the Bush administration's, latest lie.

The rightwing US press has compared Bush's visit to Baghdad as in keeping with the traditions of previous presidents who visited battle zones. But, hey, didn't George declare the war was over back in May? If that's right then his troops are not really at war and he didn't really enter a war zone. He did, however, spend almost ten times longer flying there and back than he did on the ground. Previous presidents who visited their troops on the ground certainly made more of an effort to engage with them and attempt to share their deprivation and misery. And also those presidents hadn't declared the conflict ended.

One right wing commentator says that "it took courage for Mr. Bush to do what he did". But did it? The trip was a sham. It took a complicit media to agree to keep quite and allow the President to lie to the US people (he had told them he was going to be on his Texas ranch with his family). It took a complex and dangerous deception of air traffic controllers across half the globe and it then took a complicit media to turn the deception into a front page story of "courage" under fire by a man of "freedom". My question remains, what kind of freedom is that GW Bush wants us to enjoy?

(At least Hilary Clinton was free to visit Baghdad and shop till she dropped. Which is a kind of ironic turn of events. You may recall Bush's words in the immediate aftermath of the twin towers collapse. While standing on a pile of still smouldering rubble which contained the body parts of those killed in the collapse, the president of the free world declared not that Americans should mourn. Not that Americans should grieve but that Americans should shop. The freedom to take part in some good old retail therapy was how George W Bush said Americans should begin to heal the wounds caused on that day.)

Is the kind of freedom that Bush promotes and demonstrates the kind of freedom we want? He has never done a 'walk around', that traditional demonstration of the President's willingness to shake the hands of the people. His every move is tightly choreographed because, and I agree with Mark Latham on this at least, he is a fool who needs a tight reign to control. If he is living in the land of freedom and opportunity, why is it he is so detested by such a vast number of US voters? Why is it he never walks around the streets or takes part in spontaneous engagement with the people? Is this the kind of country we want ours to become? A place where the leadership is so scared of the people they never come out of their bunkers! Oh, I forgot, that's exactly what our parliament house is - a bunker build under a hill.

Do we want to allow our so-called 'free' nation to become a place where we have to check under our beds, in our closets and behind the door every time we want to say or do something even slightly dissenting? Do we want our only freedoms to be those we can exercise in the 'market'? Do we want our only freedoms to be those that exist in our minds and imaginations because we are too afraid of what the 'authorities' may do if we speak the truth and they find out?

George Bush, John Howard and Tony Blair are no more free than birds in a cage. Highly paid, well cosseted and pampered birds yes. But the same walls that keep their predators out also mean they are not able to do what it was they were intended to do (and I know I'm stretching the analogy here) which is to lead us as the first among equals. Isn't that what democracy is supposed to be about? While they preen themselves and their dedicated keepers make sure they have fresh feed and water, the remain locked in an unreal situation, protected as much as caged, never being free to be what that could become.

Yet they're jealous of us! They hate the fact that we can go out without having to don disguises. They're jealous of us in that we can travel where we want, say what we want and even do what we want (within the limits of income and the law). They, on the other hand, are trussed up in their gilded cages, on display, crowing about freedoms they have never tasted. Men of full of ambition, single minded determination and with an insatiable hunger for power. They are not free simply because they have never wanted anyone else to be free while they are locked in a cage of the pursuit of selfish fulfilment. (A digression for a moment. Its interesting how Mark Latham, the newest 'saviour of the Labor party says that it's the right of individuals to pursue their ambition and governments should not hinder that pursuit. Sounds like Howard 'lite' to me).

So what is freedom then? The Buddhists teach that freedom comes from giving up what you are and discovering what you can become. A Buddhist teacher points the way to freedom by telling us that the way to freedom, and peace, is to "put away the sword" and to put "away the desire for things" that are not ours. He tells us to put away "all thoughts of deceiving" to speak truthfully and "to bring together those who are divided". We are, he instructs, to be peacemakers, "a lover of peace, impassioned for peace, a speaker of words that make for peace.". Freedom is found in peace and the pursuit of peace, not the "bring 'em on" bully boy tactics our nation has descended into.

While our national media is focused on the machinations of the Australian Labor party as it attempts to transform itself into Liberal 'lite' in its quest for ruling power, the ASIO bill as its called, is being debated. A bill that will effectively end many of the freedoms we now enjoy. It will allow the government to determine who is or isn't a 'terrorist'. It will allow the government to 'disappear' people and disallow legal counsel access to prisoners. The window dressing of the 'conflict' in the parliamentary Labor party has overshadowed changes to legislation the Labor party support - the ASIO bill, higher education and Medicare reform, disability services roll back and a raft of other changes to our social and welfare security. In order to hide their support of these bills the Labor party has created a smoke screen to hide behind and to distract us from their real game - the pursuit of power at any cost.

As I said earlier, the freedoms we enjoy are envied by those in the gilded cages of power.

While we are free to shop, and spend and choose who we associate with, legislation is being passed that will take away from us the freedoms we take for granted. I've never yet had to put on a disguise, lie to my loved ones about where I was going, sneak into a venue to join friends or pretend to hold views I don't really hold. Yet these are regular occurrences for those who set the boundaries of our freedoms and in their quest to expand their power and their freedoms, they want to reduce the boundaries around mine and yours.

For many, this issue is secondary and of no concern as they retail therapy themselves in the lead up to Christmas. But spare a thought for those who won't be able to enjoy the freedom of shopping or the freedom of association or the freedom of spending Christmas with loved ones. As someone once said, one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist.