Monday, April 10, 2006

At What Price Freedom?

Passover is rapidly approaching. It is a proper time to examine the question of freedom, not only for the Jewish people but others as well. Freedom, unlike our present government likes to present it, means different things to different people. Recently, a surprised representative of our administration, Karen Hughes, was told by Saudi women that they do not desire American values: they are happy being whom they are. We all know that they cannot vote nor drive a car, but being protected and taken care of, like they are in that society, is a form of freedom our women can only dream of. I personally firmly believe that a good dictator is better for the majority of world's people than a lousy democracy. The emphasis here is on 'good' which unfortunately is rarely the case. However, history has numerous examples of good, even great kings and other rulers who were fair to their people and let their subjects live in harmony and peace. At the time when our country had slavery, not every slave-owner was an evil man: many actually took good care of these people at their mercy. We just don't often hear about them as good news has never made the headlines.

People in general fall into three categories: followers, leaders and free thinkers. Most of us obviously belong to the first group: even in the best functioning democracy an ordinary citizen has very little say as to how things are run. The larger the country, the more true this fact is. Perhaps in Iceland, with its 300,000 inhabitants, an individual vote is important; certainly more so than in the United States with a population a thousand times that. In a true democracy everyone's opinion is heard, but it also requires everyone's participation in decision making. For the followers, it is easier to delegate this power to others and then do as one is told. Those who crave to be in a leadership position, the reasons too rarely are what they should: being capable of improving lives of everyone, educate them and take care of their needs, to care about the environment, to promote peace over war. Most often greed and being power-hungry are the main factors behind their desires. As far as the free thinkers go, they are not usually well accepted by either of the other two groups: the followers don't understand them, and the leaders are afraid of them, as they are the best educated ones and possess superior intelligence and knowledge. It is no wonder that often they are targeted by the ruling class, and the followers that follow their orders. Just remember the Cultural Revolution in China, the atrocities in Cambodia, Uganda or Zimbabwe in recent history. The last on the list, Zimbabwe, former Southern Rhodesia, used to have a high standard of living for an African country, yet the news just a couple days ago told us about the shortest life expectancy in this world: all of 34 years for a woman.

The Biblical story of Moses leading the Hebrews from slavery to freedom is inspiring but also presents many questions. Surely the Hebrews could have assimilated better in Egypt and thus not have been threatened: after all, Joseph, a slave, had managed to rise to a seemingly impossibly important position in the Pharaoh's court. Of course, being submissive would have meant giving up their own special identity, at least to a degree. Moses and his people had to pay a price for their freedom: the biblical story tells about wandering in the desert for forty years. Since anyone knowing geography realizes there is not that much desert to wander in, unless the Hebrews decided to go sightseeing in the Arabian peninsula, the only explanation is that the people did not know what to do with their their new freedom and lived in chaos for a long time. Doesn't this resemble the situation in Iraq today? Granted, there were no plastic explosives, car bombs or even guns then, but these are not the only manifestations of a chaotic society. Without our present government's invasion of Iraq, life in that country would probably have continued in relative calm. Granted, their leader was a tyrant who was responsible for a large number of deaths. However, whom do we hold responsible for the casualties, both Iraqi and our own, that resulted from the invasion and the mayhem that has followed and which seems unstoppable? A hero today, a villain tomorrow: it all depends how matters turn out. Of recent history's despots, Mao had the largest number of his own people killed, followed by Stalin, yet both are thought of as great leaders by many. The Pharaoh probably listened to his advisers, Hitler to his (although we like to blame him as the sole architect of the Holocaust). It is naive to think that our president alone was behind the idea of the Iraqi war; nor was the decision to drop the two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the brainchild of then-president Harry Truman.

In my life, I am presently enjoying the first real time of freedom from slavery of any kind. I am in a position to make a positive difference in lives of quite a few young people, something I truly treasure, instead of being a mere entertainer. Of course, like in the Passover story, this freedom has come with a price. For example, there are a few people in this, sometimes very provincial, town who are seemingly upset by my writing this blog, keeping an online diary of my thoughts, thus exercising my rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Spreading lies in the press or blacklisting a family member hardly comes as any surprise. Of course, even this chaos will come to pass eventually, just as the Hebrews reached their promised land.

Happy Pesach and Easter! May you all learn to be free and enjoy life.