In his nationally televised March 7 press conference, President Bush continued to justify his quest for unilateral military action against Iraq in the name of preserving American freedom. He called Saddam Hussein a “direct threat” to “all free people.” He warned that if intervention is not pursued, “free nations would assume immense and unacceptable risks.” What is at stake, Bush asked us to believe, is not the expansion and maintenance of empire or the protection of oil interests but the liberty that we have come to equate with the very idea of America. When asked a pointed question about the political arrogance his administration has demonstrated in its dealings with the United Nations, Bush brought it back to freedom. “One of the things we love in America,” he said, “is freedom.”
Bush’s reliance on freedom as a last-ditch rhetorical smoke screen for dangerous imperial ideology began in the wake of 9/11. The attacks on the World Trade Center were cast in biblical shades of Christian good and pagan evil, the home of the free attacked by freedom’s worst enemies. And it was under the banner of freedom that the administration began the campaign against terrorism, Operation Enduring Freedom, which quickly and quietly became the campaign against Iraq, a country with no ties to the al-Qaeda terrorists. Freedom, it turns out, can be very convenient.
It can also be deceiving. In the past few months the administration has jeopardized freedom, not celebrated it. When faced with a lack of war support from Mexico, the president hinted the decision could lead to a backlash against Mexicans akin to a “backlash against the French.” Then there was the appointment of convicted felon John Poindexter to direct the newly created Information Awareness Office, which, like the PATRIOT Act and the Department of Homeland Security, tramples civil liberties to hunt imaginary terrorists. Not to mention attacking affirmative action on Martin Luther King Jr.‘s birthday or the Supreme Court upholding life imprisonment for shoplifters under California’s Three Strikes law.
Yet despite all of this, in January, to help market Bush as the freedom president, PBS began airing the eight-hour series, Freedom: A History of U.S. Hosted by Katie Couric and “featuring a who’s who of Hollywood superstars,” the series is a history of freedom in America based on Joy Hakim’s acclaimed textbook of the same name. Yet in the hands of the series’ producers, it becomes a Bush ad. The series is framed by 9/11 discussion and introduced by the president and first lady themselves.
The three-CD, 67-song set that accompanies the series, Freedom: Songs from the Heart of America (Columbia/Legacy), has a harder time selling the concept with a straight face. Sure, there’s track after track of expected flag-wavers like “Yankee Doodle,” “My Country Tis of Thee,” and “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and sure, there’s tons of cash-register filler (do we need to hear James Taylor doing “Hard Times”?), but the set begins with freedom as a wish (Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free”) and ends with freedom as an unfulfilled promise (Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We Will All Be Free”). In both cases freedom is not a given; it has yet to be delivered. “I wish I could break all the chains holding me,” Simone sings. “I wish I could say all the things I should say.”
The set also includes Mahalia Jackson, who sings about freedom that can’t be found, in “I’m on My Way,” and Billie Holiday, who describes freedom hanging from a tree, in “Strange Fruit.” The presence of black protest music throughout Freedom—” bumping against old minstrel numbers like “Dixie” along the way—reminds us that, since America’s founding, its inalienable rights have always been accompanied by their counterpart, slavery. Unfortunately, Freedom‘s embrace of these critiques stops in the post-civil rights era. (The sole exception is Living Colour’s “Open Letter (To a Landlord).”) Incredibly, hip-hop, the one form of pop music that in the past two decades has most consistently disrupted the pleasant harmonies of the “singing nation” Hakim describes in her liner notes, is nowhere to be found.
In fact, though it was conceived in the wake of a contemporary event, Freedom suggests contemporary musicians have nothing to say about freedom or Bush’s manipulation of it to wage war. Springsteen’s here, but he’s singing ‘60s Dylan (“Chimes of Freedom”), and even the most obvious pop protest voices of our day—Rage Against the Machine, Michael Franti, Ani DiFranco, Michelle Shocked, Ozomatli—are absent. Freedom leaves the present silent at a time when the present needs to be loud. Amid the din of war, the voices of presidents and press secretaries and newscasters, the voices that hawk freedom in order to not practice it must not be the only voices we hear.
Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.