If you had to pick something — a book, a speech, a court case, or anything else — to represent what’s best and most indispensable about American freedom, what would you choose?
The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 53: Whispering into tomorrow’s ear
by Steven C. Day
We clearly had our work cut out for us: Piled up on the large round table was a mound of books, videotapes and pamphlets big enough to fill the hole at the center of Dick Cheney’s soul. Yet, the available space was only about the size of three shoeboxes laid side-to-side.
Horace was frowning. “We have to cut out some of the excess . . . you know, the stuff that has no chance of making the final cut, before we can even begin to set priorities.”
Winston growled, “Well, let’s get rid of some of this nonsense Tom brought, like this one . . .”
“Are you nuts?!” bellowed Tom. “The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money was Keynes masterpiece. It helped establish the whole field of macroeconomics and played a huge role in bringing about increased use of the machinery of democratic governance in regulating economic . . .”
Winston smirked at Zach, “And he wonders why he could never get a date back in high school.”
Horace, ever diligent in carrying out his duties as the group’s unofficial den mother, broke in before Tom could respond. “Let’s remember what we’re trying to do here, Tom,” he said gingerly. “We’re trying to provide the means for a future generation to get fired up about freedom in case the torch has grown dim. And while Keynes’ book is certainly important . . . I mean, especially to you as an economist, this may not be exactly what we’re looking . . .”
“But this is exciting stuff,” responded Tom earnestly.
“He never got a date in college either,” muttered Winston.
Actually, contrary to Winston’s chiding, I’m to understand Tom did a fair amount of dating as a younger man. In fact, in his early forties, he came very close to marrying an attractive young woman named Sally. Unfortunately, when Tom asked her one evening over dinner who her favorite economist was, Sally, who knew next to nothing about the subject, answered with the only name she could think of, the brilliant but ultraconservative Milton Friedman.
Tom broke up with her the next day.
“Sorry, Tom,” I said, bringing the conversation back to the point at issue, “but this goes into the rejected stack.”
“What, so you’re throwing out Keynes, but leaving this in?!”
He was pointing at a well-worn five volume set of books titled, “The Louis L’Amour Collection.”
“What is that doing here?” I asked cautiously.
“Marvin donated it,” smiled Molly, who was dropping off a round of drinks for the table. “He told me that nothing better exemplifies American freedom than the Old West.”
“Professor Keynes meet the Wild West,” I said as I added the five books to the reject pile.
* * *
I had no idea what I was getting us into when I suggested the café expansion project. The idea was to add a small banquet room next to the lounge. We have the large facility on the second floor, but it’s a poor fit for small functions such as rehearsal dinners and birthday parties. With a better room, I figured we could book more groups and sell more Liberal Burgers, Bleeding Heart Spareribs and the like. So I called an owners meeting (remember our employees all have an ownership interest) and we agreed to take out another loan to cover the job.
Later, when the architect drew up the plans, I passed them around the large round table one Wednesday evening to let Horace, Tom, Winston and Zach take a look.
“This is where the cornerstone goes,” said Horace.
“Right . . . of course,” I replied confidently.
What the fuck is a cornerstone? I wondered to myself. I was familiar with the word, of course, but I’d never actually attached a definition to it.
The answer, by the way, is a stone placed at the corner of a building uniting two intersecting walls. By tradition, people sometimes place time capsules there.
“I think we should do one,” said Horace, “bury a time capsule here at the café to be opened in 50 years.”
Winston, who had just finished a luxuriously slow sip of his bourbon, set his glass down on one of our new drink coasters, inscribed with the message, “Liberals are good tippers!” I don’t know who ordered them: They simply appeared on my desk one day, although I have my suspicions about Molly. In any case, Winston said, “What would we put in a time capsule . . . the café’s recipe for Antonin Scalia Original Intent Fried Chicken?”
“I like it,” said Molly who was delivering drinks to the table next to ours. “The gift of cholesterol and saturated fat presented with love from one generation to another.”
“I have a better idea,” smiled Tom. “Let’s put in a bottle of single malt Scotch whiskey. Can you imagine what good shit that would be after 50 years?”
I returned the smile. “You may have just given me the incentive to live to be a 102-year-old . . . to get a taste of that!”
Horace chuckled, “I actually had something a little different in mind. We’re always talking about how worried we are about the future of freedom in the United States . . . over whether it can survive things like growing economic inequality and the fear of terrorism . . .”
“And George W. Bush,” added Zach.
“Especially George W. Bush,” agreed Winston.
“. . . so what I think we should do is to make a freedom time capsule. We can fill it with the things someone in the year . . . let’s see . . .”
“2057,” said Zach.
“Right, 2057.” Horace gave Zach a pat on the back. “It’s always nice having a young mathematically nimble mind close at hand. Anyway, I think we should fill it with the things a person in a freedomless . . . or at least a less free future would need in order to understand the blessings of freedom, to know what they’ve lost, and what they need to fight to regain.”
So it was settled. I posted an invitation for customers and employees of The Last Chance Democracy Café to donate books, articles, speeches, photographs, videos and anything else they thought appropriate for possible inclusion in what would hereafter be known as The Freedom Time Capsule. But I’ll confess that I didn’t expect the kind of overwhelming response that came pouring in, four or five times as much stuff as we could possibly use.
Marvin suggested digitalizing everything so it would all fit into the capsule, but we decided against it: The idea wasn’t to send an entire library to the future, just the most important things to each of us as individuals. Otherwise we might lose the passion in the sheer volume. We wanted to knock people’s socks off about the blessings of liberty, not break their backs with endless “reams” of virtual paper. Limited space would force hard decisions, and that’s what we needed: Something to make us triage the millions of possibilities down to what’s truly sacred.
* * *
So here we were nine weeks later, with a huge hole in the interior wall at the far end of the lounge, construction in general well under way and a deadline bearing down on us like Halliburton closing in on a no-bid contract. We had until the next morning to complete our time capsule, or the pace of construction would pass us by. This would have to be the night of decision.
“Do we really want this ratty old copy of The Federalist Papers, said Tom, fixing an “it’s your turn now” stare on Winston, who had contributed the book.
“Well, let’s see, Tom,” began Winston in his finest full-throated sarcasm. “It’s only one of the most important collections in the history of American constitutional democracy. So naturally you want to pitch it in favor of this little blockbuster . . . let’s see, ah yes, Academic Freedom: Theory and Practice. Yeah that sounds like a real show stopper.”
I hated to hammer Tom twice in a row, but Jesus. “I don’t know, Tom,” I tried to ease into the point, “but I’m afraid I’m with Winston on this one. The Federalist Papers isn’t exactly titillating reading, but it is one of the core documents of American freedom. . . Now, as to the academic freedom book, thanks for contributing it and all, but don’t you think that’s kind of a narrow topic for what we have in mind.”
Tom practically screeched in response, “You’ve got to be kidding! Academic freedom is the very foundation of open and free intellectual debate. Why without academic freedom . . .”
I held up my hand for him to stop. “Okay, I’m convinced.”
“. . . free intellectual exchange on campus would . . .”
I cut him off. “Tom, it’s okay. I said I’m convinced. It’s in.”
And with that Tom practically floated to the restroom in triumph. Winston, on the other hand, was looking at me like I had suddenly morphed into some unholy fusion of Ann Coulter, David Horowitz and Darth Vader.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll find a way to sneak it out of the time capsule (metal box) before we bury it.”
Apparently unsatisfied, Winston said, “I think we should put it to a vote.”
“No votes,” I smiled. “This is my café. I’m the decider.”
Molly, who with her tables now served and contented, was leaning up against the bar listening, starting humming Hail to the Chief. I’m not sure she was being entirely respectful.
Horace decided we should change our approach. I think he was tired of all the bellyaching.
“I tell you what,” he said, “let’s start actually loading the box with things we all agree should be included. For instance, here’s a copy of The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson, contributed by, let’s see . . . Donald. Does everyone agree it’s a keeper?”
Everyone did. I laid the book into the bottom of the time capsule, right next to The Federalist Papers (and Tom’s academic freedom book).
This seemed to break the dam, and approval quickly followed for copies of the original United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s famous A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom and Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Many other literary works were also promptly approved (with priority, sadly, going almost as much for compactness as quality), especially books on political philosophy, such as Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.
A lot of speeches made the cut as well, Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” Robert La Follette, “Free Speech in Wartime,” Eugene Debs, “Statement to the Court Upon Being Convicted of Violating the Sedition Act,” Margaret Chase Smith, “Declaration of Conscience,” Mary Church Terrell, “What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the U.S.,” Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Struggle for Human Rights” and Hubert H. Humphrey, “1948 Civil Rights Speech.”
Several Supreme Court decisions went in, including Brandenburg v. Ohio, Texas v. Johnson, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in Abrams v United States (all Freedom of Speech cases) and
Reynolds v. Sims (one man, one vote). In the end, it was a marvelously diverse collection, even including some of our customers’ favorite political movies such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the film version of the play 1776, Ghandi and even the feel good The American President.
A lot of good stuff didn’t make the cut, of course, but at long last, we were done.
* * *
As I ordered one last celebratory round of drinks, I noticed that Zach seemed uneasy, fidgeting with his empty beer bottle, rolling it back and forth between his hands. I was about to ask if something was bothering him when he spoke.
“Horace,” he asked pensively. “Do you think it’s going to happen? That America will stop being a free country?”
I’m not sure until that moment that it had really occurred to any of the rest of us — for whom 50 years might as well have been 50 thousand given our ages — that this was Zach’s future we were talking about
Horace took a slow sip of beer.
“Well, I hope not,” he said as he returned the bottle to the coaster. “In fact, I hope that 50 years from now they’ll open up this time capsule and have a good laugh at our expense, sort of the way we might laugh if we opened up a time capsule from 50 years ago and found that someone had predicted that the world would end at the dawn of the new millennium.”
“I don’t know,” said Tom, cocking his head to the side a little and raising his eyebrows. “With what’s going on with global warming, I’m not so sure I’d laugh at them so much as wonder whether they had simply been off a few decades.”
“Point taken,” said Horace. “But that’s what I’m hoping . . .”
Zach broke in, “No offense, but I didn’t ask what you hoped . . .”
“No, you didn’t.”
“. . . I asked what you thought.” There was no edge to Zach’s voice, no hint of irritation, but he clearly wanted to know what Horace thought. Actually, so did I.
“Fair enough,” replied Horace matter-of-factly. “If you’re asking me if I think there is going to be a military dictatorship in the United States anytime soon or even 50 years from now . . . something like the old Soviet Union or our current allies in the Middle East, then the answer is no. That’s possible, certainly, but I doubt it.”
Zach seemed relieved. “Good,” he said.
“Don’t be too happy. I said I didn’t think there will be a military dictatorship; I didn’t say I think America will still be a truly free country.”
“I guess I don’t really see the difference. Are you saying you don’t think it will be a free country?”
Horace frowned. I think Zach was asking for a level of precision he didn’t want to give. “To be honest with you, I think it could go either way.” He stopped for another small sip of beer. Then in a calm, almost analytical, voice, continued, “Here’s the deal, Zach: You know that Bush has been playing fast and loose with both personal liberties and the separation of powers within the government, right?”
“Sure. Like holding people in prison without charge as . . . what is it? Illegal soldiers?”
“Unlawful combatants,” offered Tom.
“Right. And spying on Americans without a warrant, withholding public records, challenging the patriotism of people who oppose him and all that. That’s what you’re talking about, right?”
Horace agreed — it was that and a lot more. “So, let me ask you something, Zach, and try to be as honest as you can: Do you feel like these things have really affected you personally?”
Zach stared at his empty beer bottle, and then began rolling it slowly in his hands again. “I’m not sure I can say that . . . I mean, no one’s arrested me or anyone in my family. No one’s told me I’m personally not free to speak out. I don’t know how I can say it’s had much impact on my life.”
“Thanks for your honesty. Because I think that’s how most people feel.” Horace was looking down at the table; his voice was still calm with maybe just a note of worry creeping in. “This is hard stuff: It’s difficult to see the connection when other people’s rights are undermined . . . hard to see how it can affect our own lives. And let’s be honest, if we don’t see something as affecting us personally, it’s hard to get too worked up about it. And that’s tragic, because these things really do damage all of us . . . Tom, how does the poem written by that minister after the Holocaust go, the one about what happens when we ignore injustice to others?”
Horace knew that Tom, who has the closest thing to a photographic memory I’ve ever encountered, would get every word exactly right.
And sure enough, he quickly complied. “His name was Martin Niemoller. There’s more than one version . . . this is the one inscribed at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston. I’ve read it there myself”:
“They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
Horace pushed ahead. “The bottom line, Zach, is that if freedom does continue to seriously decline in the United States . . . and, yes, I think there’s a real danger of that, it won’t happen in one sudden rush . . . more like how nature takes down a great mountain, working so slowly it’s almost imperceptible. It will be the little things: Relaxing the warrant requirement for searches here, denying due process there. And it won’t happen to you and me, not at first. It will be the bad people, the terrorists, the criminals . . .”
“It will all seem very far away,” agreed Winston.
Zach jumped in. “And then gradually, like the mountain, our freedom gradually wears down to nothing. That’s what you’re saying, right?”
“Exactly,” said Horace nodding his head, “maybe not a wholesale dictatorship, with tanks in the streets, but less free in profound ways. That’s the future I’m most afraid of from the standpoint of freedom. Not that the U.S. will become the USSR, but that it will become a much diminished United States of America; a quote, free country, close quote, that isn’t all that free anymore. And if that happens we will have only ourselves to blame, because no one can ever steal freedom from us. We’re too strong for that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t give it away ourselves a bit at a time.”
“I think I understand,” Zach volunteered.
“We’re still a long ways from that in the U.S. today. But under Bush we’ve been getting a little closer every day. The way he claims almost unlimited presidential power . . . the lawlessness of the man. It’s unbelievable, really, a president who thinks he can exempt himself from the law of the land.”
Zach sounded a hopeful note. “But with the Democrats back in charge of Congress don’t you think things will get better?”
“Sure, somewhat better, for awhile anyway. But . . . well, liberty once lost is extremely hard to reclaim. People get used to the new order. What was once an intolerable governmental intrusion into our privacy, with time becomes just another day at the office. And what if something really bad happens? What if there’s another large-scale terrorist attack? And God only knows how global warming will affect human freedom. What if the bottom completely falls out of the economy because of all the debt created by the neocon’s dreams of empire . . . massive unemployment, poverty and even hunger? What then? What will all of these precedents of an unfettered imperial presidency bring us then?
“Some dark times I suppose,” said Zach.”
“And if that happens,” concluded Horace, “those future Americans may need a little reminder of just what this nation really stands for. And that’s what this time capsule is all about, at least metaphorically. Let’s call it part of our penance for the damage we’ve already allowed to be done . . . our little way of whispering into tomorrow’s ear and reminding our descendents of something we’ve forgotten far too often ourselves . . . that freedom is the birthright of every American, something sacred and something worth fighting for.”
* * *
I had to get up early the next morning for the small ceremony to place the time capsule. True to my word to Winston, I surreptitiously removed Tom’s academic freedom book. But somehow it didn’t feel right to totally ignore Tom’s input. So I decided to take his advice on another point: And in place of his book, I inserted a small flask-like bottle of single malt Scotch.
I figured if we really do expect the people who will one day open this time capsule to then go to bat for American freedom, the least we can do is to give them a good stiff drink to steel them for the trials to come. And why not make it the best?
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 26 years. Contact Steven at scday(AT)buzzflash.com.
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001