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Putting Freedom in Perspective

The Statue of Liberty, meticulously patched and fitted with a new flame, turns 100 this week. Through the years, the statue has been transformed from a symbol of fraternity between France and the United States into the pre-eminent symbol of freedom, a beacon for millions of immigrants and a patriotic symbol of unrivaled emotional intensity. It has inspired poetry and song, speechmaking and caricature. But mostly the statue has been a personal symbol, to millions around the world, of the hopes and promise of a nation that proclaims itself dedicated to individual liberty. Five very personal perspectives:

Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes’ most recent book is “The Old Gringo.” Along with such novelists as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, he is credited with helping to produce a resurgence in Latin American fiction in the last 25 years. Fuentes, 57, was Mexico’s ambassador to France from 1974 to 1977.

It is difficult to share patriotic symbols. Dr. Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, and it is indeed tempting, when everything else has failed, to wrap oneself with the national flag in order to substitute vulnerable argument with invulnerable righteousness.

Who can be moved by the rather ridiculous words of the Chilean (“Pure, Chile, is your blue sky . . . "), Argentine (“Hark ye Mortals, the sacred cry: Freedom, Freedom, Freedom . . . "), Mexican (“Let the earth tremble at its center from the cannon roars . . . "), or U.S. (“Oh say, can you see . . . ") national hymns unless you are a citizen of Chile, Argentina, Mexico or the United States? Personally, the only foreign anthem that moves me is the Marseillaise, but that in itself indicates a certain cultural connection or historical context applicable not only to the notion of patriotism but to the notion of freedom.

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This is to say that the Statue of Liberty leaves me quite cold unless I can construct its political and historical foundations for myself. There are two excesses that can be committed while contemplating the statue: that of absolute reverence or that of absolute irreverence. I do not think that its true site is in either extreme, but rather in the middle ground where freedom can be recognized not as an abstract, universal value, devoid of cultural or historical content, but rather as a particular, culture-bound concept dependent on a wide variety of experience--experience as wide as that of the cultures humanity has created.

Freedom is not only a place. It is a geography, but it is, above all, a history. It is time. Freedom needs place and time, but these vary enormously both in historical development and in terms of contemporaneous coexistence. In my own country, Mexico, several concepts of freedom coexist. For the Huichol or the Cora peoples living in the Sierra Madre, the idea of freedom is intimately allied to the idea of sacredness: to be free is to have some kind of access to the sacred, communicating with the sacrifice (rather than with the liberty) of the gods. In the Cora country, the passion of Christ is re-enacted every Easter. The external acts are repeated: the Last Supper, the prayer in the Garden, the betrayal, Calvary, the Crucifixion. But whereas our historical notion of these events is bound by historical dates (Christ being born under Augustus and dying under Tiberius), for the Coras, the representation takes place in the dawn of history. Christ is the founding god who spills his blood so that the maize will grow and the people will not die of hunger. That is the point where, for this primitive agrarian community, sacredness and liberty meet: They are a mutually dependent necessity.

Land and Freedom, Tierra y Libertad , was the cry of Emiliano Zapata and his peasant army during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20. One was not conceivable without the other. Millions of men and women throughout the Third World think in these same terms. Freedom is equated with land, bread, education, health--the basic necessities of life. Algerians, Nicaraguans, Chinese: They have not been too choosy about their forms of government if these essential identities are made in their minds. So where do you define freedom: in a constitution that enshrines it in legal terms of equality, opportunity, human rights and democratic processes? Or in the practice that brings the school, the hospital, the tractor, to places where they never appeared before?

In other words, will freedom that’s merely stated in law ever give the peasant his land or the child a school? Or will giving them those implements assure a community based on respect for the law and the rights of others?

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No society has escaped this conundrum of liberty. Democracy did not arrive ready-made in England or France, say. A few years ago, I was watching the wonderful theatrical presentation of Shakespeare’s Chronicle plays, staged by Peter Hall at Stratford, as “The War of the Roses.” A friend of mine from Mexico--watching the succession of chaos, murder and violence before our eyes--wondered out loud, “Is this the history of England or of Central America?” Well, of both. We have all lived history as an episode of violence. In England long ago, in Nicaragua today, in Mexico recently, our freedom has gone through the throes of revolution; a founding stage of violence has at times been necessary in order to reach a second stage of equilibrium.

Historical development is not homogeneous, and even the Lady with the Torch may have lapses of memory, forgetting that the United States came into being through extreme revolutionary violence: firing squads, boat people fleeing, exiles (as many as 150,000 out of a population of 2.5 million), confiscation of Tory properties. Not even then did liberty become universal: The bloodiest civil war this hemisphere has known had to happen before the black population became nominally free, and the process of emancipation has not ended yet. The poor in the world’s richest economy, the nameless, the unprotected children and senior citizens of the United States--are they free?

Yet, would these and other defects of American liberty have authorized anyone abroad to define freedom for the United States and impose it on you through force--pro-British contras , say, disguised as “freedom fighters”? Liberty can only be defined by a people who intimately know the history of their own nation. Sometimes, independence is the first step to freedom and democracy. The resistance fighters in Afghanistan know this as they battle Soviet intervention in their country. The people of Nicaragua do too, as they battle U.S. intervention in their country.

So for everyone, freedom, democracy and patriotism are loaded words--loaded, above all, with history and culture: our own. Some nations may be closer than others to an ideal of freedom. They have had to travel a road that passes through violence, search for self-identification, independence, perhaps flag-waving and jingoism. Those who are nearer the goal of liberty should be extremely respectful of those who are on the first steps of a difficult upward climb. No one should be self-righteous with regard to the possession of liberty; the people of Goethe, Beethoven and Schiller lost it very quickly and complacently in the name of a murky greatness. We are surrounded by the ruins of liberty, warned that nothing that we can identify it with--a piece of bread, a right to a day in court, the alphabet or the op-ed page in the Los Angeles Times--is bought cheaply, or imposed from abroad, or understandable outside its own context.

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When the Lady in New York Harbor understands that, she’ll be my lady, too.


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