From 1941 to 1946, about 1,000 young black men based in Tuskegee, Ala., could not vote or live in certain neighborhoods. They had to use separate public bathrooms and drinking fountains and give up their seats on the bus. They earned their wings anyway and became some of the most decorated pilots of the war against fascism.
They fought for other people’s freedom, even though in their own country they had little.
This is just the most extreme example of a nation of hard men and women. The men went to war. The women worked in factories to replace the men who went to war.
When the war was over, the sacrifice did not stop. They built schools and churches and union halls and the Interstate Highway System. Some went off to Korea, once again to fight for other people.
In many cases, they were drafted. They had no choice.
I’ve been thinking about these people a bit lately as I listen to droning whine from people who claim the restrictions imposed on us for two months to save the lives of our elderly relatives and neighbors are a grave risk to their “freedom.”
Let me say what should be obvious: We should be helping people who have lost jobs and businesses in every way we can, including cash infusions to keep them going. My fire is not directed at people who are seeing their dream of owning a restaurant destroyed by what amounts to a 100-year flood.
My ire is directed at the phony freedom fighters. In other states — thankfully not here — boys playing rebel soldiers have shown up at their state Capitols with long guns. They’ve smeared governors and public health officials with epithets like “Nazi.” They make a mockery of the men and women like the ones I noted above, who sacrificed so much to defeat the scourge of fascism, as well as the millions lost to actual Nazis.
Sure, our ancestors died for our republic, and health care workers are risking their own health to help the sick, but what about my bowling league?
The most laughable example of this came from Todd Starnes, a right-wing columnist who tweeted about his attempt to buy a toaster at a department store, which was met with a mandate to use hand sanitizer and wear a mask. “The country as we know it has been destroyed,” he wrote, without apparent irony.
In Minnesota, we heard about the great injustice of not being able to play golf or put our boats in the water. Can I go to my precious cabin? What about July 4 fireworks?
This week, we heard wailing moans over the loss of high school graduation ceremonies, which followed the mourning of the prom. If anything, we should be thankful that our young citizens are learning that life is more than a series of badly catered events.
Fed through the machinery of American consumerism, pop culture and reductive libertarianism, the word “freedom” has become debased into a childish notion of autonomy. Men and women who live in a perpetual state of feverish adolescence proudly know nothing of the sacrifice and responsibility that come with freedom, without which we will eventually wind up in the actual tyranny of the demagogue.
I don’t pretend to be like the hard men and women who made those sacrifices and treated their responsibilities with the respect they deserved. My father remembers the sugar rationing of World War II. He was in the Cuban Missile Crisis Naval blockade. Three of my siblings earned college scholarships by serving in the military, which meant I didn’t have to. I spent half my life a debauched decadent without purpose.
But I know it. So every time I find myself complaining about the inconveniences we’re going through, I remember that many people have it worse and have had it worse.
A friend recently sent me a poem by Robert Lowell called “For the Union Dead,” and I’d like to share a bit with you. Lowell’s subject is the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the second all Black regiment of the Union Army.
Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
Be a compass needle. Stay home and help those in need.