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Freedom time.

A million years ago, Janis Joplin was singing, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." I found that puzzling, back then. Or, "white."

To my mind, freedom was an obvious good. It meant looking at an apartment and, if you liked it, being able to put down a deposit and sign a lease. It meant looking for a job and, if you found something for which you qualified--on the basis of education and/or experience--being able to take that position. Freedom had to do with getting into college if your grades were good enough. Freedom meant you could register to vote and live to talk about it.

A lot of other Americans felt the same way, thirty years ago. And black and white, we sang militant songs and we tested public transportation and restaurants and universities and corporate hiring policies and nice, clean neighborhoods for freedom. And we rallied and we marched and we risked everything for freedom because we believed that freedom would deliver us into pride and happiness and middle-class incomes and middle-class safety.

Thirty years later and freedom is no longer a word that most folks remember to use, jokingly or otherwise. And the declining popularity of the word is matched by our declining commitment to protect, and to deepen, and to extend, the meanings of freedom in the United States.

Today we know that "black and white" does not adequately describe anything real. Individual, economic, racial, ethnic, and sexual realities defy such long-ago simplicity. "Black" has become Nigerian or Afro-Caribbean or Senegalese or African-American or Zulu. "White" has become Serbo-Croatian or Bosnian Muslim or Irish Republican or Italian-American or Greek or Norwegian. And, even as collective identities inside America have multiplied, our political presence here has intensified as well: women, Latino, Asian, Native, gay, lesbian, senior citizen, and so-called legal and illegal aliens. (As for the very popular concept of "aliens," you would think that, by now, anybody other than Native Americans or Chicanos/Mexicans would be pretty embarrassed to mouth such an obnoxious pejorative.)

But rather than recognize galvanizing intersections among us, too often we yield to divisive media notions such as women's rights, for example, threatening the rights of black folks or Chicanos. There is a dismal competition among Americans who should know better and who should join together for their own good. There is an acquiescence in the worst knavery of the mass media, as those top TV shows and those major weekly magazines inflame our most egocentric and paranoid inclinations. In consequence, we are muddling through a terrifying period of atomization and bitterness and misdirected anger.

What the new emerging majority of these United States holds in common, at its core, is a need for freedom to exist equally and a need to become the most knowledgeable, happy, productive, interconnected, and healthy men and women that we can. Ours is a need for freedom that does not omit any racial, gender, ethnic. sexual, or physical identity from its protection. But unless we will. each of us, reach around all of these identities and embrace them even as we cherish our own, no one's freedom will be assumed.

In Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, the reader comes upon this remarkable one-liner: "Nothing changes instantaneously: In a gradually heating bathtub, you'd be burned to death before you knew it." I think we're jammed inside that bathtub and the water's getting hot.

About five weeks ago, I was walking my dog, Amigo, along the rather quiet streets of North Berkeley when a young white man yelled something in my direction and asked me to stop. I stopped. He bolted in front of me and, excitedly, inquired whether I had seen "anything or anyone unusual." I said no, and waited to hear him out.

It seems that twice on that one day, somebody had "delivered" an anti-Semitic bound book of neo-Nazi filth to the lawn in front of his house. He, Eric, was the father of a newborn baby and his Jewish wife. he told me, was completely freaked out by these scary events.

"How about you?" I asked him. Eric shrugged, and kept repeating that he "didn't understand it" and "couldn't believe" that none of his neighbors had seen anything. We talked a little while and I gave Eric my name and telephone number, as well as the numbers of some active people who might rally, fast, against this hatefulness.

In subsequent weeks, Eric invited me (and Amigo) into his house wife and to see their new baby boy, but I never had the time. Or, I never made the time to visit them.

Shortly after the first delivery of neo-Nazi literature to my neighborhood, I got on a plane bound for Madison, Wisconsin. The Progressive was putting on a benefit show and the editors arranged for me to join the celebration. Madison, Wisconsin, is a lot like North Berkeley except Madison gets cold, and stays cold, during the winter. Similar to my Northern California habitat, there are abundant public indications of environmental concern and civility: sheltered bus stops, wheel-chair-accessible street crossings, bike lanes, public tennis courts, fabulous public libraries, a wonderful public university, and bookstores and backpackers all over the place.

I stayed with Dr. Elizabeth Ann Karlin during my visit to Madison. The morning after my arrival, Dr. Karlin and I sat at the dining table looking at newspapers, drinking coffee, and pushing bagels away from the butter and the cream cheese. At some point, Dr. Karlin stopped talking, and I glanced at her face: It was flushed, and she fell silent. Now her dogs were wild with barking and ferocious agitation.

I got up and went to the windows. Outside, two white men were marching back and forth carrying placards that said, ABORTION, A Baby Can Live Without It, and Liberty and Justice for Some.

Breakfast was over.

I located my press pass, my ballpoint pen, yellow pad, and I tied my sneaker shoelaces and went outside to interview these members of "Operation Rescue" and "Missionaries to the Pre-born." Why were they there?

"We're picketing Elizabeth Karlin's house because she kills babies in her Women's Medical Health Center."

I talked with Kermit Simpson and David Terpstra for more than two hours. It was eerie. It was familiar. They spoke about the futility of the courts, the brutality of the police, and their determination, regardless, to rescue "innocent babies" from "murder." It was familiar because their complaints and their moral certitude echoed the regular complaints and the moral certainty of the civil-rights movement.

But these groups were white. These groups were right-wing religious fundamentalists. And the only freedom they were concerned about was the freedom of the "unborn."

In fact, throughout our lengthy conversation. neither one of these men ever referred to any woman or anything female: "The baby" had to be saved from murder. That was the formulation. No woman's mind of body or feelings or predicament, at any moment, entered their consideration. What mattered was "the baby."

As I listened to David Terpstra, a good-looking white man in his twenties, it occurred to me that he was the kind of person who might have shot and killed Dr. Gunn. Certainly he would see no reason not to kill a doctor who "kills babies." David told me there are twenty-two warrants out for his arrest, and he keeps moving.

He has no wife and no children and nothing special besides his mission to save "the baby."

Inside Dr. Karlin's house, the day was ruined. Even if the sun had returned to the sky (which it refused to do), there was terror and dread palpable, now, in every room.

And where were the good people of Madison who love their civil liberties and who hold Dr. Karlin in highest esteem as a warrior of our times and who used to understand that individual freedom depends upon a mass demand for its blessings and opportunities?

And what could I do for my friend, the doctor, before I got back on a plane, and left the scene of her clear and present danger?

The next weekend was a memorial reading for Tede Matthews, a gay white American who had managed the Modern Times bookstore in San Francisco, and who had died of AIDS in July. Tede Matthews had also distinguished himself as an activist for human rights in Central America. And he had helped many, many writers and poets to acquire a community of support. He was/he is much beloved. And he died of AIDS.

In the overflow audience of several hundred people who came to honor Tede Matthews's life and to establish a Tede Matthews fund for civil rights for gay men and lesbians in Central America and in the United States, there were many gay men and lesbians.

And I heard in my brain the helter-skelter of selective scripture that the Operation Rescue guys hurled into that Wisconsin silence. And I reflected on the tragedy of Tede Matthews's death, and the death of thousands upon thousands of young men whom we have loved and lost. And I wanted to rise from my seat in a towering, prophetic rage and denounce any scripture/any construct of divinity that does not cherish all of the living people on earth and does not grieve for the cruelties of daily life that afflict every one of us if basic freedom is denied.

But this was memorial service. And Tede Matthews is no longer alive.

On my return to U.C. Berkeley, one of my students alerted me to a forthcoming issue of Mother Jones that would trash Women's Studies in general and our department in particular. This student, Pamela Wilson, had been quoted out of context and she explained things to me. And she was mad.

The Mother Jones article proved to be a juicyfruit of irresponsible, sleazy journalism: a hatchet job with malice towards every facet of the subject under scrutiny and entitled, "Off Course."

Since its appearance, several other national publications have chimed in, applauding the "exposure" of "fraud" perpetrated upon students beguiled into taking courses that let them study themselves and sometimes sit in a circle of chairs.

The head of Women's Studies, Professor Evelyn Glenn, called a special departmental meeting. The faculty decided to respond to the attack, in writing, and on national public radio.

One student, Catherine Cook, has received hate mail from loquacious bigots who believe that women's studies, along with ethnic studies, make it clear that public education is wasting taxpayer money. Furthermore, these "non-academic" studies "debase" the minds of young Americans who, instead, should "get a job," and so forth.

As a matter of fact, this latest assault on freedom of inquiry and the pivotal role of public education within that categorical mandate, this most recent effort to roll things back to "the basics" of white men studies taught by white men with the assistance of books written by and about white men has upset our students. The young woman who received hate mail because she thought she had a right to pursue her (women's) studies had trouble breathing, and her hands shook, as she brought those items of hatred into our faculty meeting. Students in my class, Coming Into the World Female, seemed puzzled, at first, and then stunned, and now furious with brilliant energies as they prepare for a press conference, a mock Women's Studies class, and a demonstration that will take place just outside the entrance to the office building of Mother Jones.

The students voted to create those public reactions. They have spent hours and hours in solemn, wearisome research and composition. They believe that the truth of their intentions--and the truth of the necessity for women's studies and ethnic studies and African-American studies--will become apparent to most of America if only they, the students, do all of this homework into the facts, and if only they give the design and the wording of their flyers maximal painstaking and meticulous execution.

They believe that there is a mainstream majority America that will try to be fair, and that will respect their courage, and admire the intelligence of their defense. They believe that there is a mainstream majority America that will overwhelm the enemies of public and democratic education. They believe that most of us, out here, will despise and resist every assault on freedom in the United States.

And I hope they're right. With all my heart, I hope so. But the water's boiling. And not a whole lot of people seem to notice, or care, so far.

Freedom is not "another word for nothing left to lose." And we are letting it go; we are losing it. Freedom requires our steady and passionate devotion. Are we up to that?
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Title Annotation:threats to freedom
Author:Jordan, June
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:The invisible (gay) man.
Next Article:Self-righteous kid-bashing.

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