Today is Remembrance Day in Canada, Armistice Day in the UK and Veterans Day in the US. I have been watching the History Channel today and I am always struck by the tremendous actions of the generations that lived and died during the World Wars in particular. I will never claim to have seen war as intimately as those generations did, but having seen some facets of war during my life and work and the type of violence that these men and women witnessed, I can say that it must have been hell. As the documentary interviewed veterans, strong men moved to tears by the losses they witnessed, I found myself desperately wanting to ask them just two questions: Is the type of lifestyle that you see our generation living now, what you believed that you were protecting? And secondly, Is the generation that I live in exhibiting the values that you fought and bled for? I would like to imagine that their answers would be surprising.
As I was pondering this today I have come up with two things (among many) where I believe that we are have and continue to be heading in the wrong direction. These two things are the subtle yet profound differences in the way we view Rights and Freedoms.
Concerning our Rights, I believe that we have conflated the fundamental human rights with qualitative augmentations to human rights. We can all agree that every human has the right to water. However, we don’t have the right to hot water. We have the right to clean air, not necessarily air conditioning. We have the right to education but University is still a privilege. Food – but not whatever we want, whenever and wherever we want. All these qualitative augmentations to our basic rights are things that bring relief, insight and joie de vivre, but they are not rights. They are functions of our management of resources and the dynamics of international trade. And here’s the kicker, qualitative augmentations to our rights always come at a cost to someone, somewhere. Whether that was your grandfather on a beach in Normandy, or a kid mining coltan in the DRC, qualitative augmentations, cost someone somewhere.
Concerning, our Freedoms, I believe that we have conflated the Freedom to…do whatever I want, with the Freedom from…oppression, injustices, tyranny and unrepresentative governments. I think our generation has been sold on the idea that the American Dream was the freedom to consume at any rate we want. Our generation was told that our “Freedom and way of life are under threat” in the era of terrorism and that the “Axis of Evil” is the boogie-man coming to keep you from living the way you want. AND that if we wanted to fight that oppression, we need to go out and spend money, stimulating the economy. I believe that many in our societies have lost track of the definitional difference between rich living, and living richly, demonstrated by our obsession with economic growth and GDP as the sole metric of our “health”. Could it be more ironic that our freedom to…spend all our money on rich living, is what is actually killing us, driving the divisions in our own society, drawing the hatred of others and above all, undermining the planet itself?
Freedom from oppression, tyranny and injustice are true freedoms, freedoms which dignify the human existence, bring mutual understanding and unity. The Freedom to do whatever we want, live however we feel like living, perpetrate crimes against others in our country and the rest of the world if it threatens our way of life and our social standing, is not a freedom that I would be willing to die for. I am not sure that our veterans would think that that was worth seeing their friends die for either.
Today in our world, there are a tremendous number of opportunities to exercise our freedoms and rights in a way that constructively extends those rights and freedoms to others. In fact, just yesterday friends of mine working in Southern Sudan were bombed by Omar Bashir’s SAF as he attempted to annihilate a refugee camp, including a school. In a world that we sometimes feel is going to hell, there are still good fights to be fought although rarely are the “bad guys” as easily identifiable as Hitler or Bashir. In fact, we have to be willing to admit that our own lifestyles are driving the repression of others and in so doing our enemy may even be ourselves. But in order to know that, we must revisit the definitions of rights and freedoms. It is essential that our generation is as ready to fight for these things as other generations were. It is essential that we continue to fight those good fights, not to pass on oppression in our rates of consumption, greed and mock-up of the American Dream, but to pass on the freedom from oppression and human rights.
Our rights and freedoms have come at a tremendous cost and revisiting the definitions of each of those rights and freedoms is a necessary and important exercise if our generation is going to take a different trajectory than those before us. If we allow the definitions to fade, the meanings to be blurred, we too may find that we will have to revisit the costly mistakes of our forefathers in the endless cycle of violence that is war. Lest we forget – veterans, I salute you.