Another Take on Freedom (Life’s Little Ironies)

One day back in the mid-to-late 1980s, I met an emigre couple from the Soviet Union. Having studied the Russian language in high school, I took a special interest in them. I don’t remember the details of their situation, other than that they’d become deeply dissatisfied with life in Russia and had gone to great lengths to come to the United States. When I asked them how they liked their new lives  in America, they looked at each other nervously, their eyes clearly saying, “Dare we answer him honestly?” I assured them they couldn’t possibly tell me anything that would upset me. This was the Reagan era, and I was profoundly disgusted with my country. After much reluctance on their part and much encouragement on my part, they finally managed to stammer out, “It’s so unfree here.” Not what I expected to hear! I laughed out of surprise and some confusion. I asked them to explain. They said that in the Soviet Union they could go wherever they wanted, that they could just start walking across the earth in any direction without restriction, save for, I assume, military bases and the like. But here, they were constantly encountering “no trespassing” signs and other private property issues. They said they felt like cattle being herded through a set of narrow chutes. I have never forgotten their perspective.

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11 Responses to “Another Take on Freedom (Life’s Little Ironies)”

  1. Lynn B. Says:

    Wow, Mark, that blew me away!!! Ever since we’ve been old enough to understand English, we’ve been conditioned to believe that we are the most superior, most wonderful, most free country in the world. We’ve been sold swampland in South Florida, while being told it’s prime beachfront property, don’t you think???? What I can’t figure out is why, as adults, we continue to believe these and other huge lies that we were told, despite evidence to the contrary hitting us in the face on a regular basis.

    A little off the point, but a good story: I traveled to Italy several years ago with a tour group and we were informed by our guide several times to keep our wallets and valuables safe and to be on guard against pickpockets. She said, however, that this was probably the worst problem we had to worry about in Italy as far as crime goes. Thieves may try to steal your wallet, but rarely does a thief use a weapon, threaten you, or try to hurt you even when they’re taking your wallet. They may distract you or divert your attention to accomplish the task, but violence toward other human beings is uncommon, maybe even rare in Italy. Also, it is safe to travel and walk around just about anywhere in the country, day or night, without having to wonder if you’ll be knifed, raped, or held at gunpoint. It was a relief and a joy to travel around and I felt very safe everywhere we went. We in America just take for granted that violence is a way of life and we’ve been conditioned to live with it, and most of us have accepted it. Everyone knows someone who’s been the victim of a serious crime. I don’t think it’s that way in most of Europe and in much of the rest of the world.

    We think we’re so safe, with a large percentage of our population owning guns, security guards and security systems installed everywhere, video recording and cameras everywhere. Many streets in Denver near where I live, you might as well look up, wave, and say “hi” because you’re being recorded as you walk around, and the live video is being transmitted to a room in the police headquarters building so the cops can respond quickly if they see anything they don’t like. It’s really pretty weird if you think about it.

    Back to your point: Your post reminded me of the song called “Signs,” a 1971 hit by the Five Man Electrical Band:

    “Signs Signs Everywhere there’s signs
    Blocking up the scenery Breaking up my mind
    Do this Don’t do that Can’t you read the sign
    And the sign says “Anybody caught trespassing will be shot on sight.”
    So I jumped the fence and I yelled at the house
    What gives you the right To put up a fence And keep me out
    Or to keep Mother Nature in
    If God was here He’d tell it to your face Man You’re some kind of sinner.
    Oh Say now mister Can’t you read
    You got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat
    You can’t watch No You can’t eat You ain’t supposed to be here
    And the sign says “You gotta have a membership card just to get inside” Huh
    And the sign says “Everybody welcome Come in Kneel down and pray”
    But then they passed around a plate at the end of it all
    And I didn’t have a penny to pay
    So I got me a pen and paper And I made up my own little sign
    I said Thank you Lord for thinking about me I’m alive and doing fine.”

    The funny part is, this band was from Canada!


    • markbittner Says:

      As I went walking I saw a sign there
      And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
      But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
      That side was made for you and me.

      Woody Guthrie

  2. Karen Says:

    The “religious” Right keep hammering away about America being a Christian nation. It seems to me that No Trespassing signs put the lie to that notion. The US is definitely a propertied nation, but it is not a particularly caring or sharing nation. I think a nation really based on Christian principles would have a population that is less concerned about defending what they own and more interested in the needs of other people, like being able to walk across a patch of land.

    • markbittner Says:

      This will be dealt with in my book, but when I was a teenager I picked up a copy of the New Testament and was shocked by what I read. I recognized immediately that the Christians had no understanding whatsoever of the teachings they supposedly followed. We are not a Christian nation—neither legally, nor morally.

  3. Brad Says:

    The American “Declaration of Independence” states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. This was a revision from the original draft. The original draft read “Life, Liberty, and Property. Mr. Jefferson changed this in order to make it possible in the future to eliminate one particular “property” – slaves. This is where the founding fathers were most genius in leaving the door open to eventually abolish slavery in America. I know all the arguements against this, but they don’t change the fact that property rights are very important in America. I’m sorry Mark, but we are not the Soviet Union. You own your property and so do I. No one has the right to infringe on that.

    • markbittner Says:

      Hello Brad. I haven’t heard from you in a while. I did wonder vaguely whether this one might flush you out. I do hope you understood that this is a statement about ironies, not advocacy for the Soviet way of life. Thinking about it, I see it even more precisely as being about the contradictions inherent in speculative Western thought—whether it be Marxism, the Enlightenment, or whatever. I agree with the view that to believe in private property as something real tends to reinforce the delusion of a permanent self. While one might object that this idea comes from outside our culture, I see it as the true universal that we’re all going to have to cop to one day or another.

    • Brad Says:

      Mark, you may be right about that last part. If the world economic system melts down as indicators show, personal property will have no real value. Although I would hope we could all “just get along”, I fear Anarchy would ultimately result from such a financial collapse. I don’t know what the answer is. I do know we need to continue having discussions like this in order to give people something to think about. Be well, my friend.

    • markbittner Says:

      While we probably disagree about the causes and the cures, it looks as though we agree that there are some serious problems facing us—problems of an historical nature. Enough of us could freak out, choose anarchy, and create an extremely dangerous situation. I do see a reason to have hope, though. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about it. When I started this blog I did not foresee one particular difficulty. I’m really bugged whenever I read a book by a writer with an Internet presence and find that much or most of what he has to say is simply a regurgitation of what I’ve read online. So I always feel compelled psychologically to avoid certain topics until the book is out. My idea here (which is not really my idea) also requires a careful and deep presentation, something I don’t think blogs are good at. In any case, as I’ve said before, I think we get one more chance.

  4. JB Says:

    Who has heard about the current controversy surrounding the all-female Russian music ensemble that protested the Russian government by playing punk rock in a church as a political act? They are detained and going on trial this Friday (8/17/12) despite exercising free speech.


    Who remembers the past controversy surrounding the US California music ensemble that protested the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles outside the Staples Center? The Audience was physically intimidated and attacked.



    In my opinion, the detainment of the Russian music group is disconcerting. The result of the trial this Friday is important. The aggression of the police at the 2000 United States concert is grotesque.

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