Publisher's View: Freedom
Steven J. Moss
This year’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington reminds us of the power of protest to make progress towards equality. But marches alone are almost never enough to change things. African-Americans, Jews, gays, even environmentalists have all had to pass-through a predictable set of non-march-related challenges on the road to freedom, which transformed these peoples and movements on a similar scale as the changes they’ve made to society.
History has shown that the first step to equality is death. Thousands of blacks were lynched leading up to 1960s civil rights reforms. Silent Spring, published in 1962, documented the widespread demise of birds and other creatures from chemical contamination. Jews suffered through the Holocaust, as did gays, who were dealt another deadly blow through the HIV epidemic.
Laughter is a powerful weapon on the road to equality. Jewish comedians Groucho Marx, and Henny Youngman sparked a comic tradition that’s lasted through Seinfeld. Red Foxx paved the way for Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, who arguably did as much as Martin Lurther King to usher in black equality, but they were funnier. Ellen DeGeneres’ humor made being gay wholesome. The emergence of Muslim comics signals that greater acceptance of this group is likely a decade away.
In America, you can buy your way to freedom. Outwardly gay couples, bolstered by two-income urban households with no children, spent their way to equality over the last quarter-century. It’s hard to hate someone when they’re handing you $20 for a 1950s-era salt and pepper set that originally fetched two bits. The environmental movement has morphed into the “green” movement, referring to the plethora of consumer products and corporations touting their ecological value. The revolution will be purchased, preferably at a high mark-up.
Ultimately, to succeed, revolution has to become evolution; the movement must be mainstreamed. After World War II, Jewish children who might otherwise be named “Saul” and “Benjamin” became “Steve” and “Brian.” Chaining oneself to a tree has been replaced by purchasing chains with tree-shaped charms, with a portion of the proceeds going to an environmental charity. On the day the U.S. Supreme Court declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional, a group of celebrating gay leather daddies loudly asked an inebriated partier to stop peeing on San Francisco’s Muni tracks; a decade ago they’d all have unzipped their pants and joined in. Difference must become diffidence.
In the end, freedom’s just another word for finding a way to fit in. Protest movements, if they’re successful, get absorbed into the larger society, changing it, and being changed. Martin Luther King’s dream started as a nightmare, but ended up as a Hollywood movie. Formerly oppressed groups gain equality, but in return they have to give up some of their identity. Something precious is gained, while something invaluable is lost.
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