Lady Freedom Amoung Us

Lady Freedom Among Us

Lessons in the Retrieval of Democracy and Freedom

(Introduction to Messages of Freedom: Interviews with Nobel Peace Laureates Aung San Suu Kyi, Jose Ramos-Horta, and the Dalai Lama for Kyoto Seika University’s 30th anniversary, Kyoto Seika University, March 1999).

In her poem, “Lady Freedom Among Us”, Rita Dove writes about the statue of “Freedom” that sits atop the US Congress building. In 1993, as a somewhat reluctant Poet Laureate of the United States, Dove was asked to write a poem commemorating the restoration of the huge sculpture, which, in a typical nineteenth century European image, renders freedom as a woman.

Looking at the effects on the statue of a century’s exposure to the more vile aspects of Washington’s physical and moral atmosphere, Dove imagines the figure of Lady Freedom as a bag lady, a representative of the global underclass to be met by most of us with eyes averted: “oh no, not another one, get a job, fly a kite, go bury a bone”. But Dove’s Lady Freedom “has risen among us in blunt reproach”, bearing “the rainbowed layers of charity”, and murmuring “all of you, even the least of you”.

Assuming “the thick skin of this town, its gritted exhaust, its sunscorch and blear”, Lady Freedom, obstinately “will not retire politely to the potter’s field”, the grave for the nameless poor. “Don’t think you can ever forget her, don’t even try, she’s not going to budge.” We have, Dove argues, “no choice but to grant her space, crown her with sky, for she is one of the many, and she is each of us”.

Dove took a great risk to write about freedom in Washington – the capital of that Janus-faced country that Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”. The violence endured by the people’s of East Timor Tibet and Myanmar was the product of the Cold War, and beyond that the willingness of the great powers in these cases the United States, China and Japan – by and large to allow each other the right to organize the internal affairs of their empires as they saw fit.

Dove’s demand for recognition of the persistence of freedom’s call, even in the heart of empire, helps us to think about the difficulties faced by freedom and democracy today. Listening, after Dove, to the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Jose Ramos-Horta, speaking of the appalling repression faced by the peoples of Tibet, Myanmar, and East Timor, what strikes one immediately is extraordinary resilience of hope amongst the oppressed, the fierceness with which the peoples of those countries – and many others – have resisted the demand that they abandon hope, and have kept alive the thought that freedom is a realizable possibility.

Critics of freedom and democracy are never tired – why should they be, when the benefits of a silenced majority for the powerful few are so great? But recently, they have been more noisy than usual. Leaders of many East and Southeast states have labelled “democracy” and “human rights” the products of a false universalism, the relics of Eurocentric colonialist thinking. In a postcolonial age, they argue, the indigenous cultures of which they are the authentic and responsible leaders will generate new political ideals that transcend the limitations and cant of democratic thought that had its origins in European history. Hence Lee Kuan Yew’s “Confucian Way” in Singapore, Mahathir’s “Look East” from Malaysia, Sitavini Rambuka’s “Pacific Way” in Fiji, Soeharto’s “floating mass” concept in Indonesia (i.e. no political role for the people). And throughout the region, in Japan, China, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, and Singapore, the air the politicians breathe seems to naturally give rise to political formulations framed in terms of the maintenance of order and harmony – order in a form that they in particular find agreeable, and a sense of harmony apparent only to them.

And as the movements for resistance in Tibet, East Timor and Myanmar make perfectly clear, this is self-serving hypocrisy. Through their resilience in the face of terrible repression all three resistance movements have demonstrated the adherence of very large numbers of people in these countries to an idea of freedom which is at the same time as firmly rooted in their daily lives and thought as it is universally recognizable.

Democracy is not the totality of freedom, but it is certainly its elementary pre-requisite. Freedom, in its various aspects, is a matter of the possibilities that exist in our relations with others. Or we might say, the possibilities that are allowed to exist, or more accurately still, the possibilities that have been fought for by other people in generations past. It is virtually impossible to think of a single “human right” under law that was not established as the result of fierce struggle against powerful interests. Even granting the severe limitations of “democracy” as understood by our present institutions of congresses and presidents, parliaments and prime ministers, constitutions and courts, we need to remember how recent is the achievement of even the right to vote. Before 1946 women in Japan could not vote. Before 1965 Aboriginal Australians had virtually no civil rights. Before the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, millions of African Americans had no practical right to vote. And lest we congratulate ourselves for living in such an enlightened age, we should remember that in many advanced capitalist countries in the 1980s and 1990s the established rights of citizens in areas such as the right to strike and the right to sue corporations for damages has been progressively rolled back in the “national economic interest”. In America, the home of the free, a country with, all irony apart, an extraordinary level of achievement in establishing a certain level of processual democracy, most of the population cannot be persuaded it is worth their while to vote. In Japan, with a far more limited constitutional commitment to processual democracy, the story is the same.

If we try to meet the challenge Dove offers, of looking Lady Freedom with eyes open, then we have to realize that the challenge is a profound one. The examples of East Timor, Myanmar and Tibet, amongst many appalling possible examples, make clear the gap between the rhetoric of freedom and democracy that is the staple of public life, and the reality of the subordination of human dignity to raison d’etat – the phrase that the Russian anarchist thinker Kropotkin rightly called the most terrifying of political terms. Yet, for all their awfulness, there is at least some hope in each of these cases.

Urgent as are the calls from these oppressed countries, Dove’s challenge runs deeper in this globalizing world. This is the challenge to re-invent, or if you like, re-vision democracy and freedom. Crudely put, the most important challenges are three-fold.

The first challenge is rooted in the very nature of the liberal democracies that originated in Europe and North America two centuries ago. These systems of regulation of state power sit uneasily beside a second system of power – the largely unregulated powers of actors in markets. The greater part of the decisions that shape the lives of most people are not made in parliaments, but in the board rooms of giant private corporations. Towns, even cities, may flourish or die as a consequence of the decisions of corporations to allocate or withdraw investment, but such corporations are responsible only to their owners, not to citizens. And meaningful ownership of productive wealth in advanced economies is limited to an infinitesimal percentage of the population. Liberal democracies, for all their substantial achievements in limiting the arbitrary power of the state, are almost by definition, powerless in the face of this double system of power. Regulation of private economic power, remains the first challenge for democrats.

The second challenge flows from the dramatic mismatch between the national character of democratic states based on 200 year-old political theory , and increasingly the transnational character of the most significant forms of economic and political power. Transnational corporations allocate capital and labour, and plan market control on a global basis, without any requirement of concern for or consultation with the citizens of the countries affected. In the world of “casino capitalism”, 24 hour electronic global capital markets shift previously unimaginable volumes of capital around the world, overwhelmingly remaining in a given country for a matter of days, to reap the benefits of speculation – without the slightest ability of the national government concerned to control the impact on its citizens. And inter-governmental bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization immediately and directly determine the framework of economic possibilities for all, yet their governing bodies are structured to exclude even the pretence of democratic citizen access, let alone control. The second challenge for democrats is to invent institutions of global democracy. We can be sure that if the peoples of the world cannot imagine new systems of democratic regulation of power, the powerful of the world will produce their own even more oppressive versions of global government.

The third challenge brings us back to the murmurings of Lady Freedom, and to the appeals to the world from the Dalai Lama, Jose Ramos-Horta, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Representatives of movements for freedom of nations, they are appealing to all of us as citizens of the world. We may not be citizens of Myanmar, China or East Timor, and we may have no experience of the lives of the peoples of those countries, and we may share little by way of formal religious or cultural experience. And yet there is in their words and way of thinking an assumption of a shared responsibility for life, a shared understanding of basic rights of survival.

We cannot yet talk meaningfully of global citizenship, and there may be much to fear from alienated membership of a corporate or totalitarian version of “global government”. Yet surely acknowledgement of that shared assumption in the undramatic and often tedious practical politics of support for basic civil and political rights of oppressed peoples in other lands is evidence of a first movement towards a moral and political community not defined by a shared national history or culture.

Politics is a matter of struggle and imagination, of invention on the run: these interviews remind us that we have “no choice but to grant her space, crown her with sky”.


Rita Dove

don’t lower your eyes
or stare straight ahead to where
you think you ought to be going

don’t mutter oh no
not another one
get a job fly a kite
go bury a bone

with her oldfashioned sandals
with her leaden skirts
with her stained cheeks and whiskers and heaped up trinkets
she has risen among us in blunt reproach

she has fitted her hair under a hand-me-down cap
and spruced it up with feathers and stars
slung over one shoulder she bears
the rainbowed layers of charity and murmurs
all of you even the least of you

don’t cross to the other side of the square
don’t think another item to fit on a tourist’s agenda

consider her drenched gaze her shining brow
she who has brought mercy back into the streets
and will not retire politely to the potter’s field

having assumed the thick skin of this town
its gritted exhaust its sunscorch and blear
she rests in her weathered plumage
bigboned resolute

don’t think you can ever forget her
don’t even try
she’s not going to budge

no choice but to grant her space
crown her with sky
for she is one of the many
and she is each of us