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In freedom’s name
Songs from the heart of America?

In his nationally televised March 7 news conference with the press, President Bush continued to justify his quest for unilateral military action against Iraq in the name of preserving American freedom. He called Saadam Hussein a " direct threat " to " all free people. " He warned that if intervention is not pursued, " free nations would assume immense and unacceptable risks. " What’s at stake, Bush asked us to believe, is not the expansion and maintenance of empire or the protection of oil interests but the freedom that we have come to equate with the very idea of America. When asked a pointed question about the political arrogance his administration has demonstrated in its dealings with the UN, he brought it back to freedom. " One of the things we love in America, " he said, " is freedom. "

Bush’s reliance on freedom as a rhetorical smoke screen began in the wake of September 11. The attacks on the World Trade Center were cast in Biblical shades of Christian good and pagan evil, the home of the free attacked by freedom’s worst enemies. And it was under the banner of " freedom " that the administration began the campaign against terrorism, Operation Enduring Freedom, that quickly and quietly became the campaign against Iraq. Shock and awe soon became Operation Iraqi Freedom. Freedom, it turns out, can be very convenient.

It can also be deceiving. In the past few months, the administration has jeopardized freedom, not celebrated it. When faced with a lack of war support from Mexico, the president hinted that the decision could lead to a backlash against Mexicans akin to what he called a " backlash against the French. " Then there was the appointment of convicted felon John Poindexter to direct the newly created Information Awareness Office, which like the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security tramples civil liberties under the guise of hunting down terrorists. Not to mention attacking affirmative action on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, or the Supreme Court’s upholding life imprisonment for shoplifters under California’s " three strikes " law.

Despite all this, back in January, to help market Bush as the freedom president, PBS began airing the eight-hour series Freedom: A History of US. Hosted by Katie Couric and " featuring a who’s who of Hollywood superstars, " the series is a history of freedom in America based on Joy Hakim’s acclaimed classroom textbook of the same name. Yet in the hands of the series’s producers, it became an ad for the Bush administration. In fact, the series is framed by a September 11 discussion and introduced by the president and the first lady themselves.

The three-CD, 67-song set that accompanies the series, Freedom: Songs from the Heart of America (Columbia/Legacy), has a harder time selling freedom with a straight face. Sure, there’s track after track of the expected flag wavers: " Yankee Doodle, " " My Country ’Tis of Thee, " " Stars and Stripes Forever. " And there’s tons of cash-register filler (do we need to hear James Taylor doing " Hard Times " ?). But Freedom the soundtrack begins with freedom as a wish (Nina Simone’s " I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free " ) and ends with freedom as an unfulfilled promise (Donny Hathaway’s " Someday We Will All Be Free " ). In both cases, freedom is not a given; it has yet to be delivered. " I wish I could break all the chains holding me, " Simone sings. " I wish I could say all the things I should say. "

The set also includes Mahalia Jackson’s " I’m On My Way, " where freedom can’t be found in this world, and Billie Holiday’s " Strange Fruit, " where freedom hangs from a Southern tree. The presence of black protest music throughout Freedom — bumping against old minstrel numbers like " Dixie " — reminds us that, since the nation’s founding, freedom in America has always been accompanied by its double, slavery. Unfortunately, with the sole exception of Living Coloür’s " Open Letter (To a Landlord), " Freedom’s embrace of the critiques that black music offers stops with the post-civil-rights era. Hip-hop, the one form of pop music that in the past two decades has most consistently disrupted the pleasant harmonies of the " singing nation " Hakim describes in her liner notes, is nowhere to be found.

In fact, though it was conceived in the wake of a contemporary event, Freedom suggests that contemporary musicians have nothing to say about freedom or Bush’s manipulation of it to wage war. Springsteen is here, but he’s singing ’60s Dylan ( " Chimes of Freedom " ). And the most obvious pop protest voices of our day — Rage Against the Machine, Michael Franti, Ani DiFranco, Michelle Shocked, Ozomatli — are absent. Freedom leaves the present silent at a time when the present needs to be loud. Amid the din of war, the voices of presidents and press secretaries and newscasters — the voices that hawk freedom in order not to practice it — must not be the only voices we hear.

Issue Date: April 10 - 17, 2003
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