Last week I walked the Freedom Trail with my cousin. It’s one of the best tourist walking routes I’ve seen, because it combines a high density of sites relevant to an interesting period of history with lots of beautiful buildings, and much of it is through parts of Boston that have a lot of modern life to them too. It’s also an excellent place to think about the mythos and reality of this country.
For a long time, especially my first few years living in the U.S., I despised all of the “rah rah freedom” rhetoric that I kept hearing. It reminded me of the unhelpful nonsense of American exceptionalism, and more than that of how far short we fall from actually fulfilling the haughty promises of the Revolution, more than 2 centuries since. I’ve never stopped being disappointed in the gap between national self-image and reality, but for various reasons I’ve come to see the rhetoric as a good thing in itself. As my own relationship with this country has matured, I’ve started seeing that rhetoric as an opportunity to push ourselves to do—to be—better. Part of this for me has been wholeheartedly embracing the stated ideals of the Revolution, and recognising its huge historical importance as a demonstration to the world that an alternative to monarchy was even possible, while regarding it as painfully unfinished business. Walking the Freedom Trail was a perfect illustration, particularly in two ways.
The first is clearly intentional. If you start at the USS Constitution or Bunker Hill, and follow the trail into town, its last landmark is the Massachusetts State House. In front of the State House is a large monument to the 54th Regiment – the first detachment of African American soldiers to fight alongside whites in the Civil War.
From here, the Black Heritage Trail picks up, and we followed it through a neighbourhood where many fugitive slaves settled between Massachusetts’ abolition of slavery and the Civil War. Massachusetts actually abolished slavery fairly soon after U.S. independence, on the grounds that it was incompatible with the Constitution’s promises of liberty & equality, so it became a base for escaped slaves, abolitionists and Underground Railroad safe houses. The trail takes in various sites relevant to this history, and does feel like an appropriate continuation of the Freedom Trail’s work, but it stops before the 20th Century. It inevitably ignores the still unequal, still not fully free state of African Americans today. I don’t want to sidetrack into writing about that, not least because it’s not my own story, but if you think the business of liberating black Americans is finished, please watch Ta-Nehisi Coates’s talk about this as history and present:
Yeah, it’s a 40-minute video, and some of it’s a bit rambling, but I am asking you as a personal favour to me: if you think this job is done, take the time and watch that talk. Actually you should watch it whatever you believe, because his thoughts about why this is so, what else is wrong with our country, and how to reconcile all that with the ways the U.S. is good, lovable and admirable at the same time, are brilliant.
The other unavoidable signal of unfinished business was that on the same day we walked the Freedom Trail, a secure email service shut down under government pressure. It was a reminder of the ongoing crackdown on whistleblowing, and of the domestic spying scandal that our government seems determined to silence by intimidation, rather than addressing the issues raised in any way. I see a government becoming increasingly paranoid, and afraid of its own people; a government that treats public criticism and alternative ideas as a threat; a government that targets my peers for investigation because of their political organising. I think about the revolutionaries, and all they achieved not only in the U.S. but for the whole world. And I ask myself: if King George had anything like the modern panopticon, could the Revolution have happened? Now that we do have such things, are we immunising society against the next great idea that we need as badly as the world needed the overthrow of monarchies back then?
It’s not as if we get to rest on our laurels. The systems we’ve used to organise our society are killing us, and we have to do better. But Churchill was right that all the other systems we have yet tried are worse, so we need new ideas at just the time when our institutions are fortifying themselves against them. I’m not using “our systems are killing us” metaphorically—for just a couple of examples look at health outcomes and life expectancy within the U.S., or how we are globally trashing our own food supply—we are literally destroying lives today and diminishing future generations’ capacity to exist.
This is no time for caution. This is to be or not to be. And the very government that is supposed to be keeping us safe is doing all it can to resist change, while spouting the same rhetoric about freedom that it picked up from a band of revolutionaries.