|Uniting to Defend the Four Freedoms |
By Chip Berlet
[This essay was written in April 1995, the day after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh, a neonazi trying to mobilize the right-wing Patriot Movement into an armed insurrection. McVeigh failed, but killed 168 people in the process. Minor revisions have been made over time. The original version appears in Eye’s Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, Boston: South End Press, 1995.]
We all need to spend some time considering how best to defend liberty
and freedom, and what unites us as a nation concerned with democratic
values. In doing so, we need to commit to a process that respects civil
liberties, and civil rights, and civil discourse.
The armed militia members claim to defend liberty and freedom. They
claim to be the new patriot movement, harkening back to the Minutemen
who resisted government tyranny at Concord Bridge and Lexington Green.
What happened at Waco to the Branch Davidians, and at Ruby Ridge to the
Weaver family, must be condemned, but opposition to excessive force by
government agents does not imply we should seek alliances with right-wing
populists simply because they criticize the government. Militia zealots
conflate real acts of repression and injustice with their fantastic conspiratorial
scapegoats. Such movements quickly can swing far to the right with murderous
consequences, as those who fought fascism in Europe can explain in horrifying
My Dad wouldn't talk with me about World War II except to say it was
brutal and bloody and that he lost many friends. So when he swapped war
stories in the basement with his drinking buddies, I would sit in the
dark at the top of the stairs and listen.
I learned how his hands and feet had been frostbitten during the Battle
of the Bulge, and that one of his Bronze Star citations was for taking
out a Nazi machine gun nest. He thought the Germans were decent people
whose big mistake was not standing up to the thugs like the Brownshirts
who broke the windows of Jewish-owned stores on Kristalnacht. As I remembered
this, I watched mountains of broken glass being swept up in Oklahoma
City as the death count rose.
News of the bombing reached our family on vacation in coastal Georgia.
I had been writing about the historic and social roots of the militia
movement and, after visiting a museum preserving a former rice plantation,
had talked with my son about how the Ku Klux Klan had formed as a militia
during the economic and cultural turmoil following the Civil War. I had
little doubt that the blast was somehow linked to the armed militia movement.
Reports of the carnage at the Oklahoma City federal building, the selfless
efforts of rescue crews, and the horror of even some militia members,
mingled eerily with stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of the
end of World War II in Europe and the 20th anniversary of the end of
the Vietnam War. I found history lessons connecting these events in an
old brass-bound wooden chest, inherited after we buried my Dad at Arlington
Cemetery 20 years ago. Inside were brittle photos of a young lieutenant,
a dried flower sent to my Mom from "somewhere in Belgium," crumbling
newspaper clippings on the fighting near Bastogne, and a leather case
filled with war medals.
Like many White Christians in the late 1950s, Dad held stereotyped views
about Blacks and Jews. His actions spoke differently, though, and were
the durable lesson. When neighbors in Hackensack, New Jersey, told him
that our town was not ready for the Little League team he coached--with
a Black player, a Jewish player, and a Jewish assistant coach--Dad simply
said he had picked the best, and shut the door. He told me he had seen
Jews and Blacks die along with everyone else fighting the Nazis; then
he pointedly invited the entire team and their families to our yard for
a very public picnic. Later, the stones crashing through our windows
at night merely hardened his resolve.
In the 1960s we moved up the commuter rail line to Hillsdale, New Jersey.
My brother went to military school and played in the marching band. In
college he was sports editor of the campus newspaper and joined ROTC.
After graduation he shipped out to fight in Vietnam. I went to church
coffee houses and marched with the civil rights movement. In college
I edited the campus newspaper and joined the anti-war movement. After
the killings at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970, I editorialized
in favor of a student strike.
The next year, after a commemoration of Kent and Jackson, a professor
sent me his Korean war medals as an act of protest against our government's
policies. He felt a need to stand up, and his conscience told him that "it
is all of us that are guilty--we who sit there and do nothing." We
sent the newspaper with a story about the medals to the printers, then
I sat up all night trying to unravel conflicting emotions over family
expectations, my hope for my brother's safe return from war, career plans,
and what my personal moral obligations demanded of me, given my views
about peace and social justice. When morning came, I quietly joined other
anti-war protestors and engaged in my first act of non-violent civil
disobedience at a federal building near Denver.
My Dad was Grand Marshall of Hillsdale's Memorial Day parade. When a
tiny peace group in the early 1970s asked to participate, it created
a furor. Dad was a lifelong Republican, pro-war, and anti-communist,
and his idea of America came right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
He told the town officials that if the peace marchers followed the rules,
they were entitled to march. And they did. Mom told me he came home from
the debate shaking his head, asking how people could forget those who
gave their lives to defend such rights.
Reunited as a family one Thanksgiving, we all toasted my brother's safe
return from Vietnam with the crystal wine glasses my father brought back
from Germany. It was a mirrored tableau of Rockwell's "Freedom From
Want," a painting of a family sharing abundant food. The "Four
Freedoms" series appeared as Saturday Evening Post covers during
World War II; and as corny and steeped in stereotyping as they were,
the theme helped unify and rally our nation at a time of crisis. Sure,
politicians had other more cynical and pragmatic justifications for the
war, but most Americans were willing to fight because they believed in
the four freedoms.
Years later, battling cancer, my Dad was determined to don his uniform
one last time on Memorial Day. As I helped him dress, I asked him about
the war. His only reply was to hand me one of his medals. Inscribed on
the back were the words "Freedom from Fear and Want. Freedom of
Speech, and Religion." The four freedoms. My Dad fought fascism
to defend these freedoms, not just for himself, but for people of different
religions and races, people he disagreed with. . .even people he was
Today, the four freedoms that millions fought to defend are under attack--in
part because we forget why people fought World War II, we deny what led
to the Holocaust, we fail to live up to the promise of the civil rights
movement, and we refuse to heal the wounds of the Vietnam War era.
Freedom of speech needs to be defended because democracy depends on
a public dialogue to build informed consent. This is impossible when
the public conversation--from armed militia members to talk-show hosts
to mainstream politicians--is typified by shouting, falsehoods, and scapegoating.
The Nazi death camps proved that hateful speech linked to conspiracy
myths can lead to violence and murder. The solution is not censorship,
but citizenship--people need to stand up and speak out in public against
the bigots and bullies.
Democracy works. The formula for democracy is
The majority of people,
given access to enough accurate information, and the ability to participate in a free and open debate, reach decisions that will benefit the whole of society, preserve liberty, extend equality, protect freedom, and defend democracy.
Thus democracy depends on ensuring freedom of speech. That same freedom, however, can be used to unravel democracy and civil society.
Freedom from fear is manipulated by those demanding laws that would
undermine freedom of speech. The same agencies that spied on the civil
rights and anti-war movements are again peddling the false notion that
widespread infiltration of social movements is effective in stopping
terrorism. Meanwhile, demagogues fan the flames of fear to urge passage
of even more authoritarian crime control measures--while doing little
to find real societal solutions that would bring freedom from fear to
Freedom of religion is twisted by those seeking to make their private
religious views into laws governing the public. But it is also abused
by liberal critics who patronize sincere religious belief as ignorance,
and litter the landscape with hysterical and divisive direct mail caricaturing
all religious conservatives as zealots. Freedom of religion means we
must have a serious debate on the issues with our devout neighbors, while
condemning the theocrats who claim to speak for God as they pursue secular
Freedom from want has been shoved aside in a mean-spirited drive to
punish the hungry, the poor, the children, the elderly, the disabled,
the infirm, the homeless, the disenfranchised.
For many in our country, the four freedoms remain only a dream, but
at least in 1945 it was a dream worth fighting for. How many of us today
are willing to stop shouting and just talk with each other about how
best our nation can defend the four freedoms?
Formula for Democracy
The majority of people,
given access to enough accurate information,
and the ability to participate in a free and open debate,
reach decisions that will:
benefit the whole of society,
protect freedom, and
Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, is co-author
with Matthew N. Lyons of
Right –Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, (New York: Guilford Press, 2000). A shorter version of this essay was circulated to newspapers
by the Progressive Media Project. © 1995, Chip Berlet.