COLUMN: Once again, freedom is tested


Albert Einstein, who knew something about how the world works, believed that freedom “is only possible by constantly struggling for it.” In our popular conception of history, many of the touchstones of that struggle are far in the past. They are in Philadelphia (1776), Yorktown (1781) and Gettysburg (1863).

Many of the more recent settings of the struggle for freedom are far away. They are in Eastern Europe -- in Budapest (1956), Prague (1968), Gdansk (1981) and, the latest, in Kyiv (2022).

Could it be that the lessons of freedom from our own founding, and from the great Civil War, have their analogues behind the old Iron Curtain? Might it be that while for generations, freedom-loving people -- whether in Selma or Capetown, or in Birmingham’s jail or South Africa’s Robben Island -- once took their inspiration from America’s difficult formative years, we in our peculiar mix of comfort and contention might look to the easternmost expanses of the European plain for fresh inspiration?

Could it be that Volodymyr Zelenskyy might be remembered as a modern Nathan Hale, regretting that he had but one life to give for his country, or that his compatriots might be recalled as modern-day Patrick Henrys, hurling into the unforgiving air oaths demanding liberty or death? Might it be that the faceless resisters to the intrigues and indignities of Vladimir Putin, their blue-and-sunshine flags unfurled, could be recalled much like Concord’s “embattled farmers,” firing their shots and hurling their Molotov cocktails heard, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “round the world”?

This month, we have been witnessing the uprising -- the upswelling of the yearning for freedom -- from, in the words Margaret Atwood employed in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “the people who were not in the papers,” those who lived “in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.” It wasn’t only those who stood and fought who made stirring statements, testimony in action of their desire for freedom. They also served who made for the borders, for theirs, too, was a solemn and unmistakable symbol of the irrepressible value of freedom.

On the other side of the border, in Poland, were scores -- hundreds, maybe more -- who offered safety and shelter. They had had their own struggle, their own Lexington and Concord, and it was the American ambassador, Mark Brzezinski -- the son of a Polish-born American national-security adviser and the grandson of a Polish diplomat -- who saw the unmistakable parallels in the struggles of Eastern Europe. “When we think of Poland,” he told the two top members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Democrat Gregory Meeks of New York and the Republican Michael McCaul of Texas, “we think of the Solidarity movement.”

In our lifetime, it repeatedly has been the Eastern Europeans who have taught us the importance of freedom, no matter how determined, how demonic, their oppressors. Rebellions spiked and died in Poland throughout the Cold War, but it was Solidarity that began the fatal crack in the Warsaw Pact.

Today, people around the world are declaring, in spirit though not in fact, that they are Ukrainians. As they do so, it is our responsibility -- a glorious burden, you might say -- to assure that in those sentiments, they are Americans as well.



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