It's my second glorious day with 16 beautiful souls in the Orff Institute Special Course in Salzburg. Five from Iran, three from Colombia, three from Turkey and one each from China, Canada, U.S., Finland and Czech Republic. Today when we were supposed to be playing “Roses Are Red” on the xylophones, we stumbled into a conversation about what’s going on in the U.S. and the world. Students from China, Iran and Turkey reaffirmed what I already knew. That right now in their country, if they spoke out critiquing the government the way I do in my Facebook posts, blogs, T-shirts I wear, classes with kids, comments in workshops, I would be in jail.
I don’t feel that as some might, as another pat on the back that the good ole U.S.A. is the land of the free. But I do recognize that such free speech has been a fairly constant freedom— in the press, in songwriting, in novels and poems, in speeches and lectures. And I appreciate that.
There have been many ways that people who say unpopular truths can be and have been punished in our culture’s history— the McCarthy hearings, murders and assassinations, people losing their jobs or being ostracized in their communities. But I don’t believe there has been a time in the past century when the powers-that-be officially banned free speech, took completely control of the media, dictated what artists could or could not say and openly imprisoned or executed those who dared to question and critique. And that’s at least a sign that there is perpetual hope that others might eventually actually listen and be educated to consider another point of view from the ruling party’s line.
So if this level of free speech is a privilege, then it also is our responsibility to use it and use it wisely. If my constant humanitarian comments often called “political” are tiring or wearisome or tedious or predictable or boring to some, I apologize only for rendering them ineffective by too much exposure. But I feel more motivated than ever to speak on behalf of justice and healing and beauty and genuine freedom in whatever forms and opportunities present themselves and would be shirking my duty as a citizen to shut up just because I’m afraid I’d offend or bore someone who would rather hear about the great restaurant I went to.
I continue to be mightily impressed by these folks from these countries, people who don’t have the freedom to speak as openly in their country, but carry in their actions and private conversations a high level of care and concern. Shame on us who have the freedom to move the needle of justice further to “go” and don’t take advantage of it. What's the point of free speech if we don't have anything intelligent or kind to say?
And some deep talk with a woman from Iran about my perception that the people I’ve met from her country seem untouched by their society’s limitations. Though their law narrows the choices of a woman’s personhood to a small slice of their full possibility, but when they leave the country to be somewhere like Salzburg, that freedom they feel inside instantly blossoms. I think that’s extraordinary. I think of the Yeats’ poem, about the courage and awareness necessary to escape other people’s defiling definition of you:
The finished man among his enemies?
How in the name of Heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape?
In a land of free speech, it feels like some people are less free than some of their counterparts in Turkey, Iran, China and other places where such speech is limited and controlled. I don’t know how, but there is some level of education, of culture, of hard heart-work that goes on in these places to produce people of strong moral fiber, artistic sensibility, humor and capacity for love. At least the ones I’ve met.
Of course, it’s simplistic to generalize, but all I can do here is speak from my experience and offer my deep respect and admiration and friendship with these folks. I’m honored to know them. Meanwhile, America, let’s step up to free speech and use it to revive culture, tell truth, educate the ignorant, resist the unjust policies rolling out of Washington like a flurry of bowling balls determined to knock down the pins of democracy.
And in case you’re wondering, we did play “Roses are red” and when we got to “sugar is sweet, and so are you!”, I pointed to each of them and meant it.