Battle of Lexington, William Barns Wollen
The Battle of Lexington, Oil on canvas by William Barns Wollen, painting from 1910 depicting the battle that took place in 1775. Photo credit: National Army Museum / Wikimedia

On July 4, let's pause to get our priorities right

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As we celebrate freedom July 4, we also tacitly celebrate the freedom to not worry about our freedom.

These days, more than I can ever recall in my lifetime, we can no longer afford that. The forces of repression are on the march, and they’re coming for us. 

At various times, it makes me physically ill, exhausts me, paralyzes me to see what is happening to our country. 

Most of all, though, it makes me want to climb up the ramparts and scream, “Don’t you get it? Stop with the nonsense! Stop going about your business! Everything about your life is at stake!” 

People are working night and day to destroy our democracy. All kinds of people. Rough, violent people. The kind who stormed the Capitol, and are now sending out death threats… And even more dangerous are the ones in nice suits, raising money for politicians and “justices” who, being in lockstep with the most dangerous figure in our history, have come to regard democracy not as a treasure worth defending but as an irritating impediment.

This is an emergency. A crisis. A break-the-glass moment. And what are we doing about it?  

Even though a real urgency compels daily action, I just don’t see any such urgency expressed in the words and activities of most people. 

I do see action, but it’s mostly on issues that, while they no doubt matter, do not address the core of what is happening to America. 

As I go about my life, I make a point of listening to what people are talking about. Here’s what I hear: Sports. Weather (though not climate change). Their personal lives. Investments and purchases. Entertainment and gossip. Any and every inconvenience and distraction. 

What I don’t hear is what I heard from people elsewhere who knew they were right at the center of a cataclysm, and that they had to do something. They had to say something. They had to show some profound awareness that they, as part of a larger body politic, were personally in crisis. 

I experienced this powerful sensation a number of times in my career as a reporter. 

I remember being in East Berlin in 1989 when the Wall was still up, but cracks in the totalitarian facade had begun to appear. I remember riding a bus in the communist enclave when someone in a face mask got on and hurriedly handed out flyers calling for people to go into the streets. A secret meeting was held in the home of a pastor; ordinary citizens trying to figure out what came next. 

I remember experiencing the same thing a few months later while covering the uprising against the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. I was driving through the countryside toward the capital as a battle raged between forces loyal to the Supreme Leader aka “The Shoemaker” and those who had turned against him. My car slid off an icy road into a ditch. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, there emerged from the deep fog a sturdy peasant couple in a horse-drawn wagon. They dismounted, hooked up the car, and — knowing I was there to tell their story to the world — pulled me back on the road, and wished me well. A few days later, I was driven at high speed from one city to another by a professional race car driver for a critical interview with dissidents. 

In Burundi, a small African country, I walked through a charnel house with an official whose own parents had been slaughtered by their neighbors — among thousands killed based on rumors, and government-incited hatred between ethnic Hutu and Tutsi. Nobody there was wondering what to do for the weekend.    

Currently, of course, we gawk from afar at the tragedies Gazans and Ukrainians cope with every day. It’s what they live with. It’s what they talk about. 

What I see here, in the US, even among the most knowledgeable and informed… is concern and anguish, but largely on a par with how they experience the tedious aspects of life — flight delays, job dissatisfaction, annoying people. 

That’s not to suggest we do not need to live, that we do not need to maintain balance and sanity in our lives, for our own good, and to sustain our ability to power through this dark time. 

But, unless there is more urgency, more willingness to sacrifice, and to step up, we’ll all end up looking back at this time and saying, “If only….”  

Most of you are not in government or journalism, where at least we can take some obvious actions, including raising the alarm. So what can you do? 

To be sure, none of us is in a position to single-handedly save the day, but what’s needed is not individual heroics but a cumulative, cascade effect. We all have to inform ourselves and reach out to others who may not know — who may not yet care. 

Every mind we change could make a big difference, given this extraordinary situation: Our entire future is about to be decided by just a few people in just a few swing states, people who still aren’t sure what to think, or whom to trust. 

And sure, this is about resources, too. The jackboot supply is increasingly well-provisioned. Can’t we all do a lot more for the side fighting for everyone’s rights and lives? 

Now is an exhausting and dispiriting time. It is also a time when we all have no choice but to replenish our spirit, quickly, and go into battle before it is lost. Two hundred and forty eight years after our forebears stood up to bullies in the war for independence, can’t we do the same? 

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  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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