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Steve Weissman: Freedom's Coming, All Aboard!

Freedom's Coming, All Aboard!

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 24 March 2005

My father hated to stand in line. He wouldn't do it, he said, not even to watch the Messiah tap dance at Radio City Music Hall. And Dad loved tap dancing. A one-time night club hoofer, he could "shuffle off to Buffalo" with the best. But he never went anywhere or did anything that required waiting in line, except for one afternoon in December 1947, when he took our family to to see the Freedom Train.

For several blocks around a downtown railroad siding in our hometown of Tampa, Florida, thousands of people stood - many of them for several hours - in a seemingly endless line snaking its way back and forth for blocks. Like us, everyone had come to see a sleek diesel locomotive, painted red, white, and blue, along with several railway carriages that housed two dozen highly polished Marine guards and America's most cherished historic relics.

Still only seven years old, I could not possibly have understood most of what I saw that sunny December day. But I remember looking at the original Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, George Washington's copy of the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation, the American flag from Iwo Jima, and the German and Japanese surrender documents that ended World War II.

As corny as it sounds, my family felt grateful to be Americans and to share in the history we saw that day. Though both my parents had been born in the United States, their families had immigrated from Eastern Europe at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Had they stayed in the shtetl, the Pale of Jewish settlement from Russia and Poland to the Balkans, we knew what might have happened. The original Christian Crusaders had driven our ancestors into Eastern Europe nearly a Millenium before, and Hitler had just wiped out most of those who remained.

Even as a child, I knew the stories, shared the fears, felt the patriotic stirrings. But we felt more than gratitude about American freedom. As Jews, we were part of a tiny minority in a very Christian southern town, right on the lower fringe of the Bible belt. Our local White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or "Crackers," still ran things their way. In school and at public gatherings, we had to pray their prayers, read their New Testament, and learn to live with their dominant redneck attitudes.

All of which drew my family to one very short document - the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. I remember reading aloud the original First Amendment, which made it all right for us to stand up and object to those who tried to shove their religious or racist attitudes down our throat.

Do I make it sound like my family all had a chip on our shoulders? You're damned right we did. And the First Amendment - with its guarantee of both religious liberty and free speech - made it perfectly all right, even all-American, to wear that chip proudly.

Now long of tooth and short of hair, I still cling to this hard-edged sense of freedom. And I find it a good counterweight every time I hear President Bush try to sell one of the shabbier masquerades of his lie-lined disaster in Iraq, the completely faith-based claim that he took America to war to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East.

No one in the real world knows for sure whether the factually-challenged Mr. Bush went to war primarily to grab Iraq's oil or to please the echo in his head that he takes for the voice of his "Higher Father." He might even have believed the fables that Ahmed Chalabi and his Neocon collaborators in the Pentagon concocted about Saddam's long-gone weapons of mass destruction or never-was ties of significance to al-Qaeda terrorists. But, spin as you will, no Freedom Train ever left Bush Junction for anywhere near Baghdad.

From the start, Team Bush set out to keep Iraq's religiously-motivated Shiite majority from having, let alone winning, a one person, one vote national election. This was why the Pentagon flew in the highly secular Chalabi with fistfuls of money to pass out to tribal chiefs and other influentials, hoping he could buy his way to national legitimacy as the new Iraqi leader. It worked with Karzai in Afghanistan. Why not with Chalabi in Iraq?

When Chalabi faltered, Occupation chief Paul Bremer tried to forego national elections, restricting the franchise to members of provincial and municipal governing councils, who were largely pro-American. Think of the Iowa caucuses run by Chicago's former boss, Mayor Richard J. Daley.

That was a hard sell. The Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa that denounced Bremer's managed democracy and demanded free elections. When Bush and Bremer balked, Sistani brought thousands of protesters into the streets in January 2004. This was the true democratic moment in Iraq, with Team Bush squarely on the other side.

In the end, Sistani got his national elections, though Bush managed to hold them off for another year, largely to avoid any surprises during his own reelection campaign. The delay allowed the armed rebellion to build an even stronger following and create even greater chaos.

Mr. Bremer then imposed an interim Constitution that requires a 2/3 electoral majority to form a government, and left behind supposedly unchangeable edicts that organize almost every facet of Iraqi life to American desires. No Freedom Train need stop here.

Any final accounting remains years away. But as I have repeatedly argued in this space, the very best Mr. Bush can hope for in Iraq remains Iran-Lite, an Islamic Republic that allows elections and somewhat restrains the role of the clergy, as the aging Ayatollah Sistani seems committed to do. And even this limited, rather un-Jeffersonian, and completely unintended "victory" will require Mr. Bush to yield to Iraqi demands that he give up his Iraqi oil and military bases and forego any attack on Shiite Iran.

Journalistic deep-thinkers and Democratic Party poobahs who now applaud Mr. Bush for his fictitious contributions to freedom and democracy would do well to focus instead on these few remaining details.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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