By Kelly Jean Cogswell
I was still in upstate New York last week, and spent Sunday counting flags on the five mile walk into town. I lost track pretty quickly because the rarity along the road was the house with no stars, and no stripes hanging from a pole.
Maybe they wanted to make sure I knew I was in America, and not Canada or France. Maybe they wanted to proudly trumpet their identity. Which is really a no brainer since they're doing it in their own country.
Probably the flags were supposed to be proud reminders of the American heritage of liberty and freedom and equality. Which gave rise to thoughts about just what "equal" means in America. Your legal status? A moral or technical equivalent? How do you judge? Is it the ultimate yardstick?
In a column a couple of days before September 11th, Roger Cohen seemed to equate the World Trade Center bombing with the Holocaust when he asserted that putting an Islamic Cultural Center a couple blocks away from the WTC site (in an enormous city where you won't even be able to see the damn thing) was exactly like slapping down a bunch of crosses at a concentration camp.
Yes, he implied two and a half thousand dead in a horrible attack was the same as the systematic genocide of seven million. Is it really? In all senses? Or was the comparison just another perversion of our desire for "equality"?
We can't stand to be anything but equal, even in the scope of our suffering. Minorities argue over who's more oppressed. Angry White Men who first felt entitled to complain about being deprived of their crappy jobs by women, now moan about being deprived of their presidency by a Black terrorist Muslim fink. God knows we can't have our September tragedy overshadowed by a bunch of dead European Jews. Yes, Cohen is a Jewish Brit, but even with him, as a transplanted New Yorker, it's America first.
I wonder what will happen to the Gays when they finally get theirs. The day when we'll be considered full and equal citizens is approaching fast. Just last week, a federal judge ruled the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy was unconstitutional. We'll see if it stands, like the ruling overturning the ban on same-sex marriage in California. And for years gay men have had the right to screw without getting arrested for sodomy.
When there are no laws against us, will we fall into the American habit of using equality to absolve us of our social responsibilities and debts? No one above or beneath us. No one even supporting us at our sides. In short, will equality be a moral and emotional trap?
I hadn't thought about it in precisely that way until my girlfriend started reading Tocqueville aloud when we were upstate and without a TV. In his musings on democracy, he warns how easy it is for tyrants to take advantage of a population that values equality as much, or more, than liberty. Fellow citizens become competitors for rights. They are isolated from their neighbors, content as long as they feel equal to the joneses, even if it just means they're equally miserable. I can't have anything to eat, neither can you, comrade. Dulled with equality, they ignore the despot at the top.
My girlfriend thought of Cuba. I thought about Bush the Second who made jokes and slapped his fellow citizens on their equal backs as he started wars, and unleashed his cronies on the environment and financial system. I also thought about queers. As our sense of equality increases, we become more conformist, and less community-minded. Our desire for liberty fades.
Being free is the only thing I've ever wanted. Not the easy freedom that leaves you unmoored and irresponsible as a child, but the kind that gives you an unfenced mind, allows you to choose and to act, to take your place in society, seizing it by force if you have to.
Equality's an illusion, anyway. Laws depend on enforcement, as I've said before. And laws, rightly so, only govern part of our lives. In America, social equality has degenerated into the mantras, "we're as good as anybody else," and "we don't owe nobody nuttin.'" Even if the government fixes our roads, subsidizes the community colleges our children go to, and builds the old age homes we stick our elders in, we still oughta defund the bastards. Screw the feds.
We imagine we don't need them. Or anybody. Reality doesn't come into it. Having won equality at great cost, we pull up the drawbridge, and alternate a conspicuous gloating with the fear that somebody will come to steal it. With a flag flying over it, every home is a vulnerable and isolated fort.