Freedom's Just Another Word
I would have never thought to do this myself when I was back in college but I had appointed one of my closest friends, Stephen, a gay guy, head of the Student Activities Board's hospitality committee. I was the chairman of the whole thing. I had booked Janis Joplin shortly before her death. (Small tangent: many young artists we booked to play concerts-- Janis, Jimi Hendrix, Tim Buckley, Otis Redding, Jim Morrison-- played and died soon after.) Anyway, I was transfixed by Janis' passionate, riveting performance. At the end of the show Stephen ran over to me and handed my a gorgeous bouquet of roses and said "Go up on stage and give these to her." I was so stoned but I understood he was making sense, so I did. Like I said, it's not the kind f thing I would have ever thought of but I learned a good lesson from Stephen and I did it countless times as my life unfolded and I made my career in the music business. What made me think about Janis just now, though, was a song she didn't write but became a #1 hit after she died, "Me And Bobby McGee" (as did Otis Redding's Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay.) Listen to Janis performing it at Woodstock in 1969:
Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose
Nothin', it ain't nothin' honey, if it ain't free
Anyone under 30 in the early 1970s could have sung those lines. And although conservatives were not part of the cultural revolution that was taking place, eventually they were dragged into it, sometimes kicking and screaming-- the long hair, the pot, the pre-martital sex and, of course the music. (The anti-racism they never did quite got to.)
Having spent a great deal of time in places where there was no freedom the way we think of freedom-- like communistic eastern European countries Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany, Hungary-- as well as places like Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Palestine, Egypt, Russia, I think about what freedom means frequently. It meant one thing when I was a nihilistic kid listening to Janis Joplin and something different when I was trying to sleep last night as L.A. exploded into an orgy of fireworks and gunshot after the Rams won the Super Bowl. Their freedom to set off (illegal) fireworks and (illegally) fire guns trumped my freedom to go to sleep early enough so I could get up in time and well-rested enough to write in the morning. Not a big deal.
What if my neighbor, in the drought-stricken, bone-dry park we live in insists on lighting camp fires? Someone burned their whole neighborhood down not far from here last year. And what if someone comes into the grocery store without a mask I because... freedom? Hers, not everyone else's freedom to stay safe.
Yesterday Paul Krugman took it up in his NY Times column, When 'Freedom' Means The Right To Destroy. "On Sunday," he wrote, "the Canadian police finally cleared away anti-vaccine demonstrators who had been blocking the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, a key commercial route that normally carries more than $300 million a day in international trade. Other bridges are still closed, and part of Ottawa, the Canadian capital, is still occupied. The diffidence of Canadian authorities in the face of these disruptions has been startling to American eyes. Also startling, although not actually surprising, has been the embrace of economic vandalism and intimidation by much of the U.S. right-- especially by people who ranted against demonstrations in favor of racial justice. What we’re getting here is an object lesson in what some people really mean when they talk about 'law and order.' Let’s talk about what has been happening in Canada and why I call it vandalism."
I'll get back to Krugman in a moment, but this is my idea of law and order:
The “Freedom Convoy” has been marketed as a backlash by truckers angry about Covid-19 vaccination mandates. In reality, there don’t seem to have been many truckers among the protesters at the bridge (about 90 percent of Canadian truckers are vaccinated). Last week a Bloomberg reporter saw only three semis among the vehicles blocking the Ambassador Bridge, which were mainly pickup trucks and private cars; photos taken Saturday also show very few commercial trucks.
The Teamsters union, which represents many truckers on both sides of the border, has denounced the blockade.
So this isn’t a grass-roots trucker uprising. It’s more like a slow-motion Jan. 6, a disruption caused by a relatively small number of activists, many of them right-wing extremists. At their peak, the demonstrations in Ottawa reportedly involved only around 8,000 people, while numbers at other locations have been much smaller.
Despite their lack of numbers, however, the protesters have been inflicting a remarkable amount of economic damage. The U.S. and Canadian economies are very closely integrated. In particular, North American manufacturing, especially but not only in the auto industry, relies on a constant flow of parts between factories on both sides of the border. As a result, the disruption of that flow has hobbled industry, forcing production cuts and even factory shutdowns.
The closure of the Ambassador Bridge also imposed large indirect costs, as trucks were diverted to roundabout routes and forced to wait in long lines at alternative bridges.
Any attempt to put a number on the economic costs of the blockade is tricky and speculative. However, it’s not hard to come up with numbers like $300 million or more per day; combine that with the disruption of Ottawa, and the “trucker” protests may already have inflicted a couple of billion dollars in economic damage.
That’s an interesting number, because it’s roughly comparable to insurance industry estimates of total losses associated with the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the killing of George Floyd-- protests that seem to have involved more than 15 million people.
This comparison will no doubt surprise those who get their news from right-wing media, which portrayed B.L.M. as an orgy of arson and looting. I still receive mail from people who believe that much of New York City was reduced to smoking rubble. In fact, the demonstrations were remarkably nonviolent; vandalism happened in a few cases, but it was relatively rare, and the damage was small considering the huge size of the protests.
By contrast, causing economic damage was and is what the Canadian protests are all about-- because blocking essential flows of goods, threatening people’s livelihoods, is every bit as destructive as smashing a store window. And unlike, say, a strike aimed at a particular company, this damage fell indiscriminately on anyone who had the misfortune to rely on unobstructed trade.
And to what end? The B.L.M. demonstrations were a reaction to police killings of innocent people; what’s going on in Canada is, on its face, about rejecting public health measures intended to save lives. Of course, even that is mainly an excuse: What it’s really about is an attempt to exploit pandemic weariness to boost the usual culture-war agenda.
As you might expect, the U.S. right is loving it. People who portrayed peaceful protests against police killings as an existential threat are delighted by the spectacle of right-wing activists breaking the law and destroying wealth. Fox News has devoted many hours to fawning coverage of the blockades and occupations. Senator Rand Paul, who called B.L.M. activists a “crazed mob,” called for Canada-style protests to “clog up cities” in the United States, specifically saying that he hoped to see truckers disrupt the Super Bowl (they didn’t).
I assume that the reopening of the Ambassador Bridge is the beginning of a broader crackdown on destructive protests. But I hope we won’t forget this moment-- and in particular that we remember it the next time a politician or media figure talks about “law and order.”
Recent events have confirmed what many suspected: The right is perfectly fine, indeed enthusiastic, about illegal actions and disorder as long as they serve right-wing ends.