Many times I’ve heard the expression: “There is no substitute for experience.” It’s seems strange that I interpret that clause differently each time I hear it. I do not have a copy of the book on my shelves, and I am not addressing the overall scope of the work, but years ago I remember reading Clio and the Doctors by Jacques Barzun for a seminar course. I may be mistaking the exact age, but I recall a statement which asserts that the best historians tend to be over the age of 40 years. I questioned that assertion as a graduate student, but as you might suspect if you have read some of my other posts I agree not with an exact age but the principle. There is an exuberance of youth which can overcome many obstacles, but experience can often eliminate those obstacles from the equation. The issue, however, is what is experience and how does one obtain it?
With so much discussion on rights and freedom, I looked back at a mountain, too large to carry yet too small to feel personal satisfaction, of some oral history interviews I conducted both formally and informally. One of the informal ones, sadly one before I really appreciated everything involved to get the best picture for my own edification in addition to research, struck me on the rights, privileges, needs, and wants questions. Even though there was no written contract, much of this conversation will only become available after both children and grandchildren are deceased per my word and handshake to the individual. While those sections contain some detailed and personal information, the portion of the transcript below took place during a break and consists only of general perceptions. I do not believe that the gentleman would oppose anyone reading those observations as they are common among those who lived in true authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.
Experience remains a great teacher, and history is one of the greatest humblers to our own individual complaints when we are able to contemplate walking in the footprints of another. While I have still not experienced the other side, about 20 years ago I gained an additional appreciation of what it took to make those footprints which lives with me today.
Let’s continue with thoughts on freedom?
Freedom, yes freedom like anything that can be given to another can be taken away. Someone who uses the words or holds the belief that freedom and rights can be given and not taken is either communicating from ignorance or arrogance. Yes, I know the Declaration of Independence of 1776. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that [they] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and [the] pursuit of Happiness. Yet, the same paper contains words of the merciless Indian Savages bringing duress, and a statement of blame to the King for allowing these Indian Savages to bring such. Were not those Indians men? Were they not created equal? If it were the King [responsible] to provide the protection against one force could the King not apply that same protection against another? Freedom for one often means restricting freedom of another. If that is true in one direction, it is true in the opposite. Then who is truly free?
Can you describe daily life, not so much about what the people did, but what they felt?
We felt fear. Not a fear of the past or future or of what we might fail to accomplish. We feared to speak out, to question, to even relax. The government did not tolerate opposition. You read only what the state provided. You heard only what the state authorized. You wrote only what the state allowed. There were labor camps and anyone who opposed the state faced severe punishment. You did not have to be seen, heard, or read by many or even by another. Just an idea of opposition and you disappeared. If you were different in any way, maybe you were a musician or artist, maybe a superior athlete, if you did not conform as demanded by the state, you would disappear.
In the United States, that type of fear is hard to imagine because of our system of government, would it be possible to compare the difference between how you feel here today versus there?
I hear people use terms and definitions like dictator and try to apply them to United States, but it is not the same here. Here you can disagree. You can climb to your rooftop and shout your opinion. You can publish your own paper. You can build your own radio or TV to broadcast what you believe. You can even purchase pages in somebody else’s paper or rent time on their radio or TV station to say what you want no matter what the state wants. Your danger is from other individuals just like you who believe differently. It is not a danger from the state because you are one part of the state. Unless you hurt people the state will not come to destroy. Even when the state does come, you do not disappear, poof like smoke, you have a trial and others decide your guilt or innocence and punishment.
Are the results always just? I do not think so, but most at least have chance and opportunity. You can make mistake and then get second chance here. That was not possible there because the state determined and controlled all. You were not a part of the state but a possession of the state. You were that pen you have in your pocket. If you need it or want it, you keep it. When it is of no use you throw it in the garbage without even thinking about it. That pen is the people in a state controlled by a dictator. To make a mistake or to disagree with the state in even the smallest way meant that where you stood would become stained red. That stain was blood, your blood, and that always happened. Nobody escaped or got more chances to do right. You bled, and you disappeared leaving only that stain where you stood. Sometimes that stain remained but faded or smudged with rain. Sometimes others had to clean that stain so they did not become a part of that stain. Your rights, no you do not have rights given to you.
How can you know when you no longer have rights and the state or someone controls all rights?
That is an easy answer. When you cannot find anyone who disagrees, when there are no papers, no TV, no radio, other than that controlled by the state or by one person, and then you will realize a difference. When people are scared and do not question or disagree because they saw others who voiced their opinion disappear then you know. No, when the state is in control, you do not speak or complain. If you do, it is not a slap on the hand with a stick, but a sword across the throat or bullet through the brain. That is when you know that the state or an individual controls all rights. Anything less and you still have freedom and rights.
When you have that type of fear, can you think? Do you realize what is happening?
I wish I could say yes one does realize, but that is not a total truth. Many know nothing else so they cannot compare. If you only know what the state wants, how can you doubt; even in your own mind where nobody can hear? Yes you might hear those who challenge before they disappear, but why should you believe their words over that of another’s? When you are within, your vision is limited to what is also within. Nothing is free from camouflage. Nothing is seen without obstruction. It is only when you escape to the outside that you can look back and see all the boundaries, walls, trees, and vines at once. Inside, you focus only on what is nearest to you. Remember you are afraid, so would a wise man think of problems beyond what surrounds him currently? Those that try are gone, poof like smoke. You only experience from the inside, but you only see clearly from outside looking in.