In the 1980s I traveled to the Soviet Union as part of a junior high school soccer program.
Decades have passed since the trip, but the memories remain. Shelves were barren. Citizens drank from communal water fountains.
The items most in demand, and hardest to find, were American: blue jeans and bubble gum.
Of course, those were not the only things common in Indiana that were contraband behind the Iron Curtain.
For decades, news, literature, and art not broadcast or approved by the state was scarce and available only via bootleg.
This was a society where ideas and dialogue existed only underground, free thinkers were locked in labor camps, information protected the state instead of empowering individuals, and history was constantly purged and revised, rewritten anew each time it became politically necessary.
By the time I visited, though, Soviet leadership had gradually allowed citizens access to information and media as new technologies emerged.
It was only a ray of sunlight through a small crack; but through it, people across Russia and the Eastern Block could see and hear what was hidden from them.
A totalitarian regime’s greatest ally is darkness and silence. Keeping a people blind is the surest way to guarantee they never demand that their God-given rights be respected.
But just a trickle of information, a small offering of diverse perspectives and a touch of free expression helped lead to the Soviet Union’s demise.
Free people become and stay free because of open dialogue, because of the exchange of information and ideas, even ones we disagree with; because of patience with perspectives that are not our own; because we study our history and celebrate its highs and learn from its lows.
That is why it was painful to read recently that 62% of Americans are now hesitant to admit their beliefs or air their opinions for fear of offending others and the associated consequences.
But this is the logical reaction when Americans are regularly canceled for things said or written decades ago with no chance of grace or allowance for growth.
It’s not just people who are being canceled. It’s words and music too.
Classrooms and libraries are banning Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird rather than encouraging students to examine their authors’ intent.
Hamilton has fallen from grace for the sin of acknowledging America was created in 1776.
And whole parts of our history are being wiped away.
Communities have a right to lawfully determine who and what adorns their squares and streets.
But that is a world away from toppling statues of George Washington and U.S. Grant in the same manner those of Lenin and Stalin were removed at the end of the Cold War.
America is a good nation. Those who call it home are decent and kind. We are not perfect, but our imperfections are not irredeemable.
2020 has made it clear though that work remains in the task of building a more perfect union.
That effort is ongoing; every generation since our founding has worked towards it. And every generation has made hard-earned progress.
Our own work to create a more just future will be no less difficult—certainly more so than knocking down bronze and marble men, or waging war on books or on each other across social media.
Every time our nation has moved closer to better realizing the promise at the heart of our Declaration of Independence—that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights—it’s been because the founders dared to dream that this was possible and left us the means to make it so.
The freedom to raise our voices and state our opinions, to disagree and debate.
The blessing of free inquiry.
The right to challenge our country on toward what Martin Luther King Jr. called its “noble dream” through words, music, art, or expression free from censorship and recrimination.
These liberties, unparalleled in human history, were won, preserved and handed down to us by many of those whose memorials are falling.
We should remember the men and women who came before us, see their faults but not lose sight of their virtues, and aspire to the high ideals they set—even if they often fell short of realizing them.
What will we have without these freedoms, without memory and understanding of our past? Desolate public spaces, empty bookshelves, silenced citizens with nothing to strive for other than self-preservation.
But with these freedoms, and inspired by our history, valuable debate and dialogue will flourish, daring ideas will be welcome, and great ideals will live.
And the work we are in, the work of building a more perfect union and a freer and fairer nation will be possible.
“You have thousands of problems of all kinds, as other countries do.” So said Vaclav Havel, a man who knew well the dangers of censorship and the power of free expression, of America.
“But you have one great advantage: you have been approaching democracy for more than two hundred years, and your journey toward that horizon has never been disrupted by a totalitarian system.”
The journey continues on towards that horizon—only we ourselves have the power to disrupt it.