Freedom. It’s a funny thing. It’s not something we’re given, it’s something we fight for. It’s something we demand.
I know this from experience. I’m a naturalized American citizen and a Marine Corps Veteran who was born in the distant northern country of Estonia.
Estonia is a tiny country. It sits below Finland, above Latvia, and shares its eastern border with Russia. It’s slightly smaller than Pennsylvania, with a population of only 1.3 million people. Throughout its history, Estonia has always been the little guy – the one everybody else steps on. From our earliest recorded history until the modern age, Estonians have not been free for long. We’ve mostly been slaves or servants of one kind or another. In 1918, Estonia declared itself a sovereign nation, but it was short-lived freedom. Two decades later, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union and, as they did throughout Eastern Europe, the Soviets committed atrocities against the Estonian people.
Two decades later, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union and, as they did throughout Eastern Europe, the Soviets committed atrocities against the Estonian people. Mass deportations. Death camps. Forced servitude on communal farms. The list goes on…
It wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union that Estonia finally attained its freedom. But that newly-declared independence didn’t mean life in Estonian became perfect overnight – freedom is a funny thing like that. It’s slippery. The newly-formed Russian government immediately started to undermine the Estonian government and attempted to gain control covertly. They kept troops on the ground until 1994 and, to this day, they continue to try to subvert Estonian democracy.
Which brings me back to my personal story…
In 2007, I left Estonia for America. My plan was to go to college and then find meaningful work. I met my wife here and, as they say, “life happened.” Instead of finishing my degree as originally planned, I got married. And in 2011, I joined the United States Marine Corps.
The global mission of the United States’ military appealed to me. It seemed progressive in light of its various humanitarian activities and its steady march towards civil liberties and equality across the board for its members. Moreover, I believed strongly in America’s potential to spread freedom across the world. I felt that by being part of it, I could do some good.
I served as a helicopter mechanic and a legal clerk, both of which were invaluable experiences. Unfortunately, I was injured during my service and was medically retired in 2015.
Today, I find myself dumbfounded by what is occurring in America – the country I chose to serve, not because of patriotic duty, and not from some sense of loyalty, but because of my belief in its fundamental values and the principles upon which it was built.
I have always been an independent thinker. I am not a Republican or a Democrat. I am not Libertarian or Green. None of America’s existing parties accurately represent the sort of world I would like to see created. However, I believe in social democracy, and people governing themselves through elected officials who work in their best interest. These are some of America’s defining values.
I used to think America was becoming a more progressive country. That we were moving toward an era where we would fulfill our promise of treating all people with respect, understanding, patience, and compassion. But since the election of Donald Trump, when I read or watch the news, I’m often confused by what I read or see.
It feels like we’re moving backward. Like we’re becoming less free.
The truth is, I honestly don’t know how to react to the election of our current administration. We knew all about Donald Trump’s business failures and clear ethics violations, yet many of us thought he would make a good President. We had proof that he went bankrupt more than once, yet many of us thought he would make our economy stronger. We heard him denigrate different groups of people over and over, but many people concluded that he could bridge gaps and unify the country.
I don’t understand.
Where did this backlash come from? Could conservatives not practice their beliefs for the last eight years? Or the last hundred? Was it horrible to be tolerant of peoples’ sexual orientation? Was it horrible to have to sit next to a person of color, or an immigrant like me? Were conservatives not able to practice their religion? Or were they upset because they were unable to discriminate against others? How do policies like the First Amendment Defense Act make America more just and more tolerant? How does America, a nation that was founded on ideals of freedom of religion and tolerance, support an administration and its policies that are the antithesis of these values?
Moreover, how do Americans tolerate an administration that impugns the free press – a pillar of any liberal democracy? How do we tolerate their lies?
We know President Obama did not wiretap Donald Trumps’ offices. We know that there was no terror attack in Sweden. We know that America’s murder rate is not the highest it’s been in 47 years.
But we also know that Trump has direct ties to Russia. We also suspect that Russia may hold material which could be used as blackmail against Trump.
America, the country that has long claimed to be the champion of the needy, the hungry, and the poor – a beacon of equality – is cozying up to Russia, a country whose leader regularly has people killed – or at least many of his opponents meet mysterious and untimely deaths.
How is this possible? How is it that Americans, who claim to value freedom above all else, elected a pro-Russian president?
Where does this leave those of us who value freedom and who want to see America live up to her values? Who want to move forward, not backward? As Lennart Meri, Estonia’s Second President, once said:
“Olukord on sitt, kuid see on meie tuleviku väetis!”
“The situation is crap, but this is our futures’ fertilizer!”
Take it from someone who understands just how slippery freedom really is – we must resist. We must actively oppose the fantasy that is being sold as reality by this administration and the rest of the Republican Party. We must prepare for the 2018 elections. We must organize. We must support journalists and a free press. And we must plant seeds for the future in this crap.
Kristjan Bauer is an Estonian-American (in that order) who was born under the Soviet occupation of Estonia and grew up in the aftermath of the imposed regime. He moved to America in 2007, and in 2011 he joined the United States Marine Corps. He was Honorably Medically Retired due to injuries in 2015. He has been married to his wife, Josie, for 9 years.