Janis Joplin, Newport Folk Festival, 1968. Courtesy of Bob Peterson.
Janis Joplin, Newport Folk Festival, 1968. Courtesy of Bob Peterson.

In the late sixties Janis Joplin’s voice rallied the bedraggled front lines of the cultural revolution with the refrain from “Me and Bobby McGee”: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” As she sang, the United States was committed to an unjust war, race riots had some cities in flames and every city on edge, and psychedelic drugs promised salvation from personal despair through sex, love, and ecstatic communion. For Janis and her fans, freedom from convention, freedom from parental and societal restraint, freedom from everything already labeled, categorized, and institutionalized was pursued with an urgency far surpassing that of the United States military fighting to keep Vietnam “free” from communism.

The Vietnam War created seismic cracks in the American Dream; and through the narrow, yet transformative, crevices of a shattered society crept Buddhism, conveying teachings on the nature of freedom that offered a radical alternative to both the mainstream and the counter-culture of that time. But, one generation later, Buddhism has surfaced and the Euro-American Buddhist communities have undergone their own transformations. Fresh inquiries into the nature of enlightenment and freedom are now required—and Janis Joplin, it turns out, may still be hitting the mark.

In the modern world the word “liberation” is like a chameleon, changing its color with each new attachment: animal liberation, women’s liberation, liberation theology, gay liberation, or the liberation of Kuwait. These ideologies are vehicles of emotional energy so deeply entrenched in the American psyche that our rhetoric often displays undeniable irrationality. The emotional pitch of slogans such as Live Free or Die and Better Dead than Red dramatically proclaim the depth of our enslavement. But liberty, like everything else, is essentially empty of description: one person’s bondage is another’s freedom. Abraham Lincoln summarized this dilemma in a speech given in 1864:

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty.

The wolf, the sheep, and the shepherd can be found in the major players in any war, including the Persian Gulf War: Iraq, Kuwait, and the United States.

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