InkTank presents: "Freedom in Progress"

This is the official blog for InkTank Cincinnati's evolving "Freedom in Progress" book project, to be published under the auspices of author and community activist Dave Eggers' 826 Valencia. "Freedom in Progress" will be multi-faceted, capturing voices from all over the Greater Cincinnati area. For more information: e-mail

Friday, September 16, 2005

Freedom and the Law

The stack of submissions is starting to grow and we really like what we're reading. Edwin Cousins--one of our Urban Appalachian Council writers--wrote a powerful essay about freedom as an illusion, hemmed in by authority on all sides. Read his first two paragraphs:

"Freedom = death. I say this because when you're dead you have nothing else to worry about. As for when you are alive there's laws, laws might allow you to have a lot of freedom but not how you want or where you want it. Cause as long as you live you have laws and rules to follow. That's why we have the Constituiton and Bill of Rights. Those are laws you have to follow, if you don't you will go to jail. That is no kind of freedom to me. I would love to do just anything I want.

"Also the police is making it worse when they roll up and tell us to get off the corner even though we deon't sell, they will tell us 'don't horseplay' when we come outside to play. When you say something back they want to say something like 'I'll taze you' or 'you're under arrest.' They love to start stuff but when you're dead you're free."

Edwin describes authority figures who have the freedom to restrict or intimidate others. Freedom, then, can be relative: some people take it away, some people have it taken away from them. Why does this happen? Is it just human nature, or is there something else at work? Is there any way to restore balance in our neighborhoods?

Try filling in Edwin's formula with a quick word of your own: Freedom = what? Post it as a comment.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Freedom Writers

I don't know how many Cincinnatians have heard of Erin Gruwell and her Freedom Writers, but if you peruse their website you will find some striking parallels between the genesis of her organization after the LA riots and InkTank's mission to heal Cincinnati after our little outbreak. They are doing great work. "Freedom in Progress" is establishing a partnership with the Erin Gruwell Project and I think it's a match made in heaven.

So we need to decide how wide to cast our net with this project. Should we open up to submissions from around the country? One idea I have - and let's hope we're not biting the hand that feeds with our West Coast supporters - is to focus on the "flyover states." That stretch of Middle American oft-neglected and obscured by the media machine New York, LA and DC. Here I go, sounding like a populist politician. This is a watershed for the project: Should we stay local or carry the torch for the up-and-coming generation all over the country?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Urban Appalachian Writers

One of our weekly writing groups consists of students in a summer program with the Urban Appalachian Council in Lower Price Hill, Cincinnati. We have had some fascinating and eye-opening conversations lately. I layed out three possible impediments and/or stepping stones to freedom: parents, police and drugs. (Don't think for a moment that I was advocating the use of psychoactive drugs to high school students, rather, I hoped to discuss the validity of the claim that you can "free your mind" with drugs.) Most of our discussion centered on the police and I learned a lot from our groups members' firsthand experiences with being falsely accused, harassed or intimidated. Sometimes we are only as free as our local police officer on his neighborhood beat. Also, out of this discussion, the sectioning of the book has come into focus. I think I would like to discuss freedom from the standpoint of subsidiarity: having a section dealing with freedom on an local and personal level, on a national / political level and on a more abstract global and universal level. While the structure of the book - and discussing that structure - is very boring, I know the writing that these kids are producing will sweat, bleed and punch your brain in the face. Rhetorically, of course.

One stumbling block for us has been translating discussion into writing. While we are more than happy to share our opinions with the group, we find it difficult to share our writing and transcribe our thoughts and feelings. Sharing writing is much, much harder than sharing an extemporaneous rant. Why is this? Maybe we feel that since writing something down suggests deliberation and premeditation, our audience expects brilliance and wit. What we should expect, as an audience and especially out of writing produced in a 15 minute burst, is truth and candor. If you aren't speaking in your own voice, there better be a very good reason. Otherwise, you have bound yourself to someone else's words and style. You don't learn about yourself and your audience doesn't learn about you. The most liberating aspects of writing are lost to you. Ok, so that's like a guiding principle for the book now.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Edward Stern commencement address

The commencement speaker at Seven Hills' graduation this year gave a great speech that ties nicely into our theme -----

I would like to congratulate all seniors today. Relish this glorious moment and have a joyous summer before you start the next leg of your journey—wherever it takes you.

Now being a commencement address speaker is the equivalent of being a corpse at your visitation -- people expect to see you but they really don’t want to hear from you. So I will try to be mercifully brief.

Actually I wish I could steal a commencement address given last year by Jon Stewart of THE DAILY SHOW. He said this generation—our generation—had promised to make the world a more peaceful and prosperous planet for all. We didn’t. We failed. We really screwed up. Stewart paused and finally said, “Sorry.”

Well, we should be sorry. There are certainly more crises facing you today than when I graduated from high school in 1964. To rattle off some of them:

The environment and global warming
Nuclear proliferation
American’s standing in the world community
Social Security

We are living in a profoundly troubling and increasingly irrational time.


Now if I haven’t totally dispirited you and make you want to toss your diploma into a car and drive to Canada, let me mention a quote that has haunted me for several weeks. It comes from Saul Bellow, the late, great American novelist. He wrote about “the ordeal of democracy.”

It may seem strange to view democracy—the greatest source of our strength—as an ordeal. Yet the responsibilities—the burdens—it places on every American are great.

Living in a totalitarian regime—a one-party system—may be tough, but all your decisions are easy. They are made for you. The state controls you.

Here we the people are the state. You can’t drop out of the system or simply criticize elected officials. After all, we elected them -- whether you went to the voting booth or no.


Democracy only works fully when it is participatory. The ordeal is in accepting the responsibilities of freedom.

Earlier this week I was in London reading about the rejection in France of the EU constitution. The French government had sent to every citizen the complete constitution—with over 400 amendments. Reports stated that over 80% of the country had read it or talked it over with family and friends. I seriously doubt in America that we would come even close to 80%. The French did not treat this vote lightly. I was watching live coverage when Jacques Chirac, the French president, went on the air to declare, “The people have spoken.” What an inspiring phrase.

How can you accept this burden, this awesome responsibility? Here are three suggestions:

(1) Don’t trust any advertisement for any political candidate or piece of legislation. It is all bogus. The recent election for Prime Minister in England forbade all such advertising. Read what the candidates say in full, not just in sound bites. Read their position papers.
(2) Accept that most American media has been transformed into entertainment. It is
more intent on distracting us with stories about Michael Jackson and women
who run away from their fiancées, than examining issues that truly affect our lives. Check out PBS, NPR, the BBC, and the CBC for real news coverage.
(3) If you view yourself as a conservative, read respected liberal columnists (they do
exist) such as Frank Rich. Are you a liberal? Read respected conservative columnists (they also exist) such as David Brooks. Test your beliefs: test their metal, their strength, with opposing positions.

Democracy is not neat. It is loud and clumsy. It can be infuriating and crazy. Yet it works. With your help.

As someone once said, democracy is the second worst system of government on the planet. What’s the worst? Every other system.

Be part of a generation that will not say “sorry” in 40 years. Show an affirming flame for what American believes in—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Not just for some. For all.

It can be done. It needs be done. By accepting this ordeal of democracy, you can make it happen.

Thank you, and God bless.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Interesting quotations from the article:

"...much of the European support for Bush in Iraq came from the people who had grown up behind [the Berlin Wall]. It wasn't just the promise of bases and money and strategic partnerships that tipped Poles, Romanians, Czechs and Hungarians into sending troops; it was the memory that when the chips were down, in the dying years of Soviet tyranny, American presidents were there, and Western European politicians looked the other way."

" the paradox of Jefferson's dream: American liberty as a moral universal seems less and less recognizable to the very democracies once inspired by that dream. In the cold war, America was accepted as the leader of ''the free world.'' The free world -- the West -- has fractured, leaving a fierce and growing argument about democracy in its place."

(Ignatieff 4)

Exporting Freedom

Other nations may have better coffee, textiles or modular furniture, but Americans have long believed that the USA makes the best freedom. With this absolute advantage in freedom, many think we must export it to the world. A recent article in the New York Times claims that George W Bush is our first president that has "actually risked his presidency on the premise" (Ignatieff, "Why Do Americans think Freedom is Theirs to Spread?"; New York Times June 26) that our brand of freedom will natural spread and triumph. This point is something we will cover in the first workshop for the book, to be held July 23rd, 2005 from 2-3:30. We hope this will be a hot topic. Maybe even red hot. Is freedom ours to spread any more than our music or our language?

One specific topic we are developing essays on: The weirdness and paradox in trying to bring about freedom through force and coercion rather than letting it develop naturally. Simply put, should freedom come about freely by free will or does it need a kick in the pants to get it going?

The article:

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Fresh Content and a Prompt

We've received a couple of essays with very novel takes on the freedom essay itself. Sort of a meta-essay on all those social studies and citizenship tests we all have faced. From these, I generated the following prompt:

How do you feel about essay prompt like “What does freedom mean to you?” or “Give five reasons why the First Amendment is still relevant today” ? What is the best way to approach the “freedom essay” – waxing on about the defining moments in US history, talking about freedom in abstract,taking a revolutionary approach? Or just being sarcastic about it? Should we even be asking students to answer such a fundamental and vital question in the space of an hour or two? Do not go into detail about the elements of such an essay or even what you would write. Speculating on the identity and intentions of the folks who make up these essay prompts or how you would rather draw a graphic cartoon on the page is perfectly acceptable.

Any snippet of this unwieldy prompt could be taken as a starting point. I'm just trying to get the ball rolling here.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Writing Prompts

Here are some writing prompts we will be using to generate content for the book. Feel free to dismiss them with a well-reasoned argument or even post a response. To be considered for publication, you must be a student under 21 and include your name, phone number and school. Original content can also be sent directly to

1. "Freedom Isn't Free." How much does it cost then? Make an itemized list of real or abstract things that might be roughly equivalent to the value of freedom. What's the most effective way to barter for your freedom? With impassioned speech or bribery?

2. "Free association." You are James Joyce. Write a few paragraphs of stream of consciousness prose. (Include made up words and gibberish). Then critique your own work, using the second or third person. Example: "He was trying to convey his own sense of self-imprisonment." I think the message here is maybe that expressing freedom is important, but that expression should not be indiscriminate. We should examine the way we use our freedoms.

3. "Freedom, not Chaos." Many people confuse freedom with anarchy. How do we compromise our desire to pursue our goals freely with the need to maintain order?

4. "I, the person." Shouldn't everyone get the chance to write their very own Declaration of Independence and ratify it? Begin it "I, the Person," assert your freedoms and adress the force you are declaring your independence from. Readers will be given a chance to sign your declaration or offer ammendments. Do not settle differences with a duel or putting smallpox in your advesary's powdered wig.