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The 21st Century could be seen as a time where instant gratification has become a preeminent value in society.  Now is more important than later; easy is seen as superior to hard; and fast is better than slow.  These principles have seeped into many areas of society; nowhere more obvious than the fight for liberty.  We think in slogans, debate in bumper stickers, and interact in 140 characters or less.  For this reason, it’s sometimes important to step back and acknowledge that the ongoing struggle for freedom is hard.  The fight is often long, carried out in anonymity and it is unpopular.

The fight for freedom is long and sometimes boring.  Before Nelson Mandela brought South Africa into a new age of freedom, he served twenty-seven years on Robben Island as a political prisoner of the apartheid regime.  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spent more than twenty years in exile – watching as Charles Taylor plunged Liberia into chaos – before being allowed to return and successfully run for president.  Before Aung San Suu Kyi was elected into parliament – a sign of gradual liberalization of that country which we greatly applaud – she spent fifteen years under house arrest after being deprived of her true prize, the presidency, by the military junta.  The Dalai Lama still grieves for his people from a foreign land, decades after he was forced into exile by the communist Chinese government.  The valiant Venezuelan democrats like Rodrigo Diamanti continue to plod forward, convincing their oppressors one-by-one that there is a better way.  And the overwhelming weight of Cuba’s endless dictatorship seems interminable to activists like Bertha Antunez who has suffered discrimination and brutality not only for her beliefs but because of the color of her skin.

The fight for freedom is also most often anonymous.  To be sure, we celebrate great names after epic battles for freedom – names like those aforementioned.  Here at the Bush Institute, through the Freedom Collection we are even trying to give names and faces to some of the voiceless.  But the great tragedy is that the vast majority of those who fight, and sometimes die, for their own liberty will remain in the shadows.  Those executed by Fidel Castro on the Malecon; those who died attempting to cross from East to West Berlin over a perilous wall; and those tortured in Iranian jails for the simple act of wishing that their votes be respected will be remembered by their families and mourned by their loved ones, but their stories will probably never be told.

Finally, the fight for freedom is unpopular.  We have become accustomed to the awarding of Nobel prizes; the celebratory lunches and the laudatory documentaries.  In point of fact, those who really fight for freedom are all too often reviled for their trouble.  Natan Sharansky was called simplistic when he divided the world into “free” and “fear” societies.  President Uribe has faced judicial persecution as his thanks for bringing peace to Colombia.  Farther back, after saving his country from Nazi Germany Winston Churchill lost his bid for re-election.

All these realities make the struggle for freedom difficult and frustrating.  In a society which sometimes seeks immediate gratification and special rewards or applause, it might seem a fool’s errand.  Nevertheless, despite the trying nature of the task, there continues an unbroken line of activists who are willing to embrace the fight for freedom.  It is to them – and those that they fight for – that we owe our endless gratitude.

This post was written by Joel D. Hirst, a Human Freedom Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.  Find him on Twitter: @joelhirst