It’s hugely important, but is freedom THE word that sums it all up?
Editor’s note: Y’all, this was supposed to post last night and somehow it did not. Don’t know what happened. So here it is. I’m not going to read through it yeah again to make sure there are no “today” that should be “the other day.” Just, you know, here it is…
Yeah, I know that headline is not the lyric. But while I wanted to suggest it, I didn’t want to say exactly what Kristofferson did: that freedom is “just another word.” The thing is, it’s not just another word. It’s a pretty important word — one of the most important ones we have in our culture.
But in terms of the way we use it, I’m not sure it’s always the right word. And that’s what I want to talk about.
It’s something I think about a lot, mostly when I hear someone try to sum up what America’s all about — particularly when describing what our soldiers have fought for in this conflict or that one — and they just say that one word, and I wonder, “Is that really the right word in this instance?”
But I’m bringing it up today because of a podcast I listened to while walking a couple of days back. Actually, I read about it first, and it read like it would be a good examination of my point. I read:
Maggie Nelson is a poet, critic and cultural theorist whose work includes the award-winning 2016 book “The Argonauts.” Her newest work, “On Freedom,” pierces right into the heart of America’s founding idea: What if there’s no such thing as freedom, at least not freedom as a state of enduring liberation?
And more than that: What if we don’t want to be free? Perhaps that’s the great lie in the American dream: We’re taught to want freedom, but many of us recoil from its touch….
Nelson describes herself as a “disobedient thinker,” someone who enjoys looking at “the difficulty of difficult things,” and this conversation bears that out. We talk about when and whether freedom is hard to bear, the difference between a state of liberation and the daily practice of freedom, the hard conversations sexual liberation demands, what it means to live in koans, my problems with “The Giving Tree,” Nelson’s disagreements with the left, the difficulty of maintaining your own experience of art in an age when the entire internet wants to tell you how to feel about everything, and more.
OK, those are not exactly the things that I was thinking, but it sounded like a conversation that might go where I wanted it to.
It didn’t. In fact, some of it got pretty silly. Sometimes the conversation sounded sort of like possibly my favorite scene from “Love and Death”:
SONJA: Perception is irrational. It implies imminence. But judgment of any system of phenomena exists in any rational, metaphysical or epistemological contradiction to an abstracted empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself.
BORIS: Yeah, I’ve said that many times….
And now that I go back and read the description again after listening, I realize I should have seen that.
So let me start my own conversation about what American mean when they say “freedom,” and whether it’s the right word.
But first, three words from the French Revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Of course, freedom comes first, but it is implied that at the very least, these are equally worthy goals for a civilization. But are they?
If you’re on the right in America — or at least the more libertarian neighborhoods of the right — you will insist vehemently that liberté is what it’s all about, and the one main thing we need. Freedom, baby.
If you’re on the more woke, Bernie and AOC portions of the left, then the main thing is égalité, and we need to spend all our political energies fighting to overcome the billionayuhs and make everybody equal in every way, whether they want to be or not.
But when I look around and think about what we most need in our society, that quality that’s most painfully absent from our country, I tend to focus on the third word. We need to get along, more than anything else. Brotherhood is what we should and must pursue, or this whole experiment is over. What sort of label should be slapped on that kind of thinking? Communitarian, I suppose. Or Catholic, maybe, taking it beyond the here and now. That’s what the pope would say, and in fact did say last year in Fratelli Tutti.
But that’s not to dismiss the importance of liberty in the sense of having a liberal form of government, or the critical principle of equality before the law. But here’s the thing: We have those things in generous plenty. Our nation’s history is basically a story of ensuring and broadening the guarantees of such things. What we’re hurting for is something our system doesn’t even legally mandate, fraternité.
But that’s not my point here today. That is in fact my second digression, counting the one about the podcast. My third, if you count “Me and Bobby McGee.” If I didn’t have all the room in the world — say, if this were print — I’d be showing more discipline. Eventually. My columns in the paper would initially be written more or less this way, but when I got serious about getting the paper out, I’d ditch everything above, and the published column would start right about here, after the warming-up exercises….
In this country, in this culture, freedom is a very important concept, to be sure. It’s something our way of life can’t do without.
Unfortunately, the word is often used to excuse an abandonment of adult responsibility that might make a child in the Terrible Twos blush. It’s used to defend hating government — which means hating the system that enables us to live together as a civilization, to dwell together in the hundreds of millions without randomly killing each other. It means hating the thing that makes rights — freedoms — possible. (Here we could have a big philosophical argument — and we may — over whether the Bill of Rights were necessary. Some opposed them on the grounds that rights are natural, God-given, and that to spell them out would be to limit them. I don’t think so. And if you think such things exist in a state of nature, you need to study the record of our species more closely. In fact, have any of you read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari? I’m still reading it, but when I’m done I’m going to write a post or two about it. There’s some nonsense in it — some of it insulting, if you’re, you know, a Homo sapiens — but a lot of interesting stuff as well.)
Often, another word meant to appeal to our sense of the importance of freedom — choice — is used in our politics to defend ideas that would be a tough sell on their own. Hence abortion is sold as “choice.” So is the execrable practice of diverting public money away from public education. So yeah, go ahead and call me “anti-choice,” since you’re going to do that anyway. I certainly am against “choice” when you’re using it to mean, “I get to do any damned thing I choose to do, and I have no responsibility to anyone else concerned whatsoever.” But since I suspect relatively few of you would agree with me on both those points, I’ll just move on…
But not without saying that “freedom” gets used in exactly the same way — such as to defend otherwise indefensible things such as banning mandates on masks or vaccines. Yeah, it’s stupid and horrible, but it’s about freedom, so…
Beyond that, though, is freedom what we’re all about, in the sense of being a one-word answer that completely does the job? I don’t think it does. It expresses a lot of what we’re about, but it sort of cries out for elaboration, if you’re going to truly understand the country and what makes it what Madeleine Albright and I would call the indispensable nation, or — to use a term many of my friends hate — if you’re to explain what makes us exceptional. We can argue all day about that word, too. But my point is, when people pick a word to express that exceptionalism, they tend to fall back on “freedom.” Which I don’t think gets the job done. (And of course, a lot of you who are offended by “exceptionalism” think people who believe in it are idiots who want to oversimplify anyway, but that’s another side argument.)
Let’s look at our history, starting with the Revolution. Of course, as long as I’m being picky about words, in my mind, “revolution” has always been a bit of a misnomer. Compared to real revolutions like the French or the Russian, it’s pretty tame stuff. It wasn’t about the peasants rising up to overthrow the brutal overlords (or however those folks saw their elites). Basically, the guys who were already running these colonies wanted to be left alone to run them, and didn’t like the way London — the Crown or Parliament or whomever you want to blame the most — was interfering.
If you want to go by the best-known oversimplification of the time, it was more about representation than freedom. (And no, my libertarian friends, it wasn’t “no taxation.” It was “No taxation without representation.”) You can say they wanted to be free of the king. But if I recall correctly (and I confess that in college I studied the period right after the Revolution far more closely than that just before), they had very much liked being British subjects, but they felt like they were starting to lose some of the benefits of that status. Hence the fight for independence.
Let’s move to 1861. In the great scheme of things, that was certainly about freedom. But interestingly, most of the soldiers were fighting not for freedom for themselves, but for the freedom of other people who weren’t even allowed to take up arms until late in the process. Also, I’m not sure how many of those fighting — or supporting the fighting on the homefront — would have said that’s what they were fighting for. But certainly “freedom” played a huge role in the memes of the day, and with more justice than during other periods of our history.
In later conflicts, we saw that pattern repeated. Often, Americans fought and bled and died for freedom — but as often as not (in fact, probably more often than not) it was for other people’s freedom. Which is one of the most exceptional things about us.
Take WWII. When the Japanese attacked, were they trying to take over the United States and repeal not only the Bill of Rights, but the Constitution? Or were they just trying to grab as much of the western Pacific Rim and its resources as they could, and correctly saw us as an obstacle to that? And the Germans were certainly taking the freedoms of Europeans, but at what point was there ever a real possibility of their marching into Washington or New York? Had Hitler won the war, I think the U.S. would have existed in a less free world, and that would have put huge strains on our own system. (Like the Cold War, only much worse.) But was it really about our freedom?
This brings us to Afghanistan. If you’re an Afghan woman, you bet it was about freedom, and you can rely on someone like me to use that reason a lot in explaining why we needed to be there. And I’m not trying to mislead you: I’m a big believer in using our strength to help oppressed people everywhere, when possible and practicable. You may have noticed that.
But is that why we were there? No. The Taliban had allowed their country to be used as a safe base for, well, the Base, and that presented a shockingly demonstrated physical threat to the United States — the kind of threat to which an oppressive country would likely have responded more or less as strongly as a “free” one.
Mind you, I’m not saying “freedom” is a bad word for what we’re about. I’m just saying we’re about so much more.
It’s kind of like “democracy.” People use that much the way they use “freedom.” But if I thought “democracy” summed up what our system is all about, I’d be slightly alarmed. I’m not a fan of direct democracy. I think having a system in which we all voted online on yes or no questions regarding major policy issues would be utterly insane. What we have is something more accurately described as “representative democracy” (to bring up that concept that seemed so important at the time of our revolution) or, in a Madisonian sense, a republic. And thank God for that.
This bothers those who smell “elitism” when they hear things like that. Well, their noses aren’t working right. I don’t believe for a moment that people who are elected to make decisions are by definition wiser, or in any other way better, than those who elect them (although I certainly respect them more than people who say they “hate politicians”). It’s about the process more than the people. If you just grab people at random off the street, and send them to Washington to study issues and engage in debate with people of various views, you will get better laws than if you simply ask those people on the street to state their uninformed, gut preference on a complex issue (which is why I’ve always hated “man-in-the-street” interviews — they make me embarrassed for the human race).
This is why I am so dismayed by Trumpism, and the extreme partisanship that was ruining our politics before Trumpism. When you go out of your way to elect people who are so aggressively idiotic that they will not engage in debate in good faith, the system cannot possibly work, no matter how “free” we say we are. (I’m stopping myself here from returning to another tangent, about the “freedom” to refuse vaccines and not wear masks, thereby killing thousands of your neighbors and destroying our economy. If you use “freedom” that way, you are definitely on the wrong track.)
Bottom line, I’m an American, and I cherish my freedom. It is worth fighting for and dying for, and I am profoundly grateful for everyone who has ever done that. Which anyone who has followed what I write knows. The least the rest of us can do is speak up in favor of it.
But does the word by itself sum up what I love about my country? No. You have to use other words as well, carefully and thoughtfully. And you have to insist that when people say “freedom,” they use it correctly and respectfully. Or else you’re missing what our country is about.
Speaking of words, I’m going to stop at 2,464…