Monday, February 18, 2013


What does freedom mean to you?

I don't want your prizewinning essay from the 5th Grade Civics Fair.  I want a real, tangible, definition.

The word freedom is bandied about quite a bit these days.  I am constantly being told that my freedom is at risk.  My freedom is being taken away.  If I'm not afraid, then certainly many other people are.

Go onto Facebook on any given day and you'll see a posting, generally from someone with right-wing opinions, posting some meme regarding freedom that quotes the Founding Fathers, and quoting them out of context.  When I say they are quoting them out of context, I do not mean to insult the intelligence or the good intentions of the posters.  I simply mean that the context of the Founding Fathers has little to do with today.

Freedom in the Revolutionary War era was a very specific context.  The United States was just a set of British colonies.  As British subjects, the colonies were working to enrich the empire.  England was the only market for their goods and services and was also their only supplier.  They had no alternative to that overtaxed tea because they had to buy their tea from the monopoly of the British East India company.  To the angry colonists freedom meant the freedom to become self-governing and self sustaining.  It meant risking the off of  protection of the British Army and the security of knowing they would have a neverending, stable market for their goods and services.  They knew the benefits would outweigh the risks.

The Founding Fathers idea of freedom were pretty much lost on women and blacks.  They didn't count.

Speaking of women and blacks, the anti-slavery movement, the anti-segregationist movement, and the suffrage movement all had very specific definitions for freedom as well. 

I don't see much corollary today between the freedoms demanded by the Founding Fathers and the freedoms demanded by Americans today, but then again, I'm not sure what those freedoms are.

Not long ago I saw a political cartoon that was supposed to show the difference between liberals and conservatives.  (I tried to find a copy to post here, but was unable to.)  It showed the liberals standing at the edge of a pit full of hungry people and were lowering boxes of food to them shouting, "More food."  The next panel showed the conservative view where the people standing at the edge of the same pit were lowering boxes labeled "freedom" and were demanding, "More freedom."

I didn't get it then and I still don't get it.  Constitutionally speaking poor people have the same freedoms as everyone else.  They're not poor because they don't have freedom.  They're poor because they don't have jobs, or else the jobs they have do not pay well enough for them to sustain a decent standard of living.

Well, I suppose we're talking about a very specific type of freedom for only a specific type of the population.  "Freedom" is supposed to mean that people should be allowed to make as much money as they want, without ever having to consider the needs of others, nor making a contribution to the country that has provided them with both the place and  the opportunity to make as much money as they want.  That's what the PAC known as Freedom Works is working for.

Freedom Works is sponsored by the Koch brothers.  The Koch brothers, because they live in the United States, have been able to become fabulously wealthy.  The Koch brothers do not believe in respecting the cleanliness of air and water.  They have no problem denying basic human rights and dignities to workers.  They believe in using and abusing their workforce for as little money as they can get away with paying.  Their success and the success of others in the energy and banking worlds has yet to equal success among the lowest of us.  What exactly has their freedom done to contribute to the country?  The Koch brothers also pull the puppet strings behind the Tea Party.  They have used their wealth and influence to convince a segment of the population that there is only one kind of freedom and it is at risk.

The freedom of the very wealthy to grow wealthier at any cost has not benefited the country as a whole and has, in fact, caused much harm. Manufacturing jobs, once the backbone of stable employment in this country, have been shipped overseas, or else the unions that assured their stability and benefits have been destroyed.   Companies such as WalMart have spent years avoiding paying their workers a living wage and finding loopholes to providing benefits (well before the Affordable Care Act existed).  When their hard working employees find they need SNAP and Medicaid, they are sneered at and reviled for being "handout people" and "takers."  We talk often of "moral values" in the national dialog, but morality should be based in doing as little harm as possible, shouldn't it?

Franklin Roosevelt once outlined "The Four Freedoms" that all Americans should have.  The first two are the well-known and all-important Constitutional freedoms of speech and religion.  The other two were very different.  They are Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.

Why do Americans no longer care about freedom from want? I have heard it said that if you are hungry, you can never truly be free.  If you are working 12 hour days at two jobs and your children still suffer food insecurity, if you are in danger of losing your home due to medical bills, if you are having to choose between paying the rent and eating, what good does waving a flag and shouting "freedom" do to you?  To be hungry, to suffer from want, to be in debt because it is the only way to pay the bills, is a form of enslavement in itself.  How many poor people continue to be enslaved by mounting bills and predatory employers who want to milk as much work out of them for as little money as possible?  Should I tell the homeless veteran with no legs who sits in his wheelchair and begs for change all day that he is lucky to live in a free country where the Koch brothers can make as much money as they want?

What about freedom from fear?  Is that a legitimate freedom?  Even if it is, no one seems to want it anymore.  Americans love fear.  They revel in it. They get off on it.  They derive their outrage from it. Americans love a good slippery slope argument (quite evident now in the gun right debates).  Our government has effectively used fear as a form of controlling the American people for over 30 years.  We love fear.  We cloak ourselves in it.  Most of all, fear sells.  There is enormous profit to be made in peddling fear.

 Americans might say they want freedom from fear, but they remain enslaved to it.  To stop fearing is to stop hating and Americans love to find an "other" to hate.  They believe the only way to have freedom from fear is to destroy everything and everyone they fear.  Those that profit from our fear, those who derive financial benefit from our fear, will always make sure we stay afraid.

I started thinking about another period in history where the word "freedom" was heavily used in the public rhetoric, and that's during the 60s.  A few years ago Kevin received a gift of the entire Woodstock concert recordings.  They used to word "freedom" so much during those recordings that I think even Sarah Palin would be sick of hearing it.

What did freedom mean to those people?  Freedom of speech must have been a high priority both in the freedom of expression needed for the music played and also the freedom to protest the Vietnam War.  They wanted the freedom to say no to fighting in an unjust war.  There is the obvious context of sexual freedom as well.  Most of all, if you were at Woodstock, you likely dreamed of freedom from all societal constraints.  That was a generation that dreamed of new social norms and possibly even a new social order.  Hippies wanted to go off the grid and start their own societies.  In the case of Woodstock though, their rejection of the social order and social norms was so extreme as to be both unproductive and unsustainable, but while it lasted, it was sweet sweet freedom.

For those who believe in the ultimate freedom, it is possible to retreat from society and go off the grid.  That's not always a perfect answer, but it is an option.  If you choose to go this route, starting your own society could likely put you under a whole new set of constraints.  The Amish, for example, live off the grid and outside of the cultural norms, but they have constraints of their own such as clothing and a rejection of technology.  Most of all, they believe in helping each other (think barn raisings), making a contribution to the society, and yielding up the needs of the individual to the needs of the group. This would be unthinkable to most conservatives.  There are families who go off the grid in a more isolated fashion.  It is enormously hard work to sustain such a lifestyle.  When you live in such a way you have no time to contemplate your navel and argue about your freedom to do so it on the internet.  You're too busy growing your own food, maintaining your own power source, and educating your children.  It's not an easy life.

The more I think of it, the more I realize the sacrifice made by those whose freedom means so much to them that they withdraw from society entirely.  Being a member of a larger society has its own benefits.  I have services available to me to make my life easier and safer.  I  have a safety net if something catastrophic were to happen to me.  My world is maintained for me.  In order to live within a society, I do have accept a certain number of social constraints.  I may have to avoid actions, perform tasks, and make small sacrifices to the greater good in order to receive these benefits.  In that respect, I am, in fact, sacrificing some of my freedom for a certain level of security.  If I'm paying taxes so that my neighborhood is protected by police, my military is defending my country, my roads and bridges are kept safe and in good repair, and schools continue to churn out productive educated members of society, then I am sacrificing freedom (in the form of money I freely earned) for security.  I needed a license before I could drive a car and I have to obey the rules of the road in order to make it more likely that I and everyone else on the road arrive at our destinations in one piece. I may be contributing a small amount of tax dollars to a social safety net, but as someone who is contributing, it makes me equally entitled to that safety net as anyone else.  A functional society requires some sacrifice on everyone's part. 

As I bring this to a conclusion I realize that I still don't know what freedom is.

I can say what freedom is not.

If you are a functional member of a larger society, but are being denied the benefits of living within that society, then you are definitely not free.

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