On Freedom, OR: ‘Murica!

This is a post I wanted to write, or was mentally writing, on US Independence Day, but was not at liberty to sit down and actually write, which continues to strike me as ironic [kind of like everything about the American concept of “freedom”].

I don’t know what “freedom” is, or rather that is misdirection because of course I know what freedom is, but what I don’t understand is how freedom or liberty gets to be an absolute value of a people because it’s not actually possible. It’s a bizarrely aspirational value, not because all values are not aspirational [which is to say unachievable in reality], but because of the way that we live it culturally. Somehow, if another value, say sustainability, were at the center of our national ethos I don’t think it could possibly manifest in as ugly a way as “freedom” has. I am imagining mulleted white guys engaged in competitive composting, racing to darn socks the most durably, bragging about how many more hotdogs they didn’t eat or White Claws/Miller Lites/Budweisers they did not drink. I am willing to be wrong about this. Please everyone drop everything and froth with nationalist fervor about how sustainable you can all be. And when we get to the end of that experiment and Americans have managed to fuck it all up, I will recant. Or, best case scenario we, like, solve the climate crisis…

All of this is to say that I am pretty convinced that “freedom” is not really the value that we want because the way we live it is as a zero sum game. This amounts to “in order for me to be free, others must be less free, and our social experiment is a race to personal unlimited freedom, all others be damned.” I don’t think this is what the founders intended, but also I know a thing or two about the Founding Fathers and sometimes I think it sort of is what they intended. They were not, after all, a unified voice all in agreement but a room full of men with similar backgrounds and divergent political and economic interests trying to compromise on their highest ideals while not examining their agendas as closely as we may have been led to believe.

Is freedom, “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint”? This is what Google tells me, and from a folk etymology sense that means it effectively is the definition. This is what we meant as children when we were assholes and jeered at our affronted peers, “it’s a free country. I can do what I want.” Is freedom what Oliver Wendell Holmes [or maybe apocryphally several people] meant when he said “your freedom to swing your fists ends where my nose begins” [or any other pithy paraphrase that reverses the “your” and “my” and exchanges “freedom” for “liberty”]? These are different things. Some people – you maybe have read about them on the internet – think it is the former while others [also on the internet] think it is the later.

The crux of the difference truly depends on whom freedom is for. If it is for everyone, then the only freedom that can exist for anyone is one that is tempered by another’s freedom. They told us in school that these words from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness […]” should be our American child’s understanding of freedom. They also told us that this meant “everyone” even though it only says “men.”

In 7th grade civics I was sent to the principal’s office for asking my teacher why this foundational phrase that I was to understand granted us all freedom expressly excluded me as not a man. I wasn’t even nasty about it, I honestly asked, “Mrs. Brennan, why does it say ‘all men,’ I thought it was ‘all people’?” On guard against the critique now embodied in the bogeyman of Critical Race Theory, and knowing that I had pretty liberal parents, naturally my teacher’s only reasonable interpretation of my statement was my impertinence. And off to the principal’s office I went. What she taught me here was the real lesson of freedom as tautology, “you’re free goddamn it. Whatever state in which you find yourself is called ‘freedom’ and I don’t want to hear any liberal hogwash about how you’re not free because you’re a lady or black or whatever. This is America, you’re an American, therefore: you’re free.”

It doesn’t matter that it was a real question, or that it could have been an opportunity to let me know that in the beginning of our country that I was not included in those who were granted freedom or necessarily personhood and that that’s what the 19th Amendment was about [and a whole host of other amendments and laws that followed to expand freedom to be ever-closer to an ideal of universal freedom, still yet to be realized].

But also, whether freedom is aspirationally for everyone or not, that doesn’t cover whether freedom is or was ever intended to be practically for everyone. This is a question about the application of equality. I’ve been an American [and a human] for my entire life, so I will go ahead and offer my own applied definition of equality, by way of George Orwell, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” It is not so much that we don’t intend for equality to be real, it is that we know it isn’t. It’s another aspirational value that is maybe wrong of us to put at the center of our value system. As an example, even if we’re not talking about such identity politics wedge issues [also know as real issues that affect real people] like race or gender or class, some people are just smarter or stronger or, as the Social Darwinists would say, “more fit” than others. Some of us are more equal, and many many things can contribute to that greater equality.

This is and is not word play. I understand that the state of equality requires that things be exactly the same [gasp – that is socialism!]. This sort of Platonic ideal requires that there be no analog in the physical world. There are those who would say, “just because something is not possible in reality does not mean we should not strive for it.” I am one of these people. There are also those who would say, “ignoring the circumstances of reality because of adherence to ideals makes it impossible to correct injustice in reality.” I am one of these people. I have heard that the main difference between American conservatives and liberals is a difference of perspective: conservatives want to focus on the sacredness of the values and liberals want to focus on who is being neglected in the application of those values.

I don’t know that I believe this is the only or even main difference between these two groups of people, but I think it’s a useful lens. My liberal friends are aghast by the audacity of their conservative relatives who think America is a great country because they can only see the kids in cages, the POC disproportionally killed and incarcerated, the issues with healthcare and parental leave and student loans… oh my. My conservative friends from high school cannot understand why liberals on the internet [I might be the only one some of them know personally] seem to hate our country, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. We hate cops and veterans and god fearing real Americans.

This isn’t me doubling down on false equivalence, but they are both right about this. We are both the Land of the Free and the country who systematically oppresses large swathes of very specific populations in our Home of the Brave. What makes us a shit-hole country is how we apply our values [very unequally] and what makes us a Great Nation is what we strive to be. Even though I know that upward mobility is on the decline, and that the promise of the American Dream really amounts to ecocide and depends on the exploitation of un/underpaid labor, I still cry every single time the National Anthem is played at a sporting event, even as I rage at those who would contest the right of players to kneel during it [and wonder why I am watching a sporting event]. My relationship with the American Experiment is complicated [and yours probably is too if you are being self-aware].

What makes up the practice of freedom? Is it the potential to be able to be/do/think anything you might possibly want? To be Jeff Bezos hoarding wealth like Smaug. Or is it the restraint that holds your own swinging fist from smacking anyone else in the nose? To [insert example that has never yet existed, to my reckoning/how I try to live my life every day].

My son [he’s 12] currently has an aspiration to be a benevolent tech-bazillionaire. He wants nothing more than to go to MIT, use their particle accelerator, discover some method by which we can create limit-less but consequence-free fission-derived power that he will somehow own the patent for, give free power to the masses, donate all his money to provide healthcare and education for everyone, retire to his sustainable [goat] farm on the Smith River, and – by the power of the world’s fastest internet – watch nerdy YouTube videos for the rest of his life. As a grown-up, I see a number of holes in his life plan, but I am still keeping my mouth shut about them, only asking oblique questions like, “can you think of a nuclear power source that doesn’t have future generations needing to deal with radioactive waste?” Or, “aren’t you concerned with the corrupting influence of having gazillions of dollars and no mechanism that forces you to share it?” We also talk idly about how patent law really works when your funding comes from grants and institutions of higher learning. But really, I think he just wants to be Tony Stark, which I can’t say I don’t understand [he is 12].

Only in America can you have Tony Stark. When I was 12 I wanted to be a field biologist who somehow cured all cancer and no one told me that was insane [but only because I knew better than to tell anyone]. But also, only in American can you tell everyone that they could be Tony Stark when in reality they can only be [nameless hoard of characters not pictured in the MCU because they had to have real jobs]. In the the US our concept of freedom is the right to dream of being Tony Stark, but our reality is to end up being a science teacher in Iowa who has to wait tables on the weekend to pay off his student loans, or a gas station attendant in Atlanta who listens to Neil deGrasse Tyson podcasts and was unable to finish college [but still has to pay off student loans]. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with being a science teacher or a gas station attendant, but I don’t know that it’s really freedom if what you wanted was to be Tony Stark.

And that is the real problem with freedom: it is both tremendous success and spectacular failure and all the people in between who can almost reach their dreams or know they should be grateful that it wasn’t worse. Because we know we are all equally free, we also all know that we only have ourselves to blame when we are not Tony Stark.

My daughter [she is 9] currently wants to be a professional chef and a writer in her spare time and be a mom. Her goals sound more achievable, but I know that they are not. Not because she won’t try, or because she isn’t capable, but because a passion for cooking and writing on the side is highly unlikely to pay her well enough that she could ever hope to afford to be someone’s mother. So I get to hope that she spends her 20s working restaurant hours and never meets anyone that she wants to procreate with until it is no longer feasible, that way she can have two out of three of those things. That’s not too bad. I think that this is better than the trap of “marrying well,” something that is also not freedom.

Obviously, what kids want for their adult selves changes over time, and in the case of both of my kids what happens with the climate [especially on my mind these days] is going to have more to say about their futures than anything else. But of course, the climate crisis is also about freedom. Freedom to burn shit without consequences, not the freedom to only burn as much shit as won’t prevent humans and the biosphere from getting punched in the face.

Handmade pie with stars and stripes in the crust. Half blueberry and half strawberry filling.
Lest it seem like I am a joyless curmudgeon, I regularly exercise my freedom to bake pie. This is a Star-Spangled Blueberry Strawberry Pie that I baked a few years ago when a mega-drought and heatwave were not making it impossible for me to use my oven.

One freedom is definitely harder in the short term than the other, but it protracts the freedom long term. I wish we talked about freedom that way. Freedom for the most people to be the most free for the longest amount of time. This is the type of freedom that my generation has to embrace if future generations are to have any at all. We have to live that Oliver Wendall Holmes freedom or no one after us can have any freedom at all. Gee, that makes me feel free AF. Hidden inside that sort of freedom is some restraint that seems antithetical to our current sense of freedom, we bristle at the idea of having less freedom than our parents with their Social Security and mortgages.

This is why I don’t think freedom is the right value. Advocates for the military [and those media talking heads who would exploit their sacrifices] like to tell us “freedom isn’t free.” This is true, for what it is worth. The consequences of our freedom are great, perhaps greater than the benefit. I am still unable to tell if caring so much about what we can do or want to do is worth it. The squabbles we have currently about how much of our freedoms we can give up so that some people can have any, almost as if the freedom to believe we are free is worth more than being free.

I’m not free. Not free to quit my office job and be a farmer. Not free to ear mark my taxes for schools and education and healthcare and not war. Not free to use only green energy. Not free from the guilt of my affluence. Not free from gunfire. Not free from wildfires. Not free from pollution. Not free from corporate surveillance. Not free from other people’s religions. Not free from discrimination.

And because I know that for many people this list of not freedoms is longer than mine, I am given to wonder about what exactly the freedoms I do have are for. It is incumbent upon us to have an adult reckoning with our concept of freedom before we use it all up. Freedom is a finite resource.

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