Some Tentative Thoughts About Freedom

With the Independence Day holiday weekend now behind us, I've been thinking about the concept of freedom. This is hardly unplowed ground, of course. Along with the founding documents of the United States and countless other countries, freedom's contours have been explored by scholars over the centuries and across the political spectrum. FDR's famous "Four Freedoms Speech" -- describing freedoms of speech and expression, to worship, from want, and from fear -- sets a rather high standard as well. For a simple blog post on a Monday morning, I offer two much more modest thoughts.

First, freedom is one of those words whose meaning has become hopelessly muddled. Along the lines of the argument from George Orwell that I noted in a post last week, this lack of clarity makes the word both potent for demagogues and -- more to Orwell's larger point -- potentially confusing for its users. If we do not really know what we mean when we use the word freedom, invoking it can be meaningless at best and misleading at worst. For example, an advertisement for Dan Rather's new show on HDNet shows an unidentified soldier or militant of some sort, wearing a mask and being interviewed by Rather. The interviewee says: "We want freedom, and we are willing to die for it."

What does this person really want when he says that he will die for freedom? If, as we often believe, the U.S. is the model of freedom, what part of what we have is worth fighting to replicate elsewhere? A bicameral legislature? Adoption of the Bill of Rights? The Bush administration has often acted as if holding contested elections is both necessary and sufficient to declare that a country has been given "freedom," which merely demonstrates the point that meaningless words can lead to muddled or disastrous policy choices. "We gave them elections, so they have freedom. Why isn't everything better now?" Although it is easy to imagine that some people in positions of power use the word cynically, it seems at least plausible that much of the difficulty stems from insufficient appreciation that the word freedom has become a feel-good word that means everything and nothing.

Second, beyond abstract concepts of freedom in the context of constitutions and governance, what does freedom mean in people's lives? Again, this is hardly a new question, and it would be too ambitious to hope to add much to the idea that many of the freedoms that Americans often debate are meaningless to people without enough food to eat. Still, one of the concepts that, I strongly suspect, Dan Rather's freedom fighter most likely did not have in mind was expanding freedom to vulnerable groups in society. Almost twenty years ago, for example, I had occasion to drive across the United States alone. One afternoon, I stopped for gas in the middle of Wyoming. Even dressed in casual summer clothes, I couldn't help feeling great discomfort and even fear for my safety as I waited for the tank to fill up. The men at the gas station made it very clear that I was an outsider and that I should leave quickly, which I did. As I drove away, I thought, what if I were a woman, or black? Would I have even considered stopping there? What if I had no choice? With that as a possibility, would I even have considered driving across the country alone in the first place? At that moment, freedom took on a meaning that was quited unexpected (though, I readily admit, hardly novel). As a white male in America, I had the freedom to do something that I wanted to do, and that very freedom was fundamentally tied to the fact that I did not have to worry about my personal safety before deciding whether to do it.

The freedom to get in one's car and drive across the country might seem a bit frivolous -- especially given climate change and the price of gas -- but the larger point is that freedom can sometimes be captured in what we take for granted. We still have some distance to travel before we can say that all Americans, much less all human beings, enjoy the same freedoms. We would do well, at least, to stop using the word casually.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan