What IS “Freedom” Anyway?

“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose” was Kris Kristofferson’s answer to the question (he wrote the song “Me And Bobby McGee”). I’m not sure I agree with Kris. I mean, sure, what he’s referencing is a certain kind of freedom – the one where circumstances box you in so you might as well go for broke. But that’s a “reactive” freedom rather than an “active” freedom – one where the person seeking freedom gets to define the terms first. What exactly is “freedom” anyway? We toss that word around like a frisbee; problem is, only some people actually know how to toss it around. The rest of us are faking it. Just watch where our frisbees fly off to. They could go anywhere (if they go anywhere at all) and hit people not expecting a frisbee flying at them.

If I hurt someone because I threw a frisbee without knowing how to, that’s on me. My “freedom” did something that freedom isn’t supposed to do – hurt others. Maybe I should be a little more responsible about how I throw a frisbee – or exercise my freedom.

That’s the thing that rabid freedom-warriors want no part of: the responsibility part of the “freedom package deal”. And real, adult freedom is a package deal.

We all know why freedom’s a good thing – free people are, well, “free”! They can (in theory) do or say whatever they like without fear of being arrested. They might get sued (here in America) but, so far, they won’t get arrested (the LA County Sheriff’s Office and Florida governor Ron DeSantis notwithstanding). Libertarians – they love walking point in the freedom wars – approach freedom the way a ten year old boy does: “You’re not the boss of me!”

To Libertarians, “freedom” means they get to do whatever they want wherever they want however they want, the consequences or ripple effects on others be damned. Their right to pollute supersedes anyone else’s right to not be polluted. Their right to own as many guns as they like – and to take them wherever they like (and even use them to go hunting other humans if that’s what freedom demands) – supersedes everyone else’s freedom (and right to NOT be hunted).

That, alas, is the conservative blind spot where freedom’s concerned. They can only see freedom from the individual’s perspective. The instant two of us band together, perhaps defensively because of what some freedom-loving third person has done, the conservative sympathizes with the freedom-lover and never the group.

In America, the dynamic tension between ideals of freedom can be seen in the dynamic tension between the deeply flawed execution of “All men are created equal” and the ideal of American Exceptionalism captured by our nation’s motto: “E Pluribus Unum” – out of many, one. Our founders – all white, Christian (European), land-owning men – only meant men like themselves by “All men”. And they only meant men. Clearly the slaves whose stolen labor built the Southern economy weren’t created equal to our founders in our founders’ minds.

America began with a white, male, European’s idea of “freedom”. That’s why we fought a Civil War. That idea of freedom was flawed because it was only freedom for some. So – was it really ever “freedom” from “freedom’s
perspective? Of course it wasn’t.

So, how do we get as much freedom as possible for as many citizens as possible? How do we level the playing field so that 1) it’s truly level for all in terms of both equality and equity and 2) part of that leveling process accounts for all of the time the playing field wasn’t level? It isn’t a question of casting blame so much as it is setting ourselves up for success (instead of just more simmering failure).

No one in the present can undo what was done in the past. What the present can do is acknowledge the past – and acknowledge that fairness (essential to us continuing as a civil society) demands that what the past stole must be returned to the present if we’re to have any kind of a future. Understand: it is hard for someone whose property has been stolen to watch the thief not only get away with their thievery but get rich off it. Those riches, of course, belong to the thief’s victim.

That, really, is how we need to view reparations – as back pay plus interest. The Southern economy grew on the backs of three cash crops: tobacco, sugar cane and cotton. All were labor intensive to get them from field to factory. If the Southern states hadn’t had slavery as an option – if circumstances had forced them to pay for all that labor instead of stealing it in the form of slavery – would the Confederacy have even existed? Imagine if the South had been forced to pay the going market rate for all its labor.

There would never have been a Civil War. Maybe the South would have become the world’s first “worker’s paradise”.

Instead, America built its idea of freedom on the backs of people whose freedom we denied.

There will always be dynamic tension between individual freedom and the group’s freedom. Neither can ever dictate or the whole delicate construct will fall apart. Just as the group’s over-reach can destroy the nature of freedom, so too can an individual’s over-reach (where their freedom interferes with another person’s freedom) undermine the group’s freedom and therefore freedom itself. Finding the balance – that’s the challenge of a “free society”.

The reason (we all agree) that you can’t legally shout “fire!” in a crowded theater is because that person exercising their right of free speech is going to cause havoc and chaos that harms other people. It’s an entirely irresponsible use of free speech. A dangerous use of it. That’s why it’s a “freedom” no one can have. It’s not a “freedom” anyway; it’s an infantile behavior that some irresponsible jerk wants to hide behind.

What makes democracy so much harder than any other form of government is that it demands so much more of its citizens. A democratic government doesn’t impose itself on people. The rule of law cannot enforce itself. A Constitution is only as good as its creators’ willingness to live by its higher ideals.

If ya can’t abide the responsibilities demanded by freedom then do not even think to take advantage of the benefits. You are unworthy.

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