A celebration of Freedom. Interpretations may vary

St. Louis Post-DispatchJuly 9, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Friday, July 4:

When did the concept of "freedom" become conflated with "selfishness"?

We started wondering about this back in April, when Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy was burning through his 15 minutes of fame. On April 9, he told Sean Hannity of Fox News, who briefly was one of his biggest fans, "My statement to the American people, 'I'll do whatever it takes to gain our liberty and freedom back.'"

Bundy's notion of freedom involved being able to graze his cattle on federal lands for free. He had run up two decades' worth of overdue bills, about $1.1 million. He'd become one of those guys who pop up every now and then with bizarre interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, refusing to pay taxes or otherwise conform to federal laws because they think they've found loopholes.

Not too many years ago, he'd have been passed off as a kook. But in April, because Fox News rallied to his cause along with tea party Republicans in Nevada and dozens of people throughout the west with plenty of time and weapons on their hands, people were paying attention to him.

There was briefly an armed standoff with federal agents before the government decided to back off, return the cattle it had seized and try to collect its $1.1 million in fees another day. Bundy self-destructed with a long, rambling and racist news conference that caused Fox News and most of the Bundy posse to bail out.

Yet a lot of Americans still have the idea that freedom is a "me first" sort of deal, allowing them to do almost anything they want, free from government interference, unconcerned with how it affects their fellow citizens.

You want to carry pistols and rifles into Target and Starbucks? No problem. Freedom.

You want to contaminate the West Virginia water supply with chemicals from your plant? No problem. You're Freedom Industries.

You want to father five or six kids with two or three different women and avoid taking care of them? No problem. Freedom.

You want to evade paying your taxes, ignore public responsibility, please the shareholders and get a big raise? Just merge with a smaller foreign company, pretend that it's taking you over and move your headquarters overseas. They only thing you have to change is the stationery. "Corporate inversion," they call it, and it's legal. Freedom.

You want to make sure politicians preserve your freedom by making other people pick up your share of the tab? Write them checks with lots of zeroes in them. Hide behind fake corporations and no one even has to know it's you.

America declared itself free and independent 238 years ago. Before and after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the concept of "freedom" took on different shapes.

In his 1998 book, "The Story of American Freedom," the eminent historian Eric Foner of Columbia University suggests that the word is fundamental to American identity, but its meaning is continually shifting. To know America at any point in its history is to know how people regard their freedom.

Every Thanksgiving, for example, we celebrate the Puritan colonists of New England. They understood freedom to mean that "individual desires must give way to the needs of the community," Foner writes, "and 'Christian liberty' meant submission not only to the will of God but to secular authority as well. ..."

By the time of the American Revolution, the new entity called "We the people of the United States" was more concerned about commerce. It claimed the "blessings of liberty," but denied those blessings to indigenous peoples and to slaves. The hypocrisy was stunning - we had become no better than the British, who colonized vast reaches of the world and enforced its rule with a Navy that pressed seamen into servitude.

Not until the Civil War did we deal with that hypocrisy, unleashing what Lincoln at Gettysburg called "a new birth of freedom." Yet Reconstruction failed to make those ideals real. Today millions of the descendants of those slaves are free only to the extent that they do not impinge on the freedom of others to keep as many of the benefits of society to themselves as possible.

The industrial revolution that followed the Civil War saw the rise of American plutocracy and the resultant revolt of labor. Freedom and equality had become separated, a condition that existed until the Progressive Era of the first two decades of the 20th century.

In 1941, as the New Deal had created a new vision of the government's role in enforcing a social covenant and with war against tyranny looming, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to redefine the expectations of human freedom with his declaration of the Four Freedoms.

The first two weren't controversial. Freedom of speech and expression and freedom of worship were enshrined in the First Amendment. The next two - freedom from want and freedom from fear - spoke to the ideals of the New Deal and the urgency of preparing for war.

Stunned capitalists demanded a fifth freedom: free markets, or the rights of property or free enterprise. That would have to wait until the 1980s and the conservative revolution of President Ronald Reagan.

"The 'Great Communicator'," Foner writes, "effectively united into a coherent whole the elements of Cold War freedom - negative liberty (that is, limited government), free enterprise, and anticommunism - all in the service of a renewed insistence on American's global mission."

Reagan's views still predominate today, Foner writes. The concept of freedom "has been largely appropriated by libertarians and conservatives of one kind or another, from advocates of unimpeded market economics to armed militia groups insisting that the right to bear arms is the centerpiece of American liberty."

What we have adopted is what the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin called "negative liberty," or freedoms "from." Foner explains:

"The dominant constellation of definitions seems to consist of a series of negations - of government, of social responsibility, of a common public culture, of restraints on individual self-definition and consumer choice. Once the rallying cry of the dispossessed, freedom is today commonly invoked by powerful economic institutions to justify many forms of authority, even as on the individual level it often seems to suggest the absence of outside authority altogether."

The history of freedom in America is that one side or the other tends to overreach. As big money has captured politics in the interest of perpetuating record income inequality, we may be reaching that point again.

What remains constant, however, is the truism that "freedom isn't free." Those who seek a different understanding of freedom will have to fight for it.

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