The left has abdicated the discourse of freedom. Or, at least, unsuccessfully contested it. Recently, someone I know in another context began to argue the Beckian line (if Glenn merits an “-ian”) with me that there has been a century long degradation of freedom in the U.S. Plenty of progressive commentators have pointed out that the right in this country no longer wants to return to some mythically blissful fantasy of 1950s America, but to the 1890s…when we were more free? Really?
First off, when I think about freedom, I think about it’s negative and positive functions. I value freedom from oppression. My great-grandfather, as a Jewish orphan, was forcibly conscripted into the Czar’s cavalry. After 15 years he got out, married, had two children and then figured out he had better get his young family out of Belarus in the Russian Empire. On the other side of my family, a great uncle who stayed in Berlin likely went up a smokestack in Dachau. The only thing we know definitively is that I bear an uncanny resemblance to him. The last solid information we have on him was from when he was in his mid twenties. Boy am I glad neither side of my family decided to stick around and see how things were going to turn out. I’ve also been in a position to participate in the impediment of movement and of the flow of resources in an un-free population in my military service in Israel. We can debate whether the restrictions I helped implement are justified or not, or who is at fault. But regardless, I understand the desire for negative freedom, the freedom from less than benevolent authorities. I get that very well.
But I also think about freedom in its positive sense. There are public school classrooms in Detroit that don’t have reliable heating. How free is a child to learn when he or she is freezing. What about the freedom to receive healthcare? How free is someone if he or she has asthma and no place to turn? How free is someone who is hungry? What about freedom and equality of opportunity? Aren’t these part of the American political project? Aren’t these freedoms part of what makes us historically significant?
Then there is the fact that I consider my freedom as directly linked to the society in which I live. I don’t want to be free, I want US to be free. A feudal lord might have had extensive freedom. But he was not a member of a free society. 100 years ago in this country, white Protestant men who came from economically established families may indeed have been more free than they are today. But everyone else, the vast majority of us, were significantly less free, in both negative and positive senses.
WE have never been more free. And WE are not yet sufficiently free. The right has a program to increase our negative freedom in ways that will enhance the positive freedom only of those who already enjoy economic benefits. The rest of us will be left to overcrowded, under-equipped classrooms and emergency rooms and told to find our own bootstraps.
No thanks. We want more freedom than that. With MLK day approaching, and on this his actual birthday, we need to re-learn King’s insight that freedom isn’t just about who sits where on a bus.
Unless we have equality of opportunity in this country, we are not free. If we believe that progressive policies will increase freedom, as I most certainly do, then we must not cede the mantle of “the cause of liberty” and of “the love of freedom” to those whose polices will make us decidedly less free.