The Trouble with Freedom

The Trouble with Freedom Cover Image

John R York

July 4, 2024

Who Gets to be Free?

It’s July 4, the Fourth of July. It's Independence Day, the day citizens of the United States of America celebrate the date in 1776 when the Second Continental Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence. To be sure, this was a monumental moment in history, but to most Americans, this is primarily a holiday and a reason to party. This year, the date falls on a Thursday, providing millions with an opportunity to make it a four-day weekend.

Like most holidays, the purpose for the celebration is lost for many citizens. I don’t know this for certain, but I’d be willing to bet a substantial sum of money that most people in this country have not read the Declaration of Independence. Okay, maybe once, in school, a long time ago. I asked someone at the gym the other day if they knew how the Declaration of Independence begins. They answered, “We the People”.

Wrong. That’s the United States Constitution. The Declaration of Independence begins with,

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them...”

It goes on and on. They wrote really long sentences in those days. I read the whole document yesterday and would like to share two succinct observations:

There is no way elementary and middle school kids are capable of understanding what this document says. Most school systems teach kids about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights beginning as early as 4th grade and going up through middle school.  I vaguely recall the lessons of my own schooling regarding the Declaration of Independence, and I remember the teacher trying to interpret the document for us. I’m pretty sure most of it went way over our young heads. 

There is language in this document that could be construed and used in modern times to make a case by groups of malcontented Americans for separating themselves from our current government.

I only mention this second observation because of the current political climate in our country. My point is that, although the Declaration of Independence is justifiably considered a sacred document of our history, it reflects the ideals, conditions, and realities that were prevalent 248 years ago. The very last complaint in the list of grievances included in the document is a good example:

He (the king of England) has excited domestic insurrections amongst us and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

The Declaration of Independence also includes the very famous and revered words:

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.”

Yet, during the time these words were written and for more than a hundred years thereafter, not everyone enjoyed the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Black slaves and native-Americans had no rights. Immigrants from countries other than England had very few rights, as did women of any background. The good news is that most of these inequalities have been addressed over the decades through hard-fought efforts to guarantee the promise of freedom to all Americans. The frustrating news is that there is still more work to be done.

The government that emerged from the American Revolution is a representative democracy, a government elected by its citizens. Conceptually, the officials we elect represent our ideas and concerns. Of course, we don’t all think the same way about many issues. We don’t often agree on solutions and we are widely diverse when it comes to values and behavior. Democracy, as it turns out, is typically a hard-scrabble and raucous process.

The real question these days seems to revolve around the question, what does it mean to be free? Some people apparently confuse freedom with unrestrained hedonism. I witness examples of this behavior almost daily. Living in a free nation comes with accountability. There is an implicit expectation that all the citizens of our nation accept their civic responsibilities—to participate in public life in an informed, committed, and constructive manner, with a focus on the common good.

Freedom or Anarchy?

Freedom is a precious thing. It’s also a thing easily abused. If we all believed that we have the freedom to do whatever we want, we would live in a dystopian world full of chaos. That’s the stuff of novels, which are fun to read but in reality, it’s an undesirable way of life. 

For the most part, Americans have done a decent job of governing themselves since 1776. Yes, there have been disagreements, a civil war, racism, persecution, and embarrassing government failures. But we always seem to pull ourselves back up and make the necessary adjustments to allow us as a nation, as a people to move forward. Despite political propaganda to the contrary, we are, warts and all, the greatest nation on the planet. Yet there is still much to be done, but given the nature of humankind, we are unlikely to ever achieve perfection.

Freedom is the foundation on which our civilized society rests. It is the necessary underpinning for living in a world full of conflicting ideas, morals, and values. Our personal sense of freedom, however, does not always square with that of others. 

At the micro-level of life, this may be something as trivial as a difference of opinion between neighbors. I want peace and quiet when I’m reading a book on my pool deck. The neighbor might have two dogs that bark incessantly, and the neighbor riles at a request to quiet them. At the macro-level, one political constituency may want to ban books from schools that contain any reference to a list of inappropriate content their representatives specify. Another political constituency contends that the banning of books in schools is censorship that discourages freedom of thought. They both think they are right.

The way we typically resolve these conflicts is through our process of government. We elect officials who pass laws and appoint people to enforce the laws. The problem is that this process creates winners and losers. Consequently, a few years later, after a bunch of protests and a change of power, some new laws get passed. The pendulum swings the other way. Yep, that’s democracy.

Freedom requires people in a civil society to learn how to live with each other and to deal with the swings in the policies that govern us. To be sure, “we the people” are quite diverse, yet we’re all part of the same great country. Yielding to the temptation of coercing others to embrace our views and our beliefs creates a more serious problem than dealing with the annoyances and outrages created by their contrasting values or lifestyles. If we allow ourselves and our emotions over these differences to boil over, we often try to destroy each other.

That’s the trouble with freedom: it requires that we all get along with each other for it to work. But it’s worth it. To be free, we must be willing to compromise once in a while. The alternative is that only some of us are free, and that defies the basic principals upon which our nation was founded.

Patriotism or Nationalism?

I feel that I have to say something about patriotism.

I consider myself a patriot. I served in the United States Air Force, went to Vietnam, voted in every national election since age 19, paid my taxes without cheating, worked my whole life, put myself through college without incurring any debt, was a partner in a startup company which eventually employed over 400 people, and never got arrested (well, there was… never mind). But I don’t wear my patriotism on my sleeve, as they say. I don’t mount an American flag or patriotic decals on my vehicle. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just not what I do.

Since today is the Fourth of July, many people will display their American flags, have picnics, bar-b-ques, drink beer, and watch fireworks. But what does it really mean to be patriotic? Is it the same as being a patriot? One would think that patriotism should be a unifying ideal representing love of country, and of liberty, freedom, and self-governance. Unfortunately, patriotism seems to have become a contentious topic among many of our citizens.

“Patriotism depends on which American is describing himself (or herself) as patriotic and what version of vision for the country they hold dear,” says Matthew Delmont, a historian at Dartmouth.

There are many who believe that some groups who profess to be patriots are, in essence, Nationalists. I don’t want to get into the weeds on this topic, but I thought it would be remis to ignore. There’s a lot of vitriol flowing around this topic in the news and daily conversations. The attack of the United States Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, was perpetrated by individuals waving lots of American flags, calling themselves patriots. While this seems to have been okay for some Americans, many others were shocked and dismayed. 

Maybe today, the Fourth of July, is a good day to take a moment to remember that our flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, belongs to all Americans, regardless of who they are or what they believe. We are one nation, indivisible. Right? That’s what we say when we pledge our allegiance to our flag. I am optimistic about the future. There will, no doubt, be some difficult times ahead, but we will endure.