Americans have never been able to properly shoulder the burden of liberty, in 2020 it’s time to rethink what freedom means for us
I was living in Canada starting in th late fall of 2016, a precarious time to cross the border for a new home. Donald Trump had just been elected and everyone I met who learned I was American followed it up with a cringe, a look of sympathy, an eye roll. On the day of Trump’s inauguration in early 2017 my roommate bought me a small joke bowtie in stars and stripes and wrote me a note affirming things would get better, that my home country was still great even with one evil man in charge.
During one conversation, this roommate mentioned a history teacher once told her that America was the freest country in the world — that American citizens had more personal freedoms than anywhere else. It sounds like a compliment to an American ear. The first thing to note is America is not the freest country on Earth, sitting behind Canada, the UK, Australia, and Germany when it comes to the Human Freedom Index’s measurement of Personal and Economic Freedoms. But on paper, the liberties assigned to American citizens at their birth are many: religion, arms, privacy, property, juries, trials, speech, and many others not so casually afforded to those of other countries.
As children, most American citizens probably participated in some version of the following exchange. One person stands too close to another, sings obnoxiously, pokes them, or otherwise performs some form of harmless harassment. The victim asks their aggressor to stop. The aggressor responds with a sneer: “It’s a free country.” The victim is left without a retort and the aggressor learns a simple way to protect their behavior. But eventually — surely — they’ll grow out of it. They’re a child after all.
Except nothing about America encourages people, specifically white, straight, and male people, to grow out of this thought process. We encourage it.
It’s likely safe to say that no American has a living memory of a time of more individual stress and and pressure pervading all aspects of one’s day, life, and choices. And what we’re currently going through does not require rehashing. Millions worldwide are sick, over a million are dead, and almost 20% of those deaths come from one country. The free one.
Within a month of lockdowns being ordered in the US, protests began state-to-state demanding the state reopen their local economies, demanding they not be forced to wear masks in public, asserting their right to endanger themselves for a round of golf or a night at Applebee’s if they wished it: “Reopen my state or we will reopen it ourselves”.
In a study on the cultural perceptions of freedom, Dr. Hazel Markus of Stanford University performed an experiment with American and Indian students. She presented each group with a set of five pens, asking them to select one. The catch is, four of them were the same color. By and large, the American students selected the unique pen while Indian students almost universally went for one of the four other pens of common color. In a second iteration of the exercise, Markus would then take away whichever pen the students chose, hand them a different one, and then ask them to rate the performance of the pen they were forced to take. Indian students displayed no preference in their grading of pens, either chosen or forced upon them. For the American students, it was a different case: “Taking away their choice threatens their freedom. And so they devalued the pen the experimenter gave them.”
From her work, Markus gleamed that Americans define themselves by their individuality and choice. Stripping individual choice from an American results in a negative response, despite all five pens performing the same.
This freedom of choice has been the crux of much of the anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests. Curfews, mask mandates, capacity regulations in retail spaces, forced closure of non-essential businesses, restrictions on travel, forbidden public gatherings, canceled sporting and entertainment events. Those who defended their behavior all their lives with “it’s a free country” were now facing their biggest, and for many only, challenge to that mentality and entitlement. They have the right to die if they want.
But one thing American children are never taught alongside their memorization of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution’s many amendments: the right to swing your fist ends at my face.
Americans have a fascinating prioritization of their rights. The right to own guns is more important than the right to safety of citizens, the right to religious freedom is above the right to life and liberty for certain groups of American citizens. What Americans are not taught, and creates a paradox of their web of freedoms is that any single American is not the only one with these rights. You have the right to guns, but I have the right to voice my opposing opinion. You have the right to religious beliefs but I have the right to marry someone of any gender. I have the right to gather in protest, but you have the right to defend your personal property.
The issue arises in hyper individuality, concern with my own personal rights, forgetting you have the same exact ones and, sometimes, those rights cancel each other out, whether they should or not. The above quote about swinging fists and faces is an oft-repeated line with multiple sources but it ultimately goes back to this 1882 oration in Iowa City:
“Is not this a free country?”
“Have not I the right to swing my arm?”
“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”
Dr. Sandro Galea of Boston University wrote in 2017 about the concepts of freedom to perform actions vs the freedom from certain dangers. The clashing of these two opposing versions of freedom has been an unresolved battle. The freedom to do something aims to create a fair society and equality under the law but is often interpreted as unfettered liberty (the most prominent example of this being Second Amendment advocates). One possible check on this was suggested by Edmund Burke in 1789 in what called “equality of restraint” and the responsibility of institutions to make sure no one freedom bulldozed over others and/or resulted in harm to individuals. Unfortunately, many of our institutions have in fact favored the opposite approach thanks to interest groups pouring money and pressure onto lawmakers.
This nuance is not part of our national mythos about our own existence, and the acknowledgment of other human beings with the same exact rights rarely comes up. Those demanding they be granted the right to brave the dangers of the virus have a nurtured inability to comprehend what it would mean for the exercise of one right to trample over the rights of another. And a pandemic is the ultimate team sport. Preventing community spread requires compliance, patience, participation, and empathy and there are no rights for those. While you may think your ability to go to a restaurant or bar affects only you, your server is at your mercy, as are the doctors in the hospital that may eventually care for you, and the family members you bring your infection home to.
There is currently no mandate to instruct our children to understand the responsibility that comes with the freedoms their birth allows them. There is no moment of empathy for fellow American citizens with freedoms from our freedoms to. The great American pessimism against government keeps us from even discussing a limit on certain freedoms without talks of treason or communism. So, let’s start with acknowledging the great responsibility that comes with our personal freedoms and the consequences of our actions (something white Americans have often never had to face).
“An agent is free to act; yes, but–. He must stand the consequences, the disagreeable as well as the pleasant, the social as well as the physical. He may do a given act, but if so, let him look out. His act is a matter that concerns others as well as himself” — John Dewey, 1908