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What Does Freedom Mean Anymore?

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It is worth remembering during this week divided by an Independence Day holiday that as Americans we are united by freedom, perhaps even as many freedoms as there are of us. That is both the ideal and the reality of America, that each one of us enjoys a freedom all our own, to defend through participation or allow abrogated through indifference.

The Declaration of Independence that we ostensibly honor this week with cookouts and fireworks displays was quite clear about this, about the influence that common men should have over their own lives. Two hundred and thirty-one years later this remains the true genius of America, that our freedom as citizens comes first from our belief in it.

But what does the common man actually believe about freedom today? Does freedom today mean the same thing as written and fought for over two centuries ago? And would our grave-bound founding fathers rest easy or roll over and die again knowing the answer? Never in its history since the first Independence Day has this country been more in need of debate over the meanings of freedom.

When learned and thoughtful Americans irrespective of political persuasion think of freedom, they undoubtedly think firstly of the First Amendment of our Constitution, with its explicit freedoms of and from religion, and freedoms of speech, of the press, and of assembly and petition. Some also would automatically think of the Second Amendment, with its freedom of the people to keep and bear arms, and of the Fourth, with its freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Others still would think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, famously added to the common vernacular in his 1941 speech to Congress. Roosevelt proposed as universal human freedoms, applicable “everywhere in the world”, the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. While serving as part of the basis for the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights – of which the United States is a signatory – later that decade, Roosevelt’s Freedoms were never otherwise enshrined into U.S. law.

But of these historically well-known freedoms, which would the common man today recite as all or part of their personal definition? None so far as I can tell, perhaps excepting the right to bear arms, which for many is quite likely the only part of the Constitution with which they are familiar.

So far as I can tell, freedom in our every-man-for-himself culture has come to mean "whatever makes me happy is okay". Freedom for "me" does not rest upon or even consider freedom for you. Freedom for "me" is just another word for fireworks until four a.m.

Has the meaning of freedom in America truly degenerated to the right of irresponsibility, of liberation from all restraint? At the risk of sounding the public scold, I would answer that indeed largely it has.

“You are such a cynic”, you will probably say, or worse. Or you will angrily write of your God-given right, even Constitutional freedom, to explode fireworks in your neighborhood of sleeping children and dogs until four a.m. And perhaps you are right.

But I would argue in return that such notions of freedom are flawed, and in them are revealed the exhaustion of the spirit and intent that framed the Constitution. The founding fathers, following the path of Enlightenment thinkers, imagined a balanced and civilized freedom which did not impinge upon the freedom of one’s neighbor.

Put in the simplest terms: my right to life means that you must give up your right to kill me. Your right to wave your fist ends where my right to an uninjured nose begins.

Others, more thoughtful than I, have put it more eloquently. The revered Mormon elder Marvin J. Ashton once said: “Our freedom to choose our course of conduct does not provide personal freedom from the consequences of our performances.”

A mid-twentieth century Prime Minister of Canada, John Diefenbaker, once put it even more simply: “Freedom is the right to be wrong, not the right to do wrong.”

Classical historian Edith Hamilton once reminded us the historical lesson that “when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”

And, perhaps most poetically, there is living historian John Lukacs telling us that “freedom, after all, is not merely emancipation, meaning the relaxation of rules on people by society, church or state, by the tyranny of a ruler, by a minority, or by a majority. Freedom means the capacity to know something about oneself, and the desire to live according to limits imposed on oneself rather than by external powers.”

Our freedoms, such as they are, and so many as there are, do not exist in a void. They exist interdependently, and sometimes must be self-limited in order that they not limit the freedoms of others. And when citizens do not self-limit to the extent that the safety or rights of others is threatened, government must unfortunately but necessarily step in.

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Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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