When progressives cry “freedom,” what does it mean?

Where government has no proper role, because public action would violate individual rights, progressive policy should be based on freedom. By freedom, I mean the absence of legal interference with our fundamental rights—freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; and the right of all citizens to vote. Compared to an individual, government wields tremendous power, so a progressive policy adds great weight—in the form of strong legal rights—to the individual’s side of the scale. For example, freedom of speech is absolutely sacrosanct unless it immediately and directly puts others in danger—“falsely shouting fire in a theater” as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it.

Freedom should be fairly easy to understand—it’s a defense of our basic constitutional rights and civil liberties. I include the right to vote because it should be as sacred as any constitutional right. The very definition of democracy—rule by the people—requires the unrestricted right to vote. So laws that keep American citizens from casting ballots should be eliminated on the grounds that they violate our most fundamental democratic freedom.

I very intentionally adopt a limited definition of freedom, often called “negative freedom.” Why? Because a limited definition keeps the word from becoming meaningless.

Freedom is the cornerstone of America’s value system. For two centuries, America has been defined by its commitment to freedom. One poll found that Americans believe—by a margin of 73 to 15 percent—that freedom is more important than equality. But because it’s so popular, freedom is the most misused of all political terms. The abuse of the word freedom is nothing new. Here’s the chorus of the pro-Union Civil War song, “Battle Cry of Freedom”:

The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitors, up with the stars;
While we rally round the flag, boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

The song was so popular, Confederates created their own “Battle Cry of Freedom,” which goes:

Our Dixie forever! She's never at a loss!
Down with the eagle and up with the cross!
We'll rally 'round the bonny flag, we'll rally once again,
Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!

Think about that. Almost four score and seven years before George Orwell described Newspeak, the Confederacy was using the word freedom to defend slavery. Unfortunately, things aren’t much better today.

Neoconservatives have incessantly proclaimed to Americans that both wars abroad and the domestic “war on terror” are in defense of our freedom. Don’t believe it. Our freedom is not in jeopardy—no one is attempting to invade America and control our government. U.S. military and police actions might be said to protect our security, but not our freedom. So don’t use the word freedom when discussing terrorism or our military—it just provides a false justification for war.

Similarly, conservatives equate freedom with capitalism. Don’t believe it. Our nation’s market economy is not free from government control—actually, it is dominated by government. Markets are based on a dense web of laws enforced by multiple layers of federal, state, and local agencies. Businesses are not free to sell diseased meat, make insider stock trades, pollute our air and water, or discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity. So don’t be fooled by the terms free market, free enterprise, or free trade, because they all support right-wing policies.

Most astonishing, I think, is the way religious extremists use the word freedom to mean the very opposite. They argue that freedom gives them the right to use the power of government to impose their religious views on the rest of us. When they pressure school boards to mandate the teaching of intelligent design in schools, when they erect monuments to the Ten Commandments in courthouses, when they work to limit access to contraceptives, when they seek to promote prayer in public schools, right-wingers assert it’s an exercise in religious freedom. Please, don’t believe it. Freedom is the absence of government intervention.

When defined too broadly, freedom becomes an empty platitude that can be wielded as a bludgeon to pummel any side of any political argument. My freedom to operate a monopoly tramples on your freedom to buy cheaper products. My freedom to drive an unsafe vehicle tramples on your freedom to travel the same roads in safety. My freedom to smoke in a bar tramples on your freedom to breathe clean air. “Freedom to . . .” and “freedom from . . .” gets us nowhere.

So why aren’t we shouting the battle cry of freedom? Maybe we’re afraid. In a democracy, the causes for which freedom is most necessary are almost by definition unpopular. Or maybe we look askance at the word because we feel it’s been co-opted by the right wing—like wearing little American flag pins.

But friends, we have a solemn responsibility to fiercely guard our constitutional and human rights to freedom. We must use freedom as our bully pulpit when arguing that government is out of control. We must point out that freedom is one of our most cherished values. We must remind Americans that Clarence Darrow was right when he said, “You can protect your liberties in this world only by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can be free only if I am free.”


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