Alan Zendell, August 31, 2021
One of the first things we Americans learned as children was that we lived in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We heard it repeatedly until it became a mantra, and like all mantras, slogans, and mottos, the individual words lost their meanings over time, replaced by generalized notions that can be dangerous – dangerous because there is no such thing as complete freedom, and bravery has nothing to do with chest beating and mob rule. We do not have the inalienable right to do anything we please regardless of how it impacts other people.
When we first encountered laws and rules, we pushed back. We didn’t like being told what we could and couldn’t do, we resented authority. And when we disobeyed our parents and teachers or broke rules we were presented with the dichotomy of civilization versus the jungle. The jungle became a metaphor for living free, while discipline and regulation meant being civilized. Like most overgeneralizations, they represented a false choice.
When we were kids, jungles looked like fun. With no parents, teachers, or police around, we could do whatever we wanted, swing from vines, make friends with animals, and never have to be concerned with earning a living, getting sick, or having to follow rules. Except that real jungles aren’t like that. Everything living in a jungle has natural enemies and predators. Every living creature is constantly on its guard to avoid being eaten by something bigger, stronger, or deadlier.
We learned over several millennia that to survive we had to form communities and cooperate. Cooperation meant accepting restrictions on our freedoms in exchange for mutual security, a dependable supply of food, and protection against everything trying to kill us. But something went terribly wrong. We didn’t all define freedom the same way, and many of us forgot or never learned that with freedom comes responsibility and a very real cost.
Freedom is one of the most abused words in our language. I will never forget President Lyndon Johnson telling us that we had to defend “the freedom-loving people of South Vietnam” against the Communist menace, when all most of them wanted was to be free of colonial interference. A generation later, we were told that Iraqis wanted to be free of oppression by Saddam Hussein, Afghans were desperate to be free of their religious autocracy, and Iranians wanted to be free of the tyranny of Sharia law. After hundreds of thousands of casualties, wasting trillions of dollars, and creating serious divisions at home over decades of wars, it turned out that all those oppressed people had no interest in what we called freedom.
We’ve learned a painful lesson about trying to define freedom for other nations. And now we’re faced with what may be a worse issue within our own borders. Politics and craven, incompetent leaders have so distorted our notions of freedom that we are now at war with ourselves. Somehow, the Second Amendment to our Constitution, which was intended to prevent tyranny by an autocratic central authority over states’ rights, has for many, come to mean armed intimidation of elected authority. Worse, freedom has come to mean the right to be ignorant and ignore science.
Thus, we allow those who would profit from our foolishness to convince us that no one has the right to tell us we can’t pollute our air and water, permit our planet to become uninhabitable or protect each other against a raging pandemic. When nearly half our citizens consider essential public health measures unconstitutional restrictions of their personal freedom, something is terribly wrong in our country. When an elected state representative in Georgia can actively, openly agitate for continued armed insurrection against state and local governments because he believes mask mandates to protect our children in school and vaccination against a deadly disease represents tyranny, we ought to be seriously questioning our future.
Donald Trump and his patrons at Fox News proved that when a vocal minority of our citizens abandons critical thinking and adopts intellectual laziness as a way of life, (think Facebook,) they can be propagandized and instigated to believe that anyone who thinks differently from them is their enemy, and that any trouble or problem they face is the fault of “those people.” If you’re not sure who those people are, substitute every minority or dark-skinned immigrant or anyone else ignorant people can be convinced to hate.
The first two years of the Biden administration may well define our future. If the forces of decency and rational behavior are allowed to succumb to the madness unleashed by Trump and his supporters, we are in danger of destroying everything we’ve spent two hundred fifty years building.