Remember Cliven Bundy, the mouthy Nevada rancher who ganged up with his militia pals and used an arsenal of guns to bravely stand down the federal government over an obscure cattle-grazing dispute that nobody cares about as long as it doesn’t raise the price of hamburger at Walmart?
I do, and I also remember thinking he was batshit crazy. Not because he risked getting his brassy balls blasted to bits by a pissed-off posse of federal marshals waving assault rifles. Sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in, even if it’s shamefully wrong and gets you killed dead.
No, I thought Bundy was madder than a cowboy hatter because he believes in freedom with a capital F.
Freedom is a ridiculous concept. I’ll never understand why the word brings tears of patriotic pride to the eyes of flag-waving Libertarians, Tea Partiers, and mainstream conservatives everywhere from Poughkeepsie to Portland. Even liberals get a little misty-eyed when they hear the word, although I admit it doesn’t take much more than a box of kittens to make a liberal’s lower lip quiver.
Listen to me: There is no such thing as freedom, and there never was. There is fleeting freedom, or limited freedom, or relative freedom, sure. Given a choice between having lunch with an insurance agent and spending 10 years performing slave labor on the Gulag Archipelago, only a madman would pick the Gulag.
Maybe not. Insurance is extremely dull.
But what are we to make of this idea of pure unadulterated individual freedom? This nagging belief that every American ought to be able to strip naked, jump on a Harley Davidson and race at 145 mph from Denver to Detroit tossing hand grenades at bunnies in the brush just because it’s fun to blow things up?
Americans aren’t merely fond of this idea. It frames nearly every decision we make, from how we manage our health care system and regulate fracking to the size of the flags we fly on July 4th and how many loaded pistols we keep hidden under the condoms and vibrators in our nightstands. We treasure the idea of freedom, fantasize about it, mythologize it, and worship it like a god. If we could, we’d oil up and mate with it hoping to give birth to pretty neon butterflies that would float around spreading the true gospel of freedom to the rest of the world’s freedom-impoverished nations.
Is it any wonder our best-recognized state motto is New Hampshire’s Live free or die? Even more popular than Delaware’s motto, We can’t find ourselves on a map, either? Never mind that live free or die was stolen from the French, those unsupportive and arrogant butter-swilling socialists. Give me liberty or give me death is an idea that is as firmly wedged into the American psyche as a wet cork in a well-worn bunghole.
I don’t know how this idea of freedom grabbed ahold of America’s love handles so firmly. My conservative friends tell me it has a lot to do with the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the U.S. Constitution.
As I understand it, these wise leaders ordered their wives, mistresses and slaves to stay in the kitchen and leave them alone while they consulted mano-y-mano with God to hatch a new paradigm valuing individual liberty above everything else. Even beer and sex, which is hard to believe given their records of drunken debauchery and womanizing. Benjamin Franklin may be best-known for offering sound moral advice like “Early to bed, Early to rise, Makes a man Healthy, Wealthy and Wise,” but let’s don’t forget that he also wrote gems like “After three days men grow weary of a wench, a guest & weather rainy,” and “Neither a Fortress nor a maidenhead will hold out long after they begin to parley.” It’s clear to me that if old Ben wasn’t in bed by 7 p.m., he went home. Presumably to write shallow and misguided aphorisms that would shape the nation’s destiny in unfortunate ways.
Now, before you storm my Chateau and exercise your Second Amendment right to shoot me in the face for criticizing our old-guard leadership, give me a chance to invoke my First Amendment right to free speech so I can explain what I mean. All I’m saying is that if it’s true our Founding Fathers are history’s greatest champions of the philosophy of individual freedom, then history sucks more than I imagined because they made several egregious mistakes when they laid out their case for it:
• One, they were horrible spellers. The Constitution and other documents are rife with mistakes. Choose became “chuse,” for example, and they couldn’t get Pennsylvania right, omitting one of the first two Ns, even though they were in Pennsylvania at the time, for fuck’s sake. Their grammar and punctuation was equally atrocious, sometimes making it hard for the Supreme Court to interpret what they meant. At the very least, these unlettered men set a troubling precedent for America’s educational system that persists today. But we can’t start redlining the Constitution now. It is what it is, and I suggest we chuse to ignore it.
• Two, when our Founding Fathers lobbied for freedom by writing “all men are created equal,” they meant rich white men. Voting rights weren’t extended to Blacks, Native Americans, women, or the poor of any race, perhaps because lead author Thomas Jefferson was a blatant racist who didn’t want his slaves stirring up trouble at his Monticello plantation while he was busy upstairs in the house “discussing abolition” with his scandalously young mistress, a slave of mixed race who ran the household. That same prejudice, misogyny and class elitism still taints our political processes and thinking today, and if you disagree then you’re most likely white, willfully ignorant, or one of the aristocratic Scrooge McDucks who runs the country. Possibly all three.
• Three, the Founding Fathers wrongly focused on rights when they should have discussed responsibilities. I blame this on youthful exuberance and ignorance. The more I study American history, the more I believe the Founding Fathers were basically like wilding teenagers who left home to attend college in another country. Having escaped the tyranny of their big, bad daddy, they wanted what all teenagers want: An endless supply of highly caffeinated energy drinks, beer, as much tax-free spending money as they could get, sex, and the keys to the Range Rover. When poppa—and I admit King George III was a little overbearing, as fathers of teenagers tend to be—tried to enforce some discipline, the Founding Fathers pounded their adolescent fists on the table and whined about their rights, overlooking the sad fact that adulthood is much more about shouldering dull and burdensome responsibilities than it is about running around naked and drunk with a pair of shoes tied to your unfettered dong, something I assure you I never did in college when I was supposed to be studying.
Really, I didn’t. I swear.
I’d forgive the Founding Fathers the excesses of youth, but thanks to them America still behaves like a petulant tweener today, perhaps because the nation is just 238 years old. Europe has toilets older than the United States. Politically, it also grew up long ago, which is why people there are less materialistic, choosing to work less and make the financial sacrifices necessary to allow them to give decent minimum wages and benefits to all workers, invest in the education of their children, and provide health care and other social-welfare programs that ensure a basic quality of life for themselves and their fellow citizens.
• Four, the Founding Fathers failed to define freedom precisely enough. Their driving thought seemed to be that freedom means “no taxation without representation,” an idea that was closely tied to the idea that our society—not the African or Native American societies, mind you—had a right to self-determination, which was was in turn supported by laws protecting freedoms like speech and the right for militias to arm themselves.
Despite our modern mythological reverence for these freedoms as pure ideological concepts, however, none of them were viewed that way by early Americans. For instance, less than a decade after the First Amendment was passed, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798, making it a crime to criticize the government. Speech that threatened public order was also restricted, especially rants against slavery and the Civil War, or speech considered pro-union or pro-socialism. Even our precious guns weren’t left untouched by the law. 1813, Kentucky enacted the first carrying concealed weapon statute in the United States, and in 1837 Georgia banned the sale of most pistols. Indiana, Alabama and Arkansas all had concealed carry laws in the early to mid 1800’s. Some of these laws were later struck down, but the point is that our freedoms have long been mitigated by reason, as they should be.
Such is the power of the American freedom myth and corporate anti-tax lobbying, however, that over time the Founding Fathers’ poorly defined and often contradictory thoughts about freedom magically morphed in the American imagination into a definition of freedom best summed up by the phrase, “Those goddamned revenuers better keep their fucking hands off my money and get their noses out of my business or I’ll pump them full of buckshot.”
Which is bullshit. Where on earth did we get the utterly false impression that laws, regulations, and taxes are freedom-stifling? The Founding Fathers never argued against the rule of law or taxes. In fact, they loved government. They just wanted fair representation and the freedom to plunder the new world for profit without interference from the homeland.
Of the nearly 200 nations on the planet, most of the advanced ones are more or less what many Americans would (wrongly) consider socialist, which is to say they have strong corporate regulations and social welfare programs funded by relatively high corporate and personal taxes. They should represent the antithesis of freedom and happiness, yet most seem as free and as happy as us, often more so. We may boast about our First Amendment and free press, for example, but according to the 2014 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, the U.S. ranked 46th among 180 nations surveyed, falling 13 places since last year. Meanwhile, when it comes to overall freedom, the Canadian Fraser Institute ranks the U.S. just seventh among its most and least free countries for 2013.
But studies are just horseshit shoveled at us by Ivory Tower academics, so let’s try a difference approach: Ignore the fact that you’re a fiercely proud American for just a minute and ask yourself who’s more free, the average Italian who is guaranteed 42 vacation days a year and often gets more, or the average American who gets less than 10, none of it guaranteed by law? Or how about Swedish mothers, who are guaranteed 14 months of paid maternity leave to spend bonding with their newborns compared to none—zero, for fuck’s sake!—for American mothers? Similarly, were we freer without publicly funded healthcare, even when 30-40 million Americans couldn’t afford health insurance at all and getting sick was the single biggest cause of bankruptcy even for those who could?
No! We not only take give me liberty or give me death too seriously, we take it too literally.
• Five, and perhaps most importantly, the Founding Fathers based their thinking on a false philosophical assumption that rich white men are endowed by God with unalienable rights. These rights include life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, free speech, the right to bear arms, and access to a speedy criminal trial if you bear those arms too much and shoot your wife’s lover in his pimply arse after coming home from work early one afternoon and catching them betwixt the sheets.
This bold, faith-based assertion about unalienable rights wasn’t handed from God to Jefferson and his pals on stone tablets. It was borrowed directly from two Deist Englishmen—John Locke, a physician and liberal philosopher; and Sir William Blackstone, a popular law professor and armchair philosopher at Oxford University. Blackstone’s assertion that our rights are absolute and an inseparable part of our humanity because God is absolute and created us in His image struck the Founding Fathers’ fancy.
If you’re a heathen who doesn’t believe in God, you’re already cringing at Blackstone’s argument. But let’s set religion aside for a moment and look at the issue from another point of view.
Nothing in our life experience indicates we are independent, let alone bequeathed with independence by a creator. We might feel alone lying in bed at night with nothing to hug but an empty flask of whiskey and a crumpled photo of our high school sweetheart (I miss you, honey!), but we are never fully disconnected from others. We’re conceived as pairs, remain wholly dependent on our parents’ nurture for at least 10-12 years, and are raised in families. Families inevitably become clans, clans morph into cities, cities become states, and states form nations.
This is how it’s been since Ogg shacked up with Lucy 3.2 million years ago and they got busy populating the world. It appears this is how it will always be because there is no viable alternative. At every stage of our development we are by necessity governed by increasingly complex sets of rules that limit our individual freedom more and more, whether it’s simple familial rules like being expected to stop giving our brothers titty-twisters, or maddeningly complex rules that force us to sit down at the kitchen table every April 14th to fill out our federal and state forms. The very thing that defines our lives is the set of rules that bind us together with our families and society. We cannot live without them or one another, which means individual freedom is a complete fantasy.
Because this point is important and may contradict your basic world view if you were blessed enough to be born in God’s first runner-up chosen land and then taught to mechanically recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, let me say it another way: Believing in individual liberty is right up there with believing in Santa Claus; Or the possibility that Johnny Depp or Scarlett Johansson might bed us if we only had a chance to meet; Or that there is a Mother Ship hiding behind Comet ISON waiting to take true believers to the New Earth. Any of these things is possible, but laughably improbable, although I swear Scarlett makes eyes at me in the theater.
We aren’t independent.
Americans may fear freedom-inhibiting collectivist societies like the Borg, the militant socialists who threatened the militaristic space cowboys who ran Starfleet in Star Trek, but like it or not, we are them. We live in hives, and we think and act in groups.
Simply put, the Founding Fathers had it wrong. If they believed in Jehovah and Jesus, something I increasingly doubt because most of them were Deists and Deists deny the Christian miracles and resurrection, then they weren’t listening to them because it seems clear he endowed us not with independence, but dependence. On Him and your fellow believers for starters, if you believe the story, and on one another.
For evidence, we need look no further than our own backyards. Even here in God’s country, individualism never existed–not among the settlers who landed at Plymouth Rock, not for Daniel Boone and the pioneers who pushed west looking for a little more elbow room, and not among the cowboys slept under the stars with nothing but horses, cows, and rattlesnakes for company. They all lived in societies, or at the very least, symbiotically with society.
Even America’s new freedom hero Cliven Bundy isn’t free. He might look good sitting on a horse with an AR-15 assault rifle and an American flag, but his ranch’s success depends on being able to graze his cattle on publicly owned lands without paying mandatory grazing fees, meaning he’s a freeloading welfare rancher who got rich on taxpayers’ dimes, not because he worked hard and tamed the land that our ancestors stole from the Mexicans and Indians.
Freedom is a treasured American myth, but in the real world, the serious, modern one that requires us to get up every morning and go to work so that we can pay our cable bills and then rush home at night to revel in the orgiastic sex and violence of Game of Thrones, it’s clear we’re not free at all. We are restricted by all sorts of bonds, and I’m not talking about the playful variety described (or so I’ve heard from my pervy friends) in 50 Shades of Grey. I’m talking about obvious laws designed to help prevent us from shooting one another or stealing one another’s comic book collections. Or behind-the-scenes regulations intended to keep companies from selling us poisonous food or dangerous cars. Or a host of unspoken rules that obligate us to our friends and families, and them to us.
Americans constantly grouse about these restrictions on our freedom, of course. We deeply resent them because they contradict our fundamental philosophical assumption that we are born free and should remain free. That the police and bureaucrats and government—especially Big Government, whatever those two frighteningly squishy words mean—are inherently bad and should be resisted at every turn. Sometimes, even violently opposed, Cliven Bundy style.
But mostly, we pout about these rules.
In a word, we’re immature. We don’t understand why we need government and its rules to survive any better than 13-year-old kids understand why their parents tell them to go to bed and get a proper night’s rest before school. We disrespect rules because we stubbornly refuse to see how they benefit us, and harbor some vague notion that rules stand in opposition to freedom when in reality they more often make us freer. We refuse to accept that life without government, without rules and restrictions, would be, as 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish and short.”
One final thought: Freedom doesn’t even mean what we hope it means. It is a word with philosophical roots that run counter to our modern American interpretation.
Etymologists, the extreme language nerds who study word origins when they’re not dressing up as lords and ladies for Renaissance festivals, believe the English word for freedom comes from the pre-Christian German word “friede,” which means “peace.” Friede described a unique peaceful period following the end of a blood feud between two warring clans when the softer, feminine qualities of the god Freda held sway. To achieve peace, the clan that had committed the most recent wrong against another clan had to fork over a gift of meat or animal hides. American historian David Hackett Fischer traced the origins of the word and concluded that to Northern European cultures, freedom wasn’t something individuals possessed—Gasp!—but a communal good shared equally between all members of a society, which may explain why they have a more sophisticated and nuanced view of what freedom means today.
I can only assume that when the American colonists traveled across the Atlantic, that communal notion of freedom got lost like luggage. Let’s hope we find it before we soil our shorts and need a change of underwear.