I like to think I am, of course. Most Americans do, especially on a day like today, which was just an ordinary Fourth of July like every other Fourth of July until we kicked England’s ass in the American Revolution and made it Independence Day, the Fourth of July.
But what is freedom?
If it means doing whatever I want, whenever I want, then I haven’t been free since…well, not since I was one-half of a zygote swimming toward ecstasy. All I have to do to remind myself that I’m not free is glance at my cable TV bill. Given what I’m paying to watch House Hunters International and American Pickers, I’d say America is more the Land of the Fee than the Land of the Free.
Part of the problem is that freedom is poorly defined.
To the 13th-century Scottish knight William Wallace and his rowdy band of haggis-eating troublemakers, for instance, freedom meant squirming out from under British rule, not to mention letting their stout naughty bits dangle loosely beneath their kilts. We fought the American Revolution nearly 400 years later for similar reasons, although our puritanical Yankees dressed modestly in breeches and waistcoats even while graciously allowing some of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” Militia of the day to boldly stick feathers in their caps and call them macaroni—a subtle nod to the period’s cutting-edge Italian fashion designers.
But there are many other measures of freedom in addition to rebelling against a nation that loves its monarchs, grossly overcooks its vegetables and uses silly, unintelligible words and phrases like codswallop, arse-over-tit, sally forth, rumpy pumpy, peckish and shambolic.
Consider issues like civil liberties, freedom of the press, lack of government corruption and business regulations, for example.
By these standards, America performs well globally, especially compared to the world’s most peckish and shambolic countries like North Korea and Somalia, which suffer from a lagging tourist trade because of their routine muggings, false imprisonments, terrorist bombings and land mines. Uzbekistan in Central Asia isn’t the most idyllic honeymoon destination either, partly because it gets shot at all the time by marauders in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which fiercely compete with it for the title of World’s Most Awesome Scrabble Word Ever.
Still, America’s freedom is trending downward, according to studies like Freedom House’s annual Freedom Report or the Wall Street Journal’s Index of Economic Freedom. We routinely fall behind arguably socialist countries like Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Portugal, Uruguay and Bardados. We’re also trailing Liechtenstein, and I don’t even know where Liechtenstein is. I’d Google it, but I’m afraid to because Liechtenstein sounds pretty dirty, like something I’d only do if I was insanely horny or really, really drunk. I don’t want to end up on a website that gives my computer a virus.
An international group called Reporters Without Borders ranked our press 20th out of 178 on its Press Freedom Index because our military routinely cites “security concerns” to squelch issues of legitimate public interest. Our electorate’s failure to root out government corruption and ballot-box manipulation puts us behind most of Europe in politics.
We also lock more people behind bars than any other democracy on the planet. Americans imprison about 743 people per 100,000 residents, a grossly disproportionate number of them blacks and other minorities, because, hey, some people will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen, but it’s only the ones who don’t look like the old, white men who run this country that we’re concerned about, and what’s wrong with a little harmless white-collar crime anyway? Bankers will be bankers, those scamps, never-you-mind about the resulting taxpayer bailouts, failed home mortgages and unemployment.
In case you’re curious, our incarceration rate compares to 577 per 100,000 people in second-place Russia—the Motherland of Communist oppression, for God’s sake!—and a scant 32 in low-ranked India. Although to be fair, many people would rather be thrown into a cell than forced to work in a computer help center in steamy Bangalore fielding idiotic questions like, “The instructions say to press any key. But I don’t see an Any Key on my keyboard. What do I do now?”
So how does America stack up against other countries when it comes to less tangible freedoms like health care, opportunity to be upwardly social mobile, and what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “freedom from want?”
We are one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, but about 14 percent of U.S. residents live under the poverty line, compared to 1 percent in Taiwan and roughly half that amount in most of Europe. We work more hours a week than anybody in the world except the Japanese, get far fewer vacation days from our employers, have more trouble breaking out of the social class we’re born into and have less access to basic health care—even under President Obama’s new health care plan—than most people who live in similarly wealthy nations. Swedes, for example, live longer than Americans, enjoy lower infant mortality rates, are guaranteed six weeks of paid vacation, and are given 13 months of paid maternity leave to split between the parents. Oh, by the way, those parents can be husband and wife, husband and husband or wife and wife, shattering American’s claim to being the most religiously free nation in the galaxy.
Now who seems more free?
Astute political conservatives will object to these “facts,” of course.
For instance, they will correctly point out that American furniture doesn’t require as much assembly as that IKEA crap, and that the McLutefisk isn’t nearly as tasty as McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, which is known as the 113.4-McGram-a-Bun in Sweden. They’ll also note that not everybody wants to name their son Magnus, let alone attend compulsory ABBA concerts twice a year in their Volvo, even if it’s a shiny black S80, one of the finest, most stylish automobiles in the world (are you hearing what I’m saying about potential sponsorships, Volvo’s marketing department?). And they’ll say it all while standing in front of an American flag waved by an Iraqi war veteran and paid for by Donald Trump while a children’s choir sings God Bless America, so that your eyes well with patriotic tears as you realize that God Himself reached down from the firmament and handpicked us to lead the world’s tired, poor huddled masses to the land of milk of honey—just as long as they don’t do it by scaling the Great Wall of America, the 12-foot-tall, 670-mile long barricade separating America from Mexico along our southern border.
So where does that leave us in this lengthy discussion of freedom on Independence Day?
Frankly, it’s hard to say. As I said earlier, freedom’s elusive.
At times like these, I often turn to the folksy, down-to-earth wisdom of songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, who wrote that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” But that seems a skosh gloomy for Independence Day.
I suggest we modify the lyric to “freedom’s just another ‘scuse to break out the booze,” and then sit back with our good friend Jack Daniels to ruminate on the inspiring words of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who may or may not have been sipping the juice himself when he told a heckler at the Iowa State Fair that, “I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that’s the America millions of Americans believe in. That’s the America I love.”
Yep, I can drink to that, all right.
Already am, in fact. How could I not?
God bless America, and let freedom ring.