Reclaiming Freedom

As this year’s July 4th holiday winds down, let’s talk about freedom. Specifically, the word “freedom,” which triggers a powerful emotional reaction. It resonates as something we want and need. We have visions of our forefathers fighting and dying for freedom at the founding of our country. Many of us know stories of our ancestors courageously leaving their homes in other lands seeking freedom and opportunity in America. We honor the sacrifice that members of our military have made to protect our freedom. Many of us display flags and many of our political leaders figuratively wrap themselves in the flag to show their patriotism.

But what do we mean by “freedom”?

In his 1941 State of the Union speech, now known as the “Four Freedoms” speech, President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned a world founded on four freedoms:

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want — which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

This is the progressive view of freedom. Over time, this view of freedom has expanded to include rights that extend to all citizens the opportunity to seek and attain the American dream:

  • Civil rights for religious, gender, and racial minorities
  • Worker rights and protections
  • Housing and food security
  • Economic opportunity
  • Health care
  • Public education

But, as George Lakoff has explained in his book Whose Freedom?, Republican politicians have systematically co-opted the words “freedom,” “patriotism,” and “liberty” to mean something different. They have endowed mean-spirited ideas with the luster of these words. Consider these examples of Orwellian double-speak, which invoke these words to describe the opposite:

  • Freedom fries: Invoked to denigrate France for opposing a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on false pretenses; 
  • Liberty University: A university that imposes fundamentalist Christian behavioral rules that take freedom from those who think differently;
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom: A war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi on false pretenses;
  • The Religious Freedom Restoration Act: This is a name given to acts at both Federal and state levels. The general theme is that religious freedom has been threatened and these acts restore it. In reality, these acts give permission for businesses and governments to discriminate against people whose beliefs and behaviors do not conform to conservative religious values;
  • The USA Patriot Act: Exploits fear to abridge our personal freedoms;
  • Freedom to pray: This is really about imposing prayer in public schools, and promotion of fundamentalist Christianity by government;
  • Freedom to teach religiously-based ideas like “intelligent design” in public schools instead of teaching real science;
  • Freedom to prevent others from using contraception, and other religiously-motivated interference with reproductive health rights;
  • Freedom in the form of unfettered gun rights, which results in thousands of unnecessary deaths each year, the ultimate act of taking away freedom;
  • Freedom gas, Secretary of Commerce Ross’s euphemism for natural gas, the continued use of which will hasten catastrophic climate change, but enrich Ross’s cronies in the fossil fuel industries.

Through their use of consistent, constant repetition of double-speak like this, Republicans have changed the unconscious thinking of most Americans.

It is past time for people who value real freedom to fight back. Not just with logic, but with stories of how people in every generation have courageously sought freedom and what freedom gained and freedom lost means to them. These stories and ideas must be repeated often so that they displace the double-speak we have been fed for decades. This will not be easy, but we must get started.

Progressive politicians, let’s hear it from you!

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