Cheese, Sunroof, Freedom

Author's Note

This is the third in a three-part series of essays on freedom in America. The first was entitled, “The Gulf Which Divides Us.” The second was “I Am a Tocqueville Conservative.”

Cheese, Sunroof, Freedom

In a fit of dietary decadence a few weeks ago, I went to a Wendy’s drive-through and ordered a “single.” The Voice asked, “Would you like cheese on that?” I declined. I like cheese and cheeseburgers well enough, but I didn’t want to pay the extra quarter or whatever.

A couple of years ago I bought a well-used Honda Accord EX, which has a slightly peppier engine than the base model. It also has a sunroof. I wasn’t specifically shopping for an EX; that’s just what there was. The sunroof is fun, but I wouldn’t have chosen it as option at additional cost.

Freedom is like cheese and sunroofs. (I wonder if that sentence has ever been written in English before.) All else being equal, almost everyone loves freedom — and cheese and sunroofs, I suppose — but only some people are willing to pay any significant price for it.

You may have beaten me to two points. First, the word freedom is attached to so many concepts, including some which are mutually contradictory, that there’s little point it discussing it without a clear, specific definition of what it means in the present context. Second, when was “all else” ever equal?

Freedom in this blog post encompasses the political freedoms (speech, press, assembly), economic freedom, and religious freedom. I have in mind the capacity to choose and act independently in each of these realms, while respecting the rights of others, as well as a tight nexus between choice and consequences. It’s common enough to encounter radically different concepts of freedom, such as freedom from disease, poverty, evil, fear, and other unfortunate things, but the freedom I am contemplating is more of a freedom to.

There is another, insidious notion of freedom, which is well beloved by some: the ability to choose and act without moral, legal, economic, or other consequences. This is the freedom of the tyrant and the libertine. For clarity, in this article I refer to it as license.

Love Yourself? Love the Principle?

Most people seem to love their own freedom. They want to be able to speak and write what they choose, to meet when they choose, to practice (or not to practice) the religion of their choice. They want to be able to choose their own careers, travel freely, and live where they choose. If this is all we know about them, however, we cannot tell whether it isthe principle of freedom or merely their personal autonomy that they love.

The people who really love freedom as a political and moral principle want other people to enjoy the same freedoms and are perfectly willing to endure — even to celebrate — others’ freedoms. If someone says or writes things with which they disagree, they still acknowledge and even defend that person’s freedom to do so. If someone practices or evangelizes some other religion, or no religion at all, they embrace this as a legitimate expression of a freedom they love, though it differs radically from and perhaps even opposes their own chosen expression.

If you don’t value others’ freedom as highly as your own, even when they disagree, then the principle of freedom isn’t your true love. Your true love is yourself. How noble is that?

If you only love freedom when its cost is low or at least not very high, but you willingly trade your freedom for promises of physical or financial security, for the convenience of ignoring politics, for allegedly free health care, or for some person’s or institution’s consent to assume your personal responsibility to care for yourself and the people around you, then your commitment to the principle of freedom is casual. It is merely a matter of convenience, like my attitude toward cheese at the drive-through or the sunroof in my aging Honda. There’s nothing in this picture resembling real love of freedom.

If this seems harsh to you, perhaps it is. I suppose it’s rather grim, too, because it overtly questions the freedom-love of many liberals, conservatives, and apolitical folks alike, who either are content to trade in their own freedom for something else, or who don’t value others’ freedom as they value their own.

I’m not saying that these people are un-American, just that they think differently and value other things — including many good things — more highly than the particular freedoms of which I speak.

I’m not saying that we have altogether lost our philosophical moorings as a freedom-loving people. Even jaded 21st-century Americans can sense the difference between the Iraqi patriot who proudly displays his purple thumb, which means he voted in an election despite a credible threat of terror and death, and the American couch potato, who hasn’t earned an “I voted” sticker in years, because both parties are the same, politics is a dirty business, and Oprah is waiting on the TiVo. And before you protest too loudly, I hasten to note that many Iraqis are not so heroic, and many Americans are not so inert.

A Bitter Pill

Our Presidents, including President George W. Bush, have spoken over and over again of all humanity’s fundamental yearning to be free. But if we’re talking about freedom instead of license, as both are defined above, then I submit that this universal thirst for freedom is a fiction. While I believe that there are people everywhere who love the principle of freedom and yearn for it in their lives and their politics, this love of freedom is not foremost in every human soul. Too many people love something more — their own power, their own comfort — for freedom-love to be universal. Too many people are indifferent to others’ freedom for us to say that freedom-love burns in the hearts of all humans everywhere. Even in colonial America, only three of the 13 original colonies were constitutionally committed to religious freedom before the adoption of the First Amendment. Some others were notoriously and violently intolerant of heterodoxy.

It’s fine with me if presidents want to keep saying that everyone yearns for freedom; it’s nice rhetoric, I suppose. But conservatives must stop believing it and relying on it. As I said in the first essay of this series, we must soon learn that we now have to do — relentlessly and convincingly — what we have never had to do before in our history: defend the superiority, the rightness of traditional American freedoms.

Perhaps this is a bitter pill. Perhaps you do not wish to believe such pessimism, because your heart loves freedom so much that your head cannot believe that anyone would feel otherwise.

Would you indulge me for a few moments in an experiment?

“A Poisonous Drop”

One of the great novels of world literature is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It is one of the most profound statements extant on freedom. It is also, and not coincidentally, an important statement on a certain view of Christianity — but I think the excerpts quoted below stand firmly enough on freedom alone. So feel free to overlook the theological overtones, at least for our purposes here.

There is a portion of the novel, three chapters in all, which has engaged philosophers and others since it first appeared in 1879, as the novel was being published serially in one of the popular Russian “thick journals.” In the best-known chapter of the three, the setting is sixteenth-century Spain, during the Inquisition. The people there are oppressed by the Grand Inquisitor, but one day Jesus Christ appears among them. They recognize Him, believe in Him, and love Him. In response He works miracles. For all this the Inquisitor, who will brook no rival, especially this One, orders His arrest. He visits Christ in his cell that night and mentions in passing that tomorrow He will be burned. But before the execution the Inquisitor must unburden his philosophical soul to the silent Prisoner. Freedom — free will — is the axis on which his manifesto turns. Here are several essential pieces of his longer and more intricate argument:

“Didst Thou not often say then, ‘I will make you free’? But now Thou hast seen these ‘free’ men. . . . For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is over and ended for good. . . . People are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. . . .

“Now . . . it is possible to think of the happiness of men. . . .

“Nothing has ever been more insupportable for man and a human society than freedom. . . . Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin, there is only hunger? ‘Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!’ That’s what they’ll write on the banner, which they will raise against Thee.

“Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.’ They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious. . . .

“They will marvel at us and look on us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them — so awful it will seem to them to be free. . . .

“I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born. . . .

“We have corrected Thy work. . . . And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering, was, at last, lifted from their hearts. . . .

“We shall triumph and shall be Caesars, and then we shall plan the universal happiness of mankind. . . . Oh, ages are yet to come of the confusion of free thought, of their science and cannibalism. . . . But with us all will be happy and will no more rebel nor destroy one another as under Thy freedom. Oh, we shall persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom and submit to us. . . . Freedom, free thought and science, will lead them into such straits and will bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another, while the rest, weak but unhappy, will crawl fawning to our feet.” (Constance Garnett Translation, pp. 232-39 in the Norton Critical Edition)

Make no mistake; I have quoted a work of fiction, the product of one man’s imagination — though it can intrude on reality as, in one critic’s words, an uncommonly “poisonous drop.” Can you tell me that no one in the modern world — no American, shall we say? — would dare make such an argument? Can you tell me that no one would be seduced by it, or even seriously tempted? Can you tell me that none of our fellow citizens has sold his freedom for bread, or that none would ever do so?

In fact, Dostoevsky’s intent in this part of the novel was to offer the strongest possible argument against God and freedom (for him the two were inseparable) — not because this is Dostoevsky’s own argument, but to set up the rest of the novel, where he hoped to refute it. Some scholars, readers, and philosophers have judged “The Grand Inquisitor” to be a brilliant, even unparalled success in making its argument, and the rest of the novel a failure in refuting it. Some have embraced the Grand Inquisitor’s arguments as their own and even published this part of the long novel by itself. But all these are larger arguments, implicating more theology, philosophy, and literary analysis than suits our purpose here.

A Political Metaphor

There is something apocalyptic, even cosmic about the Grand Inquisitor’s rebellion. In using this passage here I am exploiting that for melodramatic effect, I suppose, but my real point is neither cosmic or apocalyptic. Nor is it theological. It is simply political. So step back from the cosmic fray, if you would, please, and at least for now think of the Grand Inquisitor as the government — which he is in the story — and don’t be distracted by the Personality to whom he is speaking.

Did you notice that, according to the Inquisitor, the people would gladly trade their freedom for bread? Did you notice that people who do this still think they are free? (They are at least free from hunger.) Did you see that real freedom can be a fearsome thing for some, perhaps for many?

The modern conflict of freedoms in American society may not be apocalyptic or cosmic, and it is not necessary to see it in theological terms in order to understand it. Even in the political realm the conflict is broader, deeper, and far older than the present American health care debate, for example. But health care is one of its contemporary manifestations, so let’s use it here. We’ll take what the times give us and insert “health care” for “bread” in a couple of strategic lines from the quotation above . . . .

Never, never can they [see to their own health care] without us! No science will give them [health care] so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but [give us affordable health care].’ They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and [health care] enough for all are inconceivable together.

There are more than a few American political figures saying openly that the only way to make affordable health care available to all Americans is for the government to supply it. The president himself said, during the campaign, that it would be necessary to do away with the private health insurance industry — incrementally, he said. Is all this very much different from my doctored Grand Inquisitor quotation?

Will you agree with me yet that there are many Americans, of all people, who will trade significant degrees of their freedom for things they want more? This is not new; many of the colonists were opposed to American independence from the British crown, even as we fought a war to achieve it. It is important.

We Can No Longer Assume

We conservatives used to be able to get by with some assumptions which, if they were not perfectly true, were still close enough to reality for enough people that we could get by. Those days are gone.

We can no longer assume that every American, let alone every human, values traditional American freedom as a political and moral principle. We can no longer assume that we can defeat an oppressive policy proposal if we successfully show that it will lead to a reduction in the people’s freedom. Americans have demonstrated their willingness to trade some freedom for a government-sponsored, tax-funded pension program called Social Security. We have shown that we are willing to trade some freedom for reduced economic inequality, or at least the illusion thereof. A substantial percentage of the population seems willing to trade a great deal of freedom for more security in the area of health care. Many people are willing to trade some freedom for legitimate conservation of energy and other resources, not to mention for the happy illusion of saving the planet.

I certainly do not argue that government should mostly or entirely fade away and leave us perfectly free to do anything at all. I am neither the radical libertarian nor the idealistic, theoretical communist I would have to be to believe that. I would argue, however, that in the absence of a widespread love of freedom, any efforts toward limited government are likely to be in vain.

Before we can rely on Americans’ love of freedom to turn away legislated oppression, we now must make the case for freedom itself. Why is it good? Why is it best?  Why is it more precious than peace, security, and even life itself? We must no longer assume that everyone understands and agrees in these matters, or even that a majority does.

Accordingly, here’s a question for thought and further discussion:

How in the world do we do that?

Historically, one way is to live under prolonged and brutal tyranny, which finally teaches some — not nearly all — of its surviving victims to love freedom. But the point is to avoid such tyranny. We need to find a better way than tyranny to teach the love of freedom.

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