Cheese, Sunroof, Freedom

Author's Note
This essay is reprinted from with minor edits and backdated to the date of the original post. To see it in its original habitat, with original comments, look here.

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, ye