Happy 4th… or, Where Did I Put the Freedoms You Gave Me?

Freedom… has there ever been a more mis-interpereted, used & abused, waxed-poetic-upon term? On my way to work a little over a week ago (June 24th, to be precise), I caught the last 15 minutes of an interview with George Lakoff, author of the recently published The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain on NPR’s Forum. Lakoff was responding to a caller’s question re: wiretapping and the war on privacy, and part of his response was, “It’s not just a war on privacy, it’s also a war on freedom. It’s an attempt to take away the freedoms given to us in our constution.” Emphasis added.

This sentence struck me as ironic, given that Lakoff’s work as a linguist & unofficial Democracy Party advisor (obviously) stresses the importance of language in progressive strategy. He argues that progressives need to re-think their language & approach in order to break out of patterns that the conservative right has embedded in our society’s way of thinking/reasoning. He says that conservatives understand how to manipulate human emotional neuro-pathways better than progressives because they are more familiar with marketing strategies, which have been directly influenced by psychology at least since Edward Bernays (for more on this, check out the BBC documentary The Century of the Self). Despite my aversion to the label “progressive”, I can’t say I disagree with any of this – you could apply similar thinking to the problem of advancing radical politics. Avancing any idea counter to the dominant capitalist agenda requires something beyond merely appealing to people’s “common” sense, because there’s no such thing.

I’m not at all familiar with Lakoff’s work (disclaimer!), though from what I’ve read/heard superficially, I think I’d find a good amount of his ideas compelling. But I was surprised to hear him parrot this conservative system-serving phrase, “the freedoms given to us in our constitution”, apparently oblivious to it’s implications. During a talk show about the need to change that very behavior, no less.

I’m sure a lot of readers (okay, a lot of the few of you reading this) are wondering what the big deal is – isn’t it true that the constitution bestows freedoms upon the U.S. American public? I would argue that not only is this false, but that the very idea that freedom can be granted inherently implies the loss or suspension of freedom. The implication behind freedoms being “given” is that freedom doesn’t exist without (white wealthy male) humanity conceptualizing it and subsequently bequeathing it upon those deemed worthy. Freedom is something that every life form on this planet is born unconsciously anticipating. Freedom is inherent in our very existence – thus, freedoms cannot be given, only taken away. And the truth is that the very pretense of bequeathing freedoms implies that, A) freedoms not specifically mentioned are not possessed by anyone, and B) that no freedoms at all are possessed by those beings not given mention in the supposed freedom-granting document. Therefore, the use of such language as “freedoms given” or “freedoms granted”, etc. is in direct opposition to the inherent autonomy that is the birthright of all forms of life. It also presupposes a level of authority posessed by “freedom granters” – historically white, wealthy, male lawmakers – on par with a god or creator.

The damage this assumed authority over freedom has caused, historically as well as currently, can be observed in multiple places globally: abused communities (even entire countries) of people of color, damaged ecosystems, disappearing species, oppressed women, “illegalized” immigrants, persecuted folks with alternative sexualities and gender identities, and a working class run ragged. That list is by no means exhaustive.

So I propose that today, on this holiday that has become the ultimate symbol of freedom for (unquestioning) proud U.S. Americans, we rethink the language we use to conceptualize freedom. Let’s stop pretending that we weren’t born free and then stripped of much of our innate freedom – the remaining level of freedom being determined by our race, class, gender, species, country of origin, sexuality and able-bodied-ness. Let’s stop telling ourselves and each other that someone, somewhere, has handed our freedom to us. Even if we can’t take back our autonomy today, and the autonomy of those unable to speak for themselves (such as caged animals), let’s at least start by recognizing that nobody should have assumed the power of distributing/denying freedom to any of us in the first place.


July 4, 2008. Tags: , , , , . Uncategorized.


  1. Sergio replied:

    Just a few criticisms:

    – You refer to the phrase in question as a “system-serving phrase.” We are not nomads living life as we please, without regard to structure or predetermined order. Like it or not (and I don’t think you do), we do live in a “system.” This is the system that founding fathers (yeah, I hate that term too) set up–and that phrase, incidentally, was what they were referring to when the declaration was drafted–to escape the suppression of another group. It began in a place and time from which we are very far removed.

    – I think it is a bit naive–and maybe even pompous–to speak about the global implications and historical contexts of “freedoms given” with such blatant disregard for the non-white opressors and “freedom-givers and -takers” of this very large world. There are a lot of people taking and denying freedoms all around the globe–and they are not all white, wealthy men.

    – I agree with your points about the autonomy of freedom and that it is inherent in our very existence.

    We are “freer” here than in many other places. And yes, there are freedoms that are being stripped slowly from some people of this country. But we also need to take resposibility for the way we perceive our own freedoms and take that power to try to make our lives better.

  2. mymammouth replied:

    I appreciate your thoughts, Sergio.

    While the drafting of the documents in question may have been an attempt to establish freedoms previously under attack from England, there’s no question that the freedoms established were not intended to apply to everyone. Women and people of color were not considered “human” in the same way white-skinned men were, and therefore it was assumed that the rights and freedoms granted did not extend to them. I do disagree with a system that encourages such deadly exclusionary thinking and allows for abuse of those individuals not deemed worthy of possessing freedom.

    You’re absolutely right, of course, that freedom givers and takers globally are not exclusively white males (although it could probably be said that they are always wealthier than the communities they impact). Thank you for pointing that out. I think I wasn’t clear that I was discussing the global impact of those distributing freedoms and rights from within the United States, who have historically been white and male. However, regarding global distributors of freedom – although they are certainly diverse, I would venture a guess that nobody has so perfected the act of removing rights and freedoms like white, wealthy males.

    Yes, we are “freer” here than in many other places, but I personally don’t think it’s helpful to use that kind of comparison when evaluating the failures and shortcomings of any system. Only because that sort of thinking can lead to complacency and acceptance of a situation that, evaluated independently, could be judged as vastly abusive and unsuccessful. Just because we have it better than some does not mean we have it good.

  3. Deborah replied:

    I certainly agree with you that the concept of freedoms being doled out to us is absurb. However, I don’t find it very surprising that Lakoff would couch things in these terms. I actually think that this language is probably deliberate based upon what I know of his theory (which I’ll admit is not much). My impression is that Lakoff is not interested in overhauling our language to be more truthful and inclusive. He is only interested in finding ways to spin liberal values so that they are palatable and appealing to the general public. He is primarily interested in using language that will win elections, not actually deconstructing our metaphors and the falsehoods they rest upon. He is not overhauling the flawed systems, but rather thinking about how he can work within the system of power and language that already exists to make liberalism more wide-spread.

    One of the essential elements of his theorizing is that the majority of Americans talk about our government as a parental force. This is from his wikipedia page:

    “Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model that he calls the “strict father model” and has a family structured around a strong, dominant “father” (government), and assumes that the “children” (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible “adults” (financially and morally responsible beings). Once the “children” are “adults”, though, the “father” should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the “nurturant parent model”, based on “nurturant values”, where both “mothers” and “fathers” work to keep the essentially good “children” away from “corrupting influences” (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.). Lakoff says that most people have a blend of both metaphors applied at different times, and that political speech works primarily by invoking these metaphors and urging the subscription of one over the other.”

    While I agree that his choice of words carries some flaws when held up with reality, I think the notion that freedoms are something one can distribute and grant to others–like a parent can extend curfews, or decided what their children will eat, or wear, etc.–falls logically into this parent/child structure he is using, and he’s using it because it is common to the american psyche. He is talking to Americans as if we are the children of this very controlled and structured government that actually has the power and authority to grant and deny freedoms. I think he is doing this because it makes people feel safe and secure to imagine that there is so much order and structure in our government, so they can rely on it like a nurturing parent without having to think about the chaos which is actually at the root of all goverment. People who work with kids always tell me that kids like structure. It makes them feel secure. I think Lakoff is just appeasing people’s fear of chaos by speaking this way, because he wants to get more average joe americans to buy into what he wants to sell: liberal values. He’s not worried about fixing the flaws in the actual product he is selling for now, he just wants to get it out there.

    I think you and Lakoff just have very different wishes for what lefty language should accomplish. You want to deconstruct liberal values until they are perfect and contain no oppression before we apply them to society. This desire to hear all voices that exists on the left (which I personally share) is actually the thing that Lakoff seems to want lefties to move past. He wants us to come up with a collective message that will win; he is just being pragmatic.

    That’s my assessment anyway. Thanks for putting your thoughts out there!

  4. mymammouth replied:

    Thanks so much for explaining Lakoff in more depth – I had checked out his Wikipedia page, but the only think I really took from it was his emphasis on the importance of metaphor (which I find really fascinating). And that he and Chomsky had a tiff.

    I agree it’s not surprising that he used that phrase, now that you’ve elucidated his purpose for me. I can understand the desire to create a unified, streamlined language and sense of purpose that a lot of liberals and progressives are voicing. If you adhere to the belief that our current system would work just fine under different leadership, then that approach makes a lot of sense. I just don’t share that belief.

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