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. 4 comments.