One of the many things that bothers me about today’s shrill and histrionic political discourse is the never-ending series of claims by some of our fellow citizens that a vague and shifting set of “freedoms” and “liberties” are being or will be taken from us, methodically and intentionally.
I refuse to use those words as plural nouns myself, but prefer to think of specific rights and privileges (plural) that engender the more ephemeral concepts of Liberty (singular) and Freedom (singular). Pluralizing and de-capitalizing “freedoms” and “liberties” creates a sense that they are just long laundry lists of specific things we do or have, so that any time any item on that list is blocked or amended, Liberty (singular) and Freedom (singular) are compromised. I think that’s a dangerously reductive postulate. Words matter.
I’m a political scientist by training, so I tend to take long, macro views in understanding the ways in which people organize and govern themselves. When I look at the rights and privileges available today to every citizen of our nation, compared to the rights and privileges available at the time of the Constitution’s adoption, I see lurching progress toward the enhancement and expansion of rights and privileges granted by Constitutional amendment, legislative action, and/or various court rulings. We certainly still have a long way to go in many areas and for many citizens, and sometimes we (sadly) move backward on such fronts in the short- to medium-term, but the overall, long-term trend is a positive one. As it should be. As it must be.
In an article written around the time of the 2008 market collapse, I asked people to tell me, personally, specifically, what extant “freedoms” and “liberties” of theirs had been denied or abridged to them by Federal action under either major party’s leadership. The answers tended to come in one of two forms: (a) scary things that could, hypothetically, occur, but hadn’t ever actually happened to any of my respondents, or (b) piddly-to-churlish things like “I have to wear a seat belt when I drive” or “I can’t smoke in a restaurant anymore” or “I have to take my shoes off at the airport.” Me? I don’t mind ceding such rights and privileges to the greater good and safety of my fellow citizens.
That’s the fundamental rub I have with much of the “freedoms” and “liberties” talk: it comes across as knee-jerk selfish reactions from people who just want to be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want, regardless of how it might or might not impact their fellow citizens. The current politicization of mask-wearing and social distancing in the time of pandemic is about as classically idiotic a case of that as I could possibly conceive. Asserting a self-proclaimed right or privilege to infect one’s neighbors with a potentially fatal disease does not seem like the good-faith act of a person living under the rule of law, or being party to a social contract. In fact, it’s hard to see it as much beyond an unrealistic, petulant, foot-stomping “me Me ME” view of the real world around us.
Seeing how widely such sentiments are felt and expressed these days, by governing and governed alike, makes me feel like many of us are functioning collectively as a sub-national League of Whiners, unwilling to work selflessly for the common good, concerned only about our personal wants and wishes. This trend is routinely reinforced as we elect politicians who are pathologically terrified of asking us to sacrifice anything, ever. “Just keep on shopping,” President George W. Bush told us after the 9/11 attacks, “Or else the terrorists will have won.” What a missed opportunity for productive national commitment and engagement that was. You can pick your own example(s) there if you’d like. They’re not hard to find.
These days, many of our elected officials prioritize getting the Dow Jones Industrial Average back up to the bloated point where corporate profits flow most freely, even if doing so directly correlates to increased infection and mortality rates. To achieve this end, they stoke a sense of grievance in response to communal restrictions that foster the greater public good. And so ever more of us refuse to be inconvenienced in any way by the virus, because we’re regularly informed that we’re supposed to be mad as hell about being told that we can’t do just what we want to. And at the same time, increasingly few of us are willing to work hard to improve our nation, if doing so involves something more than shouting ad hominem insults at each other in social media space. It’s a swirling pool of petulance, and it’s sucking us downward, day by day by day.
All of that being said, I am still generally glad, for now, to live in a country that provides me and many of my fellow citizens with a rich tapestry of rights and privileges, despite the attacks upon them, despite the ways in which they can be and are being abused. I am also very grateful for those who fight to defend us from enemies foreign and domestic, and those who work to support and nourish the rule of law, the common good, and the social contract that binds us as a nation. They’re worthy of admiration and adulation.
I’m ever so cautiously hopeful that extreme times may result in extreme changes that will relieve some of the forces rending our increasingly ragged social contract, allowing it to be mended and strengthened again. While the anti-mask, in-your-face crowd sucks up much media attention right now, I have been moderately surprised and pleased to see how many of us actually are taking the current restrictions seriously, and hewing to evolving best practices as they’re promulgated. We’ve not risen to World War II levels of national self-sacrifice, not by a long shot, but we’re certainly doing better on a broader basis than we’ve done in any other period of national crisis in my lifetime. There’s hope for us yet, if we manage to corral that communal energy and commitment and put it toward something other than the resumption of conspicuous consumption, and the production of shareholder dividends for our wealthiest citizens.
At bottom line, and on a personal basis, I still respect the Freedom and Liberty that I possess, for which, sometimes, I must sacrifice “freedoms” and “liberties.” I’d be happy to have you join me in that pursuit.