I’d Rather have Liberty

Teaching at an international school for 13 years I had the opportunity to see “ourselves as others see us.” The word “freedom” was a trigger word in class discussions. Maybe it’s always been a trigger word, but class discussions got pretty heated. Most of my European students felt that there wasn’t much freedom in America. What they REALLY felt was that they were not in Kansas anymore, and the US wasn’t like they expected it to be. Freedom = things just the way you want them. Some of my students didn’t like our speed limits but they hadn’t done the conversion from kilometers to miles or they’d have realized they were pretty much the same as European speed limits.

One of my Japanese students said that Freedom in America is having 20 different choices for sandwiches at Subway. A German girl said, “Ja! So many different kinds of corn flakes at the store!” She meant cold cereal, but… I get that. After a year living in a country without any choice, I find the superfluity of irrelevant options here in this country tyrannical. My students (especially those from France, Switzerland and Germany) also thought our documents were stupid because they “guaranteed happiness.” A lot of Americans think that, too, when the document in question just says “pursuit of happiness” and it doesn’t say anything about freedom. It talks about liberty.

One thing I learned in those discussions is that freedom and liberty are not exactly the same thing and that liberty is far more concrete and optimistic. Freedom? No, it’s not just another word for nothing left to lose, though, I guess if you’re standing on the promontory of your life with absolutely NOTHING you have nothing to preserve; that’s a bleak kind of liberty. Anyway, I hate that song.

The idea of freedom is kind of squishy. Freedom is relative to something — freedom TO, freedom FROM — freedom to stay out until midnight? Freedom from want? The first freedom here isn’t freedom; it’s liberty. Your parents extend your curfew. Yay! You can sit in the car in front of the house and steam up the windows longer! Waaa–HOOOO! The second? Fucking impossible. Idealistic. A goal to work toward. NO one can make that happen.

Another example? Until recently a person had the right (liberty) to carry a gun within certain legal parameters, but now that stupid fat-faced little twit who killed two people and got off with a self-defense plea has screwed that up. The idea (liberty, the negotiated freedom) was you keep your guns in your state and you don’t kill people, but OH well. FREEDOM!!!

Liberty is concrete. It’s defined by law. It is enforceable, codified, clear. Ideally people with clear heads and an idealistic, optimistic view of human nature work on the laws. If a law needs to be changed, it can be changed. That’s the whole point of government — the fair and equitable application of laws for the liberty of all. MLK (whom we remember once a year as the sole avatar of Civil Rights) fought for freedom FROM Jim Crow laws which were inequitable and unjust. That is to say, the Freedom Riders were fighting for liberty.

To the best of my knowledge English is the only language that uses these two words and we have our linguistic history to thank for this fuck up. As we wandered around in our Anglo-Saxon world until 1066 I guess we all had our Germanic word frēodōm then with the Normans we got liberte which were essentially, originally, synonymous but, over time, in English anyway, the essence of the words’ meanings evolved.

At this point in my life I hate the word “freedom.” It’s been taken over by a bunch of ignorant, angry people who have no idea. I’m not crazy about the flag of my country, either, which has been co-opted as the flag of people who don’t understand anything.

Until last night, the San Luis Valley has been enduring the tyranny of drought. The drought hasn’t broken by a long shot but it SNOWED. A respectable 6 cm.

25 thoughts on “I’d Rather have Liberty

        • Yep and they don’t think about how their “freedom” (which is nothing more than desire) might affect other people. I grew up with the motto, “My freedom ends where another’s begins” which is essentially responsibility. A couple examples — I was walking Bear once (leashed) and a lady had an off leash dog. They were approaching. Her dog was well trained. I asked her if she could hold her dog while I turned a corner and explained Bear’s thing about dogs she thinks might hurt me. The woman said, “Absolutely. Your dog is leashed. thank you for that.” Freedom. BUT my new neighbor, two houses down across the alley, lets his dogs run so I no longer get to walk down the alley to the golf course and beyond and visit the kids on the way. He has his freedom and I’ve lost mine. BUT there is no formal leash law in this town. The idea is that people will be considerate of others. We can’t assume that but that is the guarantee of personal freedom, I think. Small government depends on personal responsibility. ❤

            • That neighbor’s dogs, however, do not come near my yard! Ha ha ha ha! Which works to their advantage because it keeps them from going up the alley to the highway… One of his dogs got hit by a car the first week they moved in. You’d think that would say, “FENCE!!!!” but FREEDOM!!!!

              • I don’t think it is freedom so much as laziness. Neighbor likes having dogs but doesn’t really care much what happens to them. To him, (I assume it’s a he for ease of writing) a dog is just useful property or easily replaced playthings. He’s not like us who are invested in a friend.

                He also believes that it is up to the other guy to take care of themself. Not out of any fundamental set of values but out of convenience. Flip the situation and he’d be making demands. Probably doesn’t exercise his empathy muscle very often and he’s lazy. Looking out for the other guy is an effort. You could even call it a self-imposed tax. Why would anyone do that?

                • I think you’re right. He has fence posts in his yard but so far no fence. He told my other neighbors that his dogs are used to running loose. I don’t know what that means. And yeah, my dogs are my friends, but I also feel that since I brought them here, I’m responsible for their safety and the safety of other people. And yeah; he IS making demands. He’s demanding that his neighbors adjust to him. My neighbors up the alley with kids have reported him to the cops numerous times because the dogs are scary. But…

    • I see it that way, too. None of these self-styled brain-dead “patriots” know anything about their country or their responsibility toward it. It’s all “Gimme! Gimme!”

  1. I am reminded of the saying that good fences make good neighbors. As far as I can tell it dates back to 1640 but Robert Frost made it popular.

    As far as I can tell, in “Mending Wall,” Frost was arguing against unwarranted walls but the neighbor building the wall wouldn’t listen and just kept repeating “Good walls make good neighbors.” The original 1640 quote from one E. Rogers is:

    ‘A good fence helpeth to keepe peace between neighbours; but let vs take heed that we make not a high stone wall, to keepe vs from meeting.’

    • I believe in fences. Down the alley is the fiercest miniature poodle ever created. She and Bear have met through the chain link fence and are now best friends.

      I remember that poem from high school but I just looked at it again. I don’t know what I thought back in HS, but now I think the point of Frost’s poem is that these two neighbors get together every spring and mend the wall. I don’t think Frost is arguing anything as he makes a point that the wall doesn’t stay put and needs to be fixed every year. I see it like me and my neighbors working together to clear the sidewalk when one of us is out of town. It’s not about the snow; it’s about neighborliness in working together to benefit a third neighbor. But thank god I’m no longer the god of poetry.

  2. During the bicentennial year in this country (for those too young to recall, it featured a lot of big newspaper ads with red, white, and blue bunting selling stuff – the most egregious [which I saved] called it “The Great American Buy-centennial!” without apparent irony], I started a photo essay entitled “Freedom is…”. I only managed one photo because I realized that was all I needed. I was on a bike trail in a very small town, essentially in the middle of nowhere. Side by side there were two vending machines – one for Coke and one for Pepsi. I decided that was the epitome of freedom in the United States of America – the freedom to buy either Coke or Pepsi. Your Japanese student got it right;)

      • I had forgotten that.
        Here it is mostly conservative governments using the word in the context if subsidising expensive private education, health, childcare so that more high income people can get their services there rather than from the chronically underfunded public sector.

  3. My favorite earthquake story: A friend with a 6 year old and an infant had decided that in case of a big quake they would sit under a particular table until there was at least a 5-minute break between shaking. After a particularly big quake, mom and the 2 kids sat under the table, and after a couple of hours, the 6 y/o said “Mom, give me liberty or give me death!” The kid had apparently learned the quote in school, and they had talked about its meaning at home afterwards!

  4. Excellent post, Martha. I always enjoy and learn from your perspectives. “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”-
    Eleanor Roosevelt

  5. This is insightful. Haven’t we always confused freedom for what it really means! Personally I prefer liberty for the literal meaning and also the psychological meaning of being free from any inhibitions and at the same time being responsible for my actions, being responsible towards others.

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