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On the Act of Being Free

 "It had become an universal and almost uncontroverted position in the several States, that the purposes of society do not require a surrender of all our rights to our ordinary governors; that there are certain portions of right not necessary to enable them to carry on an effective government, and which experience has nevertheless proved they will be constantly encroaching on, if submitted to them; that there are also certain fences which experience has proved peculiarly efficacious against wrong, and rarely obstructive of right, which yet the governing powers have ever shown a disposition to weaken and remove. Of the first kind, for instance, is freedom of religion; of the second, trial by jury, habeas corpus laws, free presses." --Thomas Jefferson to Noah Webster, 1790.  

 

On the Act of Being Free

By Barbara Audet

Beginning with this statement by Jefferson to Webster, albeit taken out of its original context, is to say that freedom may be what is left when governments of any kind enact and enforce any body of law that is established to ensure an equitable living of the masses. It is the nature and the extent of that law, the environment of its framing and the weightiness of its enforcement, that pushes the remains of what freedom is "untethered," to freedom that is to some extent reasonably bound by the restrictions of life in an age post-cave. Looking cynically though for debate's sake, what if in the interests of safety, primarily, and in securing the economic advancement of a society, societal laws are heavily scaled to protect those less interested in the pursuit of personal freedoms, and more inclined to support the kinds of communal structures that encourage, ultimately and conversely, a more narrow understanding of civil rights? The debate then: Success for all is not good business? Less freedom is good business?

If this is the case, then is it foolish to argue that there is such an entity as freedom or even the potential for it for any of us today -- not from the moment of conception to our last moment in a physical sense on the planet? And yet, do we not all want this thing called freedom to be just as it is historically presented to us from childhood on? A life that seeks to move  within freedom's cloak of protection is a life worth living, isn't it? Generally, and in the best possible of worlds, the moment of "birth as citizen" is not a moment to dread or fear. When a child is born, a citizen of a nation, the full import of its laws and the accompanying responsibilities to act within that legal structure are the child's immediate birthright, whether they choose them or not. Denying to accept citizenship at birth is not within an infant's ability. Nor in this world is it a viable alternative at any time thereafter unless another avenue for citizenship can be assessed and mutually selected. We call the process of that choice immigration and emigration and in the history of man, except for the melting pot phenomenon that was the United States of America in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is a process epitomized by frustration, penalty and often, condemnation.  Why? Because one man's freedom has a worth more valuable to them then that of another?

Practically speaking, aren't we hard-pressed to see an instance where a life without fear has ever been the expected lot of men and women? And therefore, from the moment of birth, our freedom is questionable, no matter the body of laws that are designed to ensure it or state that we have it.

As we are bound by the legal constraints of our birth, so too are we bound by the economic constraints of our birth. A child who comes into this world with parents who are economically free is essentially more free than a child born to parents in poverty -- a labeling statement that many have argued to be so and many would argue heatedly is untrue. What is open to the child of economic freedom? Most particularly the right to education at the highest level and the right to fear no night or the pangs of an empty stomach. Powerful rights. Empowering rights. Without these rights, not even the philosophically purist perspective of freedom of thought can be argued to exist. The child born into poverty must when they reach an age where society says they may work, pay taxes to that society and work, or else be labeled even more severely as poor and non-contributing. No artist, he or she. The tax they pay must always be representative of a larger share of their peace of mind and relative ability to be free, no matter if that poor child should overcome all barriers and rise to a higher economic state. Conversely, the child of economic freedom has a sense of entitlement that looks to what they must contribute to society and often asks, why am I responsible for more, just because I have more to give. In the asking, these children have the capacity to become powerfully hopeful members of society who do reach out and make the joyful differences in the lives of those around them.

These questions form the basis of much of all of humanity's reasoning and search for forms of government that attempt to place the scales in a better balance for the rights of the individual and the rights of community. Tax to support the working of a government is a principle that allows in practice for a greater amount of freedom by all. But in this country, if a man owns a house they are likely to pay less tax then a man with no house to call his? How can this be so? The law makes this clear: As you become more economically sound, you are more free. It implies a rationality that places freedom more soundly on the side of those in society who have more. And that is what has placed the concept of "war for more" so soundly on the agenda of mankind. What then do we make of what is happening both psychologically and morally to our communities, local, regional, state and federal, that are also, like the individual, undergoing this intense onslaught of fear and uncertainty? A man on an icy slope once fallen has an enormous task to rise up from the ground and resecure his footing. If he uses his hands while on the ground to carve out a flat and even plain, he can stand again and look more clearly at which direction offers the safest direction. This man may also choose to slip slowly down the slope hoping that at some point, he will reach a clear spot where standing is also possible. A fellow traveler may reach down and offer assistance to the fallen man. It takes that hand sometimes no matter how strong or willing the fallen man is to bruise and tear his hands on the ice in an effort to stand again or how far they are willing to slide down the slope before they are not afraid to try standing again. In this nation, we have always done a good job of being that fellow traveler when it comes to reaching out and taking the hand of the fallen and restoring them to a free state of movement. To help someone means risking your freedom to walk away and leave the man on the ice to his own efforts. Not an easy choice, ever. But a choice easier to make by someone who has experienced the joy of freedom and does not want a fellow human being to live outside its comfort. Look at Haiti and the outpouring of legitimate, non-self-serving empathy and action to see this principle in action. Freedom must exist if it can be given away or shared.

 

As Jefferson dutifully points out, a government must and will establish a framework that embeds the requirements of citizenship irrevocably into the foundation of its creation, including an economic enforcement of what essentially is a legal demand of the extended hand.  Our founding fathers were concerned with civil rights, to a larger extent, perhaps, than any others who had gone on the path to government building before them. In exchange for demanding a certain measure of service from its citizenry, it offered them, at that point in history, one of the greatest measures of personal freedom in return. The indigenous population, indentured servants and all those brought here as slaves were not so fortunate and were tendered no such offer as an immediate right. Freedom for all still was not within the frame of even the thinking of this group of profound and rather brave individuals.

Significant to that historic legislative journey, nevertheless, are the words, the pursuit of happiness. Freedom and happiness are irrevocably entwined. Here, I do not mean happiness in its traditional understanding. Happiness is in and of itself a right to peace of the mind. The absence of happiness for me is anger. And this conceptual understanding of emotion with respect to a political philosophy is directly related to our autonomy, our sense of self as it stands out in that sea of regemented civility. Delving deeper into this predicament of the emotional state of freedom I ask the following question. Who is more free or, if you choose, is neither free: the man or woman shipwrecked on an island that will support his/her basic needs of food, shelter and water, with no numbering system, no place in a computer, but who has no society with which to share their existence, or, the man or woman, homeless, living under a causeway, with debts to pay that follow them from their past life, but who has the potential to "rejoin" society if they so choose and society assists them, no matter the risks it poses to either. Of course, the scenario is somewhat ridiculous even to suggest as an "either/or." More people are homeless in our land than are castaways on islands. I could find, I am certain, countless numbers of individuals tomorrow, though, who would consider becoming "lost" on an island, if that place were "free" in the utopian style such an environment suggests, despite the isolation and despite the loss of civilization. I am certain less people would jump at the chance of being homeless because not only are they on the fringe of society, society has them marked. Going off the grid is the term we use to describe seeking freedom in its less than altruistic mode.  It takes a certain amount of economic freedom though to even accomplish a theoretical leaving of society for the sake of self and personal freedom. If leaving society for self's sake is an example of the pursuit of a more "real" freedom, what does this say for the amount of freedom that is present in a strong state, that even has the highest stated principles of freedom at its core?

As a species, can we deny that we have laid wanton claim to much of what the Earth has to offer all of life on its surface, including the claim that we have a right to subjugate the freedom of others to our own. With so much at our fingertips, the desire, as Jefferson points out, of government to encroach and claim as much as possible is what has placed mankind at this pinnacle of climatic, environmental and financial collapse. If we as individuals resolve that it is only government that must look out for the rights of all, then collapse is inevitable. The American small town is the most visible victim of the advance of the Encroach Until Collapse method of government -- a method by the way that is not party specific. Surprisingly, in these suffering communities remains the strongest of intercommunal bonds, the unabashed concern for "neighbor." In this sense, we must consider freedom to have continuously evolved in this nation to include an essential and understood by nearly all community component. The laws and codes that bind and bond us only have true meaning in that we are willing to let them bind and bond in the best interest of community as opposed to the state. This explains our feeling for our Armed Forces or police or fire departments or anyone within a community who places their life in jeopardy for the sake of all.

 

The question to ponder then as we consider what is freedom, is, on the other side of the argument, what freedom is not. If the absence of happiness is anger, then the absence of freedom is fear.  Franklin D. Roosevelt in a powerful and often quoted speech once told the American people that there was nothing to fear but fear itself. But in this statement, I think he put his finger on an even greater truth than the one he was attempting at that moment to describe. We do need to fear "Fear" itself.  If we ask one another, "Are we more free or fearful?," what is the response? Today, that answer is more than likely, for many of us, "Fear." Fear of the next delivery of the mail and what it brings. Fear of the next phone call and what it brings. Fear of illness that cannot be treated because of the lack of resources. Fear of a system that penalizes the poor. Fear of fear itself because it robs you of your ability to take action which is symptomatic of a person's healthy sense of freedom.

Fear and anger. We know the outcome of that scenario, don't we? In the wake of the end of personal freedom is panic, inability to take action, loss of goals and the sense of the beauty of achievement, and in the end, resignation and defeat. A community defeated is a community that will take all comers and accept anyone or any set of principles that may offer a change. Here just insert any totalitarian or single-minded regime that has its own agenda for self-preservation.

The true right given to all of us so long ago by men and women of Jefferson's era is then, for me at least, the right to protect the right of freedom and the pursuit of a life that that is more happy in its progression than any other state of being.  And that happiness, desired by the people, will ultimately secure their resolve to remain free above all else.