Freedom Defined, and Distorted

“To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”  — Nelson Mandela

Perhaps it was the Fourth of July, or the confluence of national and world events, but for some reason I have been thinking a lot about the notion of “freedom.” It’s a big concept, difficult to adequately define, and subject to the biases of one’s own perspectives. It is a personal emotion and a collective action. It is both an ideal, and a reality, rooted in laws, and also in customs. It is a concept that shapes history and can also be found in the multitudinous interactions that define our daily lives. The ideal of freedom can inspire. But it also can be co-opted to justify oppression. 

This past week we saw an outpouring of one type of freedom. Watching the protests in Cuba has been inspiring. One cannot help but marvel at and be moved by the courage of a people rising up to face down an autocratic regime. The yearning for freedom is universal. 

However, the definition of “freedom” was very different this past week as crowds of Trump loyalists gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas. At CPAC, a parade of speakers took to the stage extolling a “freedom” that makes a mockery of the word’s true meaning. Their “freedom” is the freedom to repudiate science, denigrate public health, suppress free and fair elections, and undermine the very notion of a pluralistic society based on mutual respect for our fellow citizens and the sustainable health of our planet. 

That many Republican elected officials and their media mouthpieces cheered the Cuban demonstrations while simultaneously pushing the Big Lie of stolen elections in the United States and supporting voter suppression efforts is a level of cynicism and bad faith that is staggering. That it is to be expected is all the more dispiriting. 

The juxtaposition took me back in time across many decades to when I interviewed Fidel Castro. In the course of our conversation, he had expressed surprise to me that the Civil Rights leaders I had covered, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, had not embraced communism. After all the injustices of America, he wondered how they could pursue a path for change that differed from the type of revolution he had led. The idea seemed to unsettle his conception of political equilibrium. 

The truth is Dr. King and all who marched and organized for justice were patriots to the most inspirational and expansive of American ideals. They believed in freedom broadly and equitably defined. They demanded that the words of America’s founding, that “ALL men were created equal '' be finally realized. And they believed that change could come through democracy, if full enfranchisement was protected. The battles they fought sadly still continue, and in many ways hard-won progress like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is being rolled back by Republicans in state houses, Congress, and the courts. 

The fight for the definition of American “freedom” is not only playing out at the ballot box. It is animating skirmishes across the country around what we teach our children and how we define our history. You wouldn’t find any acknowledgement at CPAC of the historical truth that so perplexed Castro, of Black Americans’ embrace of democracy. Rather, the charlatans riling up their base threw the latest culture-war red meat of “Critical Race Theory.” House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy even had the shameful temerity to invoke Dr. King’s own words in service of these bad faith attacks. 

The narrative of this nation, of its “freedom,” is a complicated one. It is the story of a chasm between ideals and reality. It is the story of a nation created with the DNA of change built into our government and national ideals, so that it can progress to a “more perfect union.” It is the story of how, time and again, Black Americans have stood up to strengthen American democracy, not weaken it. You have marched and knelt, prayed and organized, protested and voted. You have done so in the face of lynchings, police dogs, and firehoses. And you have done so in spite of laws that were created using formal legal niceties to mask vile bigoted impulses. 

These stories of protest and activism are as much stories about freedom as the Boston Tea Party or the ride of Paul Revere. For these histories are interlinked. We don’t weaken our national story by giving it more nuance than a children’s fairytale. We embolden it. We can say to the autocrats and dictators like Castro that no, American freedom can allow for progress. It can allow for change. It can allow for true freedom. 

But this can only come if we protect our democratic processes — particularly the vote — and are honest about our own history. It is not a coincidence that these two institutions are being targeted by those who wish to suppress an expansive vision of American freedom. It is vital that the will of the people be heard at the polls. And it is vital that our schools are places where students learn about their country in all its complexity. That Republicans are now fighting at the school district level to target teachers and limit what they can teach is chilling. But it is not necessarily a new threat. 

From the very beginning of America’s founding, the idea of freedom was a complicated reality and a simplistic story those in privilege told themselves. This conflict led to a Civil War and many other conflagrations throughout our history. We find ourselves today still being pulled by this past. 

The battle lines are drawn, as they have been. The fight for voting rights and for reckoning with our history is at a dangerous juncture. But there are signs of hope. I see, among many of my fellow citizens, a far greater awareness of the complexity of American history than I have in the past. This is what frightens all those peddling the scare tactics of “critical race theory.” They can see that once people open their eyes to history and reality, they can still love America while wanting to improve it. They can demand progress from a position of knowledge and strength. And they can use that knowledge to organize and effect change. 

This stirring energy frightens those who wish to limit democracy and define freedom to narrowly benefit the few. New, inspiring young leaders are rising up, and they are channeling the same undercurrents that propelled the civil rights movement. They are demanding that American government work for all the people, that freedom be an aspirational goal that unites this nation and not a cynical cudgel to justify suppression. 

What we are seeing in Cuba is that those who do not have democracy can yearn for greater freedom. So it is all the more essential that those of us who have the privilege to live in a place of freedom work to ensure that those freedoms not only endure, but they are extended and shared more equally with all Americans. 

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