On Freedom

It is an abused word, like an unwanted orphan, fed the scraps, ill-clothed in cast-offs, employed to clean the toilets, and paraded only when needed to show off our generosity and pretend kindness or patriotism.

To the Derrida deconstructionists, freedom is a myth of language, a mirage of misconstruing, if you will. We are never free. Even our thoughts about the very idea of freedom are determined and preordained—though how Derrida might have derived this conclusion, given his premise, is not explained. 

The founders, more confident in their use of language and sure of their audience, had no qualms about using the root word of freedom four times in the Declaration of Independence as well as prominently displaying its kissing cousin, liberty.         

Pseudo-intellectuals often denigrate freedom in conversation as a weak sort of idealism and a romantic notion for the adolescent, while smiling at the foolishness of it, disparaging the very idea, or simply relegating it to the unenlightened and unwashed.         

In most public instances, the meaning of freedom is more “honour’d in the breach than the observance,” and only to be used arguably in this age of the quibble.         

Franklin D. Roosevelt used it to emphasize our national purpose before going to war when he offered, “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech, and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.”         

However well-meaning, I suppose the overreach in using the word freedom to imagine a restriction of freedom is to be expected from someone about to be engaged in the business of war. He didnt have a Churchill to write his speeches, and war is a common excuse for the restriction of civil liberties. The War on Terror and the consequent Patriot Act was just the most egregious example here, that is, prior to our recent war on a virus.        

Put simply, freedom is the ability to act without constraint. It does not demand anything. It expects nothing. It is merely a word, even if it is among the most precious jewels of our language. Its purpose is to describe a quality of life, much the same way as do want and fear.           

The cynic might ask, would this freedom include the ability to enslave others to your will? One might reply, “Only if you are a tyrant,” which, according to American tradition, could prove to be deadly.         

The dramatic character based on William Wallace in Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart,” and his frequent address to freedom, has been attacked by the Left as “historically inaccurate.” Which is a joke in itself, as there is no clear history of the time or the man. This says as much about the cynicism of the Left as it does about their historical knowledge. The sin here is that the actor and director, Mel Gibson, is thought to be a conservative. Whether he is or not, he is a damn fine actor and director, and the script is compelling. What really rubs the Left the wrong way is the great popularity of the film—the people are always wrong and in need of instruction.          

Scholars argue about the meaning of freedom at different times and different places, but as we know it first in the Bible, it is offered as the opposite to slavery, such as this passage in Leviticus: If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed.”         

Slavery is mentioned quite a lot in the Bible. It is something the common man knew whereof, and much appreciated its absence. Which is why, as with Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, most people know it when they see it.          

I more often equate freedom with love. In and of themselves, they are among the strongest feelings we know as human beings. Explaining love is a thankless task, and usually more wrong than right. But it is unmistakable. As is freedom. 

About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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