In Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a religious brainwashing specialist in a dystopian future tells her prisoners about “freedom to” versus “freedom from.” According to the brainwasher, the religious state that replaced the United States of America in the story beneficially deprives women of the freedom to do what they want in exchange for freedom from physical danger. Thing is, her prisoners are women in sexual and reproductive slavery, something we would all call a crime.
Atwood wrote the novel during the rise of what’s now called the Religious Right, the 1980s, when figures like Jerry Falwell were ascendant and a religious takeover of the United States seemed sorta plausible. I think that no longer seems so — admitting that the ongoing reduction in access to abortion was both Atwood’s main concern and stands as an unmistakable counterexample.
I bring it up because Atwood’s language is as useful as ever in considering “freedom.” When you think about your own freedom and the role of the government of the United States of America in securing it for you, do you think about “freedom to” or “freedom from”?
When I talk with my conservative friends I hear a lot of the same notes that pundits have been singing. Maybe I have it wrong, but in today’s conservative circles it seems that what’s important about freedom is not what it allows you to enjoy, but what it allows you to ignore. Specifically, the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness takes a back seat to the freedom from responsibility for any of your choice’s consequences. To this way of thinking, it’s the job of the government to let you take actions that can be harmful to yourself and others; but you have no responsibility to take actions that are of direct benefit to yourself, your community, or your country.
For example, If I choose to avoid a vaccine that protects not only me but also the people around me and by extension my community and furthermore the country I love, I run the completely unnecessary risk of depriving some of my neighbors and my fellow Americans of the freedom to live. The loved ones of those who die are thereby deprived of happiness.
Put bluntly, when people refuse the vaccine or downplay the three quarters of a million COVID deaths in the United States of America, I see a desire for freedom from the responsibility you owe your fellow Americans. You swear to sacrifice your life for freedom but won’t wear a mask for your fellow American’s life? No mask or vaccine for you because you have a point to prove about freedom! — doesn’t the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of those around you matter? Sounds like grandstanding. Sounds selfish. Sounds like you’re missing the point.
The Founders of the United States of America wrote many thoughtful essays on the balance between the government and the individual and their ideas have been debated ever since. In many ways and for good reason, they came down on the side of the individual. However, the point was never that individual preference overrode the collective good, it was that the individual was the best kind of person to contribute to a strong nation if and only if he and she freely chose to keep the Common Good in their thoughts.
President John F. Kenndey put it well: “Ask not what your country can do for you — but what you can do for your country.” I worry that his main meaning has been diluted. To him, “your country” wasn’t the government, it was your neighbors, your community, and by extension, America itself.
Benjamin Franklin, signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution put it even better in 1776 when he described the very real potential that the United States of America would never come to be. Revolutionists like himself faced execution if they failed, so he said: “We must hang together or surely we will hang separately.”
There may, God forbid, a time when the United States of America ceases to be. If such a sad day comes, I worry it will be because too many of us will have forgotten that being part of a community and a nation means taking care of each other at least as much as it means celebrating autonomy.
Am I wrong here? How (much) so? I’d love to know what my friends in the State of Jefferson movement think about this.