How Free Are We?

My fellow Americans, it’s time to take stock again: how free are we? It is an appropriate time to ask such questions, for it is Independence Day, the day America declared itself a free country (some restrictions may apply). How free, I ask again for emphasis, are we? How free is anybody, for that matter? Us humans can’t fly, for example, without the use of special equipment such as airplanes or Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, so we’re inherently not completely free. In order to determine just how free we Americans are, we must define freedom, or I must, seeing as you are just the passive reader and I am actually doing the writing. In fact, that seems like a violation of your freedoms right there so I’ll give you some space to define freedom, and then I’ll define freedom after you’ve had your say. Please do not write directly on your computer monitor.





There, that was cathartic, wasn’t it? Please email your definition of freedom along with twenty dollars to the address below, or if you don’t have email and you’re reading this through someone else’s window while they’ve stepped out of the room, simply mail your definition to:

John ‘Freedom Eagle’ Ashcroft
US Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20530
–along with six yards of second-hand toilet paper.

My definition of freedom is as follows: the absence of restrictions. Naturally this is a ridiculously broad definition and suggests all manner of libertinous horseplay ought to be allowed outright; by my definition a truly free people would be allowed to rape, loot, pillage, and slaughter each other in the street– or worse, loiter. Thus it is reasonable to suppose that a ‘free people’, as the term is normally construed, is only free by degree; that is, its persons are free to act within the context of what is generally considered to be acceptable behavior, and not free to commit acts heinous or injurious. This restrictive notion of freedom might seem to contradict the very notion of freedom, and it certainly does fly in the face of my own definition, but that’s why I’m not a Supreme Court Justice. That and some other reasons we won’t get into here. Suffice it to say I was framed. But absolute freedom of every individual to act as he pleases (and it is usually a ‘he’) will inevitably encroach on every other individual’s freedom to do same, and chaos results (see the Fall of Rome, also see the Democratic National Convention of 1968). After all, if I’m free to shoot the Hungarian electrician next door, he is no longer free to practice the electrical arts, is he? Thus we must be less than absolutely free if we are to remain free at all. This is, however, a slippery slope (see also Sumo Wrestling).

The rather blushingly named HyperDic of Internet fame has a more useful definition of freedom, primarily because it breaks freedom down into two different senses:

1. The condition of being free. The power to act or speak or think without externally imposed restraints.
2. Immunity from an obligation or duty.

Lucky for me, because that’s where I was going with this and I never would have gotten there on my own. The nub of the crux of the essence of this matter is as follows: here it is Independence Day, the day when we celebrate our freedom as Americans. Nobody ever said we individual Americans were absolutely free; robbery, jaywalking, and anthropophagy are illegal in most states (unless you’re a congressman or a Catholic bishop). But we are collectively a free country, that’s the point, gist, and quiddity of it. Nobody tells America what to do, and that was the original sense of the holiday, or in other words, sense #1 above. We are a free country, mofugga, watch out. This is also the type of freedom we defend to a lesser degree as individuals: salient bit being the freedom to act, speak, or think without EXTERNALLY IMPOSED RESTRAINTS. All caps there, so you know it’s a big deal. Just as America isn’t run by Germany, Americans aren’t run by a police state (hypothetically speaking; in practice, the Man will put you down, to coin a phrase). The social contract suggests we should be free of external restraints, as long as our behavior doesn’t infringe on the freedoms of others, which I think is what the Constitution was driving at. This is the important freedom. The problem I see is that people have gotten confused about this, and are starting to think the freedom that matters is freedom #2. Immunity from an obligation or duty.

Here the old-school conservatives agree with me: the problem with society today is nobody gives a f____ about their duty as citizens, parents, etc. (Conservatives always put naughty words in lines that you have to fill in yourself, which I think is way dirtier somehow than just coming right out with the expletive, in this case ‘fiddle’. What a bunch of silly c____.) So what you get is an idea that freedom means freedom from consequences. Now the conservatives and me will diverge again back to our natural polar removes. To proceed: consequences include if you infringe on somebody’s freedom to be alive, you go to jail. Everybody agrees with this except sociopaths and certain parties over at the State Department. Laws are really just a map defining the boundaries of freedom. The more laws, the less free you are. America has, between the federal and state levels, enough laws so that if they were printed on ordinary typing paper (if you can even get ordinary typing paper any more) and bound in a single book, it would take eight thousand years to read the resulting volume, and even longer if you were a kangaroo. In Illinois, for example, it is illegal to give a lit cigar to a domesticated pet. But laws aren’t the only boundary to freedom. They’re just boundaries with direct consequences. Cultural boundaries work like laws except all you really get for transgressing them is dirty looks.

With cultural boundaries, or taboos, your freedom is restricted by the generally accepted idea of acceptable behavior. Thus you are free to listen to Vanilla Ice albums, as there is not yet any law against it. But it is taboo to play the same albums outdoors at great volume between the hours of 10:00 PM and 8:00 AM, at least not on my block. However this is a source of great fun, which is what taboos are all about for those who flaunt them. It is perhaps the central struggle of our times that the reigning neo-conservatives want to make our current taboos into laws, and make our current laws into taboos. Rather a glib epigram, but there it is; quote at your peril. In other words, neo-conservatives want to be immune from obligations or duties they consider unpleasant, such as electoral reforms, corporate law, or restrictions on the concentration of money and power. Meanwhile, arrest anybody who speaks ill of the Fed or engages in alternate lifestyle practices (except sodomy- someone on the Supreme Court, probably William ‘Wild Bill’ Rehnquist, has a secret life, methinks) and make the vices of people worth less than eight million dollars illegal. Unfortunately, the American idea of what freedom means has been so warped by the discourse of these powerful individuals that everybody, not just them, has come to regard immunity from obligation as the same thing as the absence of restrictions.

This still seems like a fuzzy line to draw, so I’ll scribble over it with crayon. What is immunity from obligation? Example: you are free to put your 130-pound ass in a 6,500 pound vehicle to drive across town, although the biosphere will eventually die. No law against it. I do not suggest there should be; it’s a matter of conscience. Example: If you are a person or corporation rich enough to afford the shell game, you can avoid paying taxes. However in due time you will have marauding gangs of illiterate nine-year-olds burning down your house. People who think freedom means immunity are fooling themselves. They suffer skin cancer and muggings and the breakdown of society just like everybody else does. When Enron was free to do as it pleased, it caused rolling blackouts. Then even the shareholders weren’t free, because they were stuck in the dark and couldn’t operate the garage door opener. You see? There is freedom to do whatever is permissible by law, but there are taboos that restrict certain legally acceptable behaviors (shaving a goat in a public fountain), and consequences for other legally acceptable behaviors, so in the end the primary restrictions upon our freedoms are internal ones. We don’t want to be despised and reviled (most of us don’t) and we don’t want to die of skin cancer or attacks by marauding third-grade dropouts. So we moderate our behavior as intelligent and caring citizens, respectful of the freedoms of our fellow Americans.

Let us, to beat a dead horse, look at Donald Rumsfeld’s definition of freedom in Iraq: “It’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy. Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things.” Yet it is this very notion of freedom that is being eroded here at home just as fast as this administration can pump the vitriol. Americans, ordinary Americans, are less free than at any time in the last eighty years: we are told to “watch what you say” (Ari Fleischer) and the USA PATRIOT Act and its satellites have placed unmeasured power into the hands of prurient puritanical lawmen with agendas far removed from the expected course of their duties. We are free to indulge ourselves as long as the indulgence suits the powers that be. But freedom is not an indulgence, it is a privilege, hard-won and easily lost, like the keys to Dad’s car. Freedom from obligations or duty? Freedom not to vote. Freedom to devour and consume. Freedom to get fat and die of diabetes. Freedom to hate and fear. Freedom to dodge Air National Guard duty. This is the wrong kind of freedom, although there should be no restrictions upon it except the internal bounds of decency and common sense: conscience, in a word.

So while we celebrate our freedoms this great day, blowing off our hands and barbecuing like Mongols, let us remember that the freedom which matters most, the freedom from externally imposed restraints, is going away fast. A people afraid to dissent, afraid to speak out, and under threat of detention for the simple act of being different, is not a free people. But we are sedated, glutted on the other kind of freedom- the freedom from obligation, or in other words the freedom of inaction. (Speech! Speech! Cue music!) We don’t feel obliged to our world, its peoples, or our own bodies. We refuse our duties to history and the future. And all the while our important freedoms- freedoms of thought and speech and action- are being infringed upon like crazy.

So how free are we? I’ll finally answer the question. We’re not as free as we were, but we’re still free enough to make things turn around. Find a fight and stay in it while you’re still free to do so. Make yourself heard, make yourself known. Start today, on the day we Americans celebrate our freedom as a country, our national freedom from externally imposed restraints. Because if we Americans start behaving with conscience and accept our duties and obligations as citizens, so will America. And then we can all get on with the business of being truly free. Now excuse me, I have to go drink a large quantity of beer and burn my eyebrows off with a Roman Candle. May God, Goddess, natural selection or happenstance bless us all, and happy 227th birthday, America!

BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and cartoonist. Ben also has a lot of outrageously priced crap for sale here. If his writing starts to grate on your nerves, buy some and maybe he’ll flee to Mexico. If all else fails, he can be reached at:

Ben Tripp is America’s leading pseudo-intellectual. His most recent book is The Fifth House of the Heart.