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The Irony of American Freedom 

Photograph Source: Becker1999 from Grove City, OH – CC BY 2.0

In “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle,” political activist Angela Y. Davis invokes a song from the Freedom Movement, which says freedom is a constant dying, we’ve died so long we must be free. Davis appreciates this irony: “We’ve struggled so long, we’ve cried so long, we’ve sorrowed so long, we’ve moaned so long, we’ve died so long, we must be free, we must be free. And of course there’s simultaneously resignation and promise in that line, there is critique and inspiration: we must be free, we must be free but are we really free?”

Death and freedom, freedom and death, this uncanny coupling is again seen today, in the midst of a global pandemic, on banners, posters, t-shirts protesting shelter-in-place orders—Give me liberty or give me COVID-19. Give me freedom or give me death.

The verse “We’ve died so long, we must be free,” in the context of the Civil Right Movement, implies historical consciousness, as well as a social and spiritual transcendence that comes from long-lived struggles and sorrow; whereas in the current protests, there is no historical consciousness, no transcendence. The only irony here is the misuse of “or,” because the underlying message is: We wish for freedom from safety measures and precautions so we can get sick, even die.

California, Florida, Colorado, Massachusetts, Indiana, Ohio. The slogans echo: Freedom over fear. Live free or die. We demand freedom. 

Make America free again.

To claim this country was free before the spread of COVID-19, requires deliberate overlooking of the contrary realities of America’s sprawling prison-industrial-complex, immigrant detention centers, the iron-grid bars of systematic inequality. How can a nation be free as long as its citizens continue to be imprisoned by deeply-embedded ideologies and structures of poverty, xenophobia, sexism, racism?

Another protest sign: I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery. 

Sociologist Orlando Patterson argues that the very idea of freedom has its roots in slavery. As he sees it, freedom stood as the antithesis to “the social death” imposed by the institution of slavery. It was the desire to undo bondage that gave rise to this ideal which is the strongest driving force for the Western cultures, the United States in particular. Yet, it is an appalling insult to draw parallels between the shelter-in-place orders and slavery. Protesters demand: Don’t cancel my golf season. Open our bars. I want a haircut. Being deprived of recreation, entertainment, cosmetics does not indicate social death.

Such an individualistic, materialistic understanding of freedom—as in the freedom to choose which consumer goods to purchase and leisure activities to pursue—points to something else entirely: enslavement to capitalism.

Another sign reads: Save Capitalism, open our businesses. The conflict is nothing new, of course—crusades to colonialism, to everyday capitalism, human welfare is always a mere sacrifice in the name of greed and power.

Dangerous safety is better than safe tyranny.

To protest in the face of widespread disease and death, to choose danger, is not bravery. It is willful ignorance. It is reckless arrogance. It is moral indifference. It is social contempt.

100,000 American lives, lost to the pandemic in just a few months. 100,000 and counting.

Hang Fauci. Hang Gates. Open all our states. The rhetoric is almost as violent as the virus itself.

Perhaps it is too difficult for a culture in pursuit of happiness to pause and face this immense loss. Perhaps it is too scary to accept the frailty of human life. Perhaps anger is much easier to access than grief.

Anti-apartheid revolutionary and leader Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison. It was there that he learned about patience and perseverance, and acquired a deep, complex understanding of freedom for both the oppressed and the oppressors. In his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, he wrote, “For 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.”

If one’s freedom is stifled by social distancing and face masks, then sadly it was not freedom to begin with. The COVID-19 crisis has not imposed limits on the American freedom; it has just exposed the limitations in the American idea of freedom.

Freedom is a right; yet it is not a given. As the song goes: Freedom is a constant struggle, a constant crying, a constant sorrow, a constant moaning, a constant dying. Freedom requires historical consciousness, sacrifice, and social responsibility. Here is yet another opportunity to rethink the meaning of freedom in America. To borrow Mandela’s words, we have a long walk ahead.

Ipek S. Burnett is a depth psychologist and Turkish novelist living in San Francisco. She’s the author of A Jungian Inquiry into the American Psyche: The Violence of Innocence (Routledge, 2019).  

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