The Paradox of Freedom; What is freedom to an American?

(William Atkins/ GW Today)

Throughout Covid I have become fascinated with how our values as Americans have contributed to the tremendous amount of loss we have experienced as a country. For a year and a half the underlying theme of all my writing has been focused extensively on how our collective values influence and drive our behaviors and actions. Part of that process for me has led me to examine my own values and disentangle my personal values from the values I have been immersed in and absorbed as a member of this culture. My values awareness has greatly impacted my choices throughout this pandemic, not only for my own safety, but out of my concern for others.

After almost two years of being relatively stationary in the New England/Tri State area my fiancé, Peter, was yearning for a plane ticket anywhere, preferably Florida. After my impassioned pleas as to why neither of us should be touching Florida with a ten foot pole (no offensive to Florida but the rampant spread of Covid and lack of hospital beds was not good marketing for that destination) and a quick Google search of states with low Covid rates and sensible safety precautions we settled on Washington, D.C.

Our first day we decided to venture out to see the city on foot. An overcast day with rain in the forecast I threw an umbrella in the bag and we laced up our sneakers.

After a few stops to admire some historical buildings we found ourselves standing in front of a sea of white — the temporary Covid memorial art installation.

It is hard to capture on the page the emotion that the experience evoked. As you look in front of you there is no end to the white flags. All of my choices for the past 18 months had been guided by being aware of the consequences that my behaviors and actions could have not only for myself, but for others. In front of me each flag represented a human being whose death was inextricably linked to the collective choices and response by our society at large.

I saw someone standing in front of a small patch of flags reading a small red sign. You may see that in the photo above. That piqued my interest enough to move closer to see what they were looking at. As I bent over to read the signage I stood aghast. In front of me there were 27 flags on a small patch of grass, slightly removed from the parameters of the (then) 678,584 other flags (now 750,000+). The sign read “New Zealand’s Covid-19 Response, population of 5 million. Immediate national lockdown, quality testing protocols, contact tracing, and quarantine compliance. Cumulative death toll: 27.

To my left was Peter and to my right a stranger, a gentleman who I found out was visiting from Houston. We all stood in disbelief. I looked to my left, across the street from the memorial stood the grandeur of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). I signaled to the building and said, “How ironic. This memorial is situated right in front of the institution that tells the story of how we started as a country and this memorial represents where we are. We began as a country with a disregard for human life, putting our economic value above humanity and we find ourselves here, again putting economics above people.”

Vista of the Museum from Constitution Avenue, looking across the north lawn to the Washington Monument. Alan Karchmer / NMAAHC

I could not shake how symbolic the positioning of the flags was, regardless of whether it was an intentional act by the artist, Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, who created the installation.

NMAAHC is the 19th museum of the Smithsonian Institution and opened in 2016. Among the traditional architecture in D.C. the NMAAHC building stands out with the ironwork that pays homage to the craft of ironwork by enslaved and free African Americans from states like Louisiana and South Carolina.The Founding Director of NMAAHC, Lonnie G. Bunch III said, “This Museum will tell the American story through the lens of African American history and culture. This is America’s Story and this museum is for all Americans.”

Without African Americans there is no United States as we know it. That involves an uncomfortable truth that for far too long we skirted away from or blatantly refused to acknowledge. NMAAHC demonstrates that slavery is our shared story as Americans and it has influenced all aspects of American political, economic and cultural life.*

What if we looked at those individual white flags representing the lives of Americans lost to Covid through this shared history?

View of the installation from the top floor of NMAAHC.

Paradox of Liberty; Freedom for all?

One of our defining values as a nation is freedom. In many ways it makes sense as part of our origin story has to do with fleeing an oppressive monarchy.** When I visited NMAAHC I was reminded that looking at the concept of freedom through the lens of freedom from a monarchy was only one part of our history, one part of our founding story.

NMAACH website

The concept of freedom cannot exist unless it is in contrast to something else.

The Paradox of Liberty exhibit illustrates the contradiction that, “the founders erected a structure of freedom alongside a brutal system of slavery.”*** It depicts the parallel process of founding America based on the principles of liberty and sovereignty during the same time as African Americans were fighting for their freedom from slavery,

Freedom was constructed in contrast to others being enslaved.

African-Americans and Black Americans have had to live and exist within a construct of freedom that was designed to oppress them. The freedom that Americans experience today exists because African-Americans demanded freedom from slavery towards liberty for all.

This is Elizabeth Freeman. Her plaque reads, “Elizabeth Freeman, known as Mum Bett, was born into slavery and was one of the first people to successfully sue for her freedom in the new nation…Her claim to freedom changed her life and helped to end slavery in Massachusetts.” Photo by Peter Edouard, 2021.

It is impossible to disentangle America’s core value of freedom from our history of slavery.

When I walked from the Covid memorial installation into NMAAHC I took the escalators to the lower levels of the museum to the History Galleries. I got off the escalators to the concourse and walked down the stairs to the History Galleries. I could hear the lingering chatter of the concourse. It sounded strange as I descended down the stairs, entering the exhibit where the energetic tone was solemn. The silence and delicate movements of visitors invoked a feeling of reverence for the history and for the countless lives that have been lost and never acknowledged. It was like entering a holy and sacred space.

I was greeted by this exhibition, “Slavery & Freedom 1400–1877”.

The exhibition reads: Five hundred years ago, a new form of slavery transformed Africa, Europe, and the Americas. For the first time, people saw other human beings as commodities — things to be bought, sold, and exploited to make enormous profits. This system changed the world.

The United States was created in this context, forged by slavery as well as a radical new concept, freedom. This is a shared story, a shared past, told through the lives of African Americans who helped form the nation.

I stood in front of that sign asking myself, What is freedom to an American today?

I think an important question is, who is freedom for? But also, freedom from what?

It is impossible, or at least inaccurate, to look at the concept and this cultural value of freedom without looking at first, the origin of freedom and second, the contributions that African Americans have had in actualizing freedom for all.

I think it is important to note here that I do not think that African Americans and other historically oppressed and marginalized groups experience freedom in this country in the way that white Americans experience freedom. For example, the Voting Rights Bill keeps getting blocked in the senate and restrictive voting bills like the one passed in Texas are aimed at restricting access to the vote in communities of color.**** I would argue that this can be traced back to the founding of this country and the paradox of liberty.

This topic could be a blog or book in itself. This particular piece is about our cultural value of freedom, what has shaped our concept of freedom and how freedom continues to be weaponized as a tool being wielded by the dominant group.

The Weaponization of Freedom

I am both fascinated and terrified by how freedom has taken over our cultural rhetoric since the pandemic. The most frightening part of the freedom narrative is that it is solely focused on individual freedom. You will find this to be a consistent critique of mine throughout my writing, that we are a “Me” vs. “We” culture*****.

Throughout the pandemic I have become focused on the American value of individual and personal freedom and the consequences it has for the collective. We tout freedom in this country without responsibility or accountability on how that freedom impacts the lives of others.

Again, I ask the question, what is freedom to an American today? The answer is, it depends. We continue to see this paradox of liberty. Black folks actually experience limitations to their personal freedoms with life and death consequences.

Whereas, although it is not all white people, the folks protesting over mask mandates, vaccine requirements and shouting that their freedom is being impeded upon are predominately white.

These Covid measures are not about freedom, they are about safety. Suddenly sacrificing some measures of personal comfort is an attack on one’s freedom?

Freedom from what?

Could it be that freedom in this country is actually about freedom from responsibility for and to others? Freedom from responsibility for our actions? It is almost as if we define freedom to be self-serving, thoughtless and heedless.

Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor, world renowned psychiatrist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning was critical of America’s value of freedom. He thought that freedom, without responsibility, was an oxymoron. His recommendation to represent that with freedom comes responsibility was to construct a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast to balance the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast.

The proposed Statue of Responsibility designed by Gary Lee Price

Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. Viktor Frankl

Currently there are 31 deaths from Covid in New Zealand. As I am writing this there have been 754,000 deaths in the United States. If we were to have followed similar safety protocols, which would have limited our freedom but amplified our responsibility to our fellow country persons, we would have had approximately 2000 deaths currently. We could have saved 752,000 moms, dads, grandparents, sisters, uncles, sons, and daughters. We could have saved lives.

Photo credit Peter Edouard, 2021

Instead, politicians in power chose prioritizing opening the economy, eerily reminiscent of this country’s founding, when those with the most privilege and power prioritized financial gain for some versus the lives and humanity of many.

When freedom is the rallying cry of the dominant group as a way to denounce specific groups, who does that benefit?

Does freedom have to be a zero sum game? The way freedom has been upheld in this country it seems that way. Freedom without responsibility is a path to our common destruction.*******

That day when we visited the Covid memorial was not simply an overcast day. If I had bothered to look into the weather forecast more deeply than the app on my phone I would have known there were flash flood warnings that afternoon.

Photo credit Peter Edouard, 2021

As Peter and I walked the perimeters of the installation we got caught in the heavy downpours inadequately prepared. We stood hovered together under a useless umbrella, amongst thousands of white flags, whipping against the wind. The mood was ominous. We stood in the present, the flags symbolizing our collective tragedy, reflective of our historical moral failings. NMAAHC stood behind us, as if to say, “History has its eyes on you********.”

When will we stop trying to be free from our history and instead, confront the truth and take responsibility for it? If we are not willing to examine the uncomfortable truths about our country it will continue to be at great peril to all our lives.

We cannot outrun the consequences of fraudulent freedom.

Yet, we can all enhance the freedom of ourselves and others by taking responsibility for our actions. We can acknowledge the truth. If we can accept that our definition of freedom in this country has been an inaccurate and incomplete one then just maybe we can write the next chapter of America’s story.

*https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/exhibitions/slavery-and-freedom

**For Which We Stand by Jeff Foster

***https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/freedom-and-slavery-the-central-paradox-of-american-history/2019/04/30/16063754-2e3a-11e9-813a-0ab2f17e305b_story.html

****You can support the work of LaTosha Brown at Black Voters Matter

***** Isaac Prilleltensky https://www.professorisaac.com/mattering/wishforwedecade

*****https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-meaningful-life/201908/viktor-frankl-and-the-statue-responsibility

*******This was sentiment made by the Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley at the recent UN Climate Change Conference COP 26, “We must act in the interests of all of our people who are dependent on us, and if we don’t, we will allow the path of greed and selfishness to sow the seeds of our common destruction.”

******** History Has Its Eyes on You from Hamilton

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