Freedom is a delicate, fragile flower. It requires a nurturing hand and the ministrations of intentional preservation. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, that flower is now wilting. Its caretakers turn their faces away from it in indifference and vague disillusionment. Long a crown jewel of the American tradition, a strong vindication for freedom had a bonding effect on the population. People thought of freedom as a shared legacy which they felt a certain invigoration to maintain.
I would make the claim that this mass invigoration has been slipping. And in the age of the coronavirus it has made one of its most disturbing regressions yet. I do not mean to suggest that we have become a society that actively attacks freedom — no, that is almost never how it works.
Instead, our indifference, lingering cynicism and acquiescent attitudes have empowered freedom’s age-old enemies — those in power — to pilfer from it. This is no alarmist stretch of the imagination; instead, it is a law of nature, one strewn repeatedly throughout the annals of history. And I do fear that people do not take the degradations of freedom seriously in our current age, for a number of reasons.
Properties of the present-tense
Chief among these is that the present-tense is famously difficult to criticize (human instinct determines that we justify more in the present-tense than we criticize.) The past-tense, on the other hand, can be judged with comparative ease because our feet — and our perspectives — are planted on the other side of it and not in it. The painting is finished, so to speak. But in the present-tense the painting is still being painted and so we must extrapolate based on the lines already etched and draw on our deductive prowess to make informed inferences about the future.
It can be existentially uncomfortable while standing in the fog of the present-tense to have to infer and to track events into the future. I mentioned before that a chaotic force like a novel virus dangerously cripples a population’s powers of evaluation. If everything is uncertain, why criticize anything? Better to just sacrifice yourself and your individual powers of analysis on the altar of the “unprecedented,” right?
Recall that it is much easier and existentially comfortable to justify what happens, and take a submissive, story-making stance that enables us to fit the events of the world into a digestible format from which our brains can soothingly murmur to ourselves, yes, that makes sense. Much easier than to criticize what is coming down the tunnel, to stand apart from it and resist absorbing events into our story-making impulse, to draw hard conclusions and honestly classify dangers.
Beware the yes, that makes sense murmur curling into your ear. It is so often evidence of justifying, not judging. None of this is helped, of course, by the gradual sweep of crisis interventions which build on each other. Again, the gift of the retrospect is that our vision clears and chains of causation are suddenly revealed to us.
This particular property of the present-tense — it being a molting flux of gradual shifts difficult to find one’s footing in instead of a static, clear picture has a sneaky, disturbing way of shelving our reservations.
Crisis-chapters & personality changes
Crisis chapters are also psychological challenges in more ways than one. Sure, they wreak mental distress on our daily lives but they have the potential to mold our personalities in the long-term. Think of the profound mental shifts accompanying beefed-up national security measures following 9/11. We became a nation haunted by the nightmarish visions of terroristic violence almost overnight. Terroristic violence was a historically new threat and yet it chiseled indelible grooves in the psychologies of subsequent generations. My point being: crisis chapters change national personality.
Today’s crisis chapter? The coronavirus. Today’s change to national personality? A growing apathy, bordering-on-cynicism when it comes to freedom.
A fluffy conception of freedom
I do think there is a modern temptation to suppose that freedom is this light, fluffy, pleasant little extra and not instead, the heavy cornerstone of our republic. Freedom is not “nice to have;” it is not merely the cuddly enjoyments of personal expression, say. Its gravity is one of life or death. Its final distillation is the sanctity of the individual pitted against the tyranny of men. Freedom is the philosophical soil that our very nation rests on.
Do remember that America itself was carved out of a gruesome struggle with the British Empire. Do remember that it was the fight for freedom itself that gave birth to our country. Freedom — this ideal imbued with near spiritual significance, this majestic thing worth dying for. Without such an unshakable, electrified conviction in the ideal of freedom, the U.S. would not exist. (And pondering that alternate reality and its consequences is an interesting thought experiment indeed.)
During the Revolutionary War era, men grit their teeth on battlefields for freedom. Colonists rebelled against a centuries-old monarchy whose towering shadow of resources and prestige ought to have intimidated the young effort into submission. And a legion of leading minds — the renowned Founding Fathers — were so razor-sharp convicted about their prescriptions for a healthy republic that they wrote and spoke prolifically about the indispensability of liberty, all of their utterances almost ominously wormed through with a knowing weariness of what failure to grasp this importance could come at the cost of. Cast several centuries into the future, some of their words cause a chill to run down my spine. They knew, they knew.
“Posterity: you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.”
— John Adams
I have said this before, but it bears repeating: The worthy aim of government is an allegiance to maintaining principles and not to heeding the siren call of projects. At the very least, principles must come first. And we live in a time where our principles have befallen the “problematic” disease. Never before has freedom of speech, for example, become so riven with contention, so un-straightforward, and so riddled with doubts, concessions, and evaporating confidence.
All this wobbling is rather interesting given that free speech is an incredibly uncomplicated prescription. Admirably distilled down into a single sentence, the first amendment is very clear but very unyielding — as it should be. Modern attempts to dilute the first amendment smack of the disillusionment that comes from soaking in the privileges of freedom and taking them for granted.
Which you cannot do because if you do not nurture the flower, you will kill it. What we are witnessing today is a lack of interest in protecting the proverbial flower and a desire, instead, to pick at the environment that it’s in. I have one theory for why this is.
In an earlier piece I’ve written the following:
“When we believe we largely have something in the bag, we have energies to divert elsewhere. This, I am precariously speculating, can account for the [. . .] shoveling of energies into finding fault with systems like democracy rather than fighting for them. Call it a theory of (psychological) energy equilibrium.
We are subconsciously compelled to work on something, and if we have already built something, it is scarily possible that we will eventually reach a point where we will start to claw at what we have built for no other reason than we are discontented with inaction.”
Hostility towards history
One additional thread in this story must also be the peculiar rejection of history that we have witnessed in recent years. Think of the campaign sweeping cities and university campuses to remove historical statutes from parks and venerable names from old institutions. I am very skeptical of this “cleaning-up” mission, ushered in under the progressive auspices of correcting historical wrongs. It is weirdly hostile to the past, and its adherents so sure that the past’s occupants should be erased and that everything good lies down the tunnel of the limitless future.
Attempting to cut the cord from history, then, would bleed our principles and foster a noxious ingratitude towards the past and its achievements.
My fear is that this erasure extends to freedom itself and not only will we have an attitude of detachment on our hands, but we’ll have detachment of memory as well. Put another way, not only will we lose crucial discussion over why freedom matters, we will snuff out the stories that made it possible.
Central planning of thought
So we have reached a point in our post-Empire timeline (unfortunate as it is to admit we have likely already had our moment at the top of the Ferris wheel) where not only does much of the population have an apathetic relationship to freedom and its defense but an air of cynicism percolates around its (nobly) absolutist demands.
Perhaps, some think, we ought to ban certain types of speech or press — in order to trim the world a bit — to make it more civilized, less mean, less contentious. This is a doomed idea and no iteration of it can hope to perform any better than its predecessor. The truth is, no one can be trusted with this task — ever. This would be the central planning of thought. And central planning, simply put, does not work; it always wars disastrously with human nature in the process.
Since no human being can be trusted to mete out freedoms, we have a law that is intended to prevent this from happening. Do not be misled by the sweet sound of “the greater good” deployed by politicians. No one can say such a thing with confidence about their particular edict.
And it’s a squeamishly questionable concept too, because what does “the greater good” even refer to? So often in history it means getting the big picture to look a certain way, irrespective of your wants and your rights.
The uncompromising first-amendment principle of free speech, then, is the one system that can be trusted. This is so long as those at the top can keep their hands out of meddling projects to skew the big picture this way or that, an enduring and dangerous temptation indeed.
If it needs to be said, what we do not have faith in, we will not protect. Our present moment shows us quivering on the edge of apathy towards the ideal of freedom and disturbingly ready to problematicize it. It is one thing to forget, it is quite another to pick at. Both we ought to fear. Remember, freedom is a flower and if we do not nurture it, we will surely kill it.
“There are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
― James Madison