In the United States political world, there has been a lot of talk about being free lately. From owning guns to wearing masks to availability of abortions, one person’s freedom is another’s oppression.
A number of freedoms, or rights, are explicitly mentioned in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In particular, the first and second amendments, freedom of speech and the right to bear arms, respectively, are the most famous. Are efforts to keep protests safe limiting freedom of speech? Are all efforts at gun control an infringement of the Second Amendment?
In addition, there is also a fierce debate going on regarding voting rights, and both sides of the political divide feel that they are defending democracy. One side wants increased voting access to previously under-served communities; the other thinks that is an invitation to fraud.
At the heart of many of the ongoing arguments is that people, regardless of their political affiliation or socioeconomic standing, feel their freedoms slipping away.
Related: Listen to an episode of the Intellectual Roundtable Podcast, where we discuss the questions ‘Freedom or security?’ and ‘Is technology neutral?’
Not to mention the vanishing of privacy in the age of social media. Similarly, our personal information is becoming more available to corporations. Credit card companies, for example, know more about us than many of us realize. Cell phones allow us to be tracked wherever we go.
On a personal level, how do you feel about freedom? Are you free? Do you feel free? Are your freedoms threatened, and what can be done to strengthen them?
Related questions: Freedom or security? What are you doing to make the world a better place? Personal rights or convenience? How can we encourage debate?
2 thoughts on “Are You Free?”
Of course, any answer to the fact that I am by and large free comes in the statement of my privileges. I am a straight, white, American man who has enough income to purchase my wants and cover most of my needs. All these privileges conform to the dominant structures embedded in American institutions and political and economic systems.
By way of examples, I can feel like the political and economic systems, by and large, allow for my advancement. Because of my skin color, I can go and travel where I want and feel safe. Because I am a man, I feel free to express my opinion when I think the opportunity arises. And, economically, I don’t need to stress every time some economic hurdle gets in my way. Conversely, I don’t need to fear that my presence in certain spaces evokes the fear of others and sometimes the calling of law enforcement because I “look” out-of-place or like I am acting suspiciously. I don’t, because of my gender, feel like my thoughts and opinions are undervalued. And, I don’t need to feel like others question every economic decision I make. Simultaneously, I also don’t need to feel like those same financial decisions limit the other economic choices I must make. All these privileges fit nicely into “the way things ought to be.”
I also realize that freedom, in some ways, is not free. For instance, I completed, and to a partial degree paid for, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at the University of Minnesota. This earned purchase has opened up many freedoms for me. There is a full category of jobs I am eligible for. While not always true — I have faced varying lengths of unemployment at least three or four times — I have had jobs I enjoy, and they have provided me a decent income and health insurance.
There are at least two things about how this purchased freedom stopped abruptly still showed me advantage because of a result of privilege. First, (and I know this is a generalization) men are most likely to access unemployment when without a job. There is very little policing of our job-seeking activities, and because of my prior income, the benefits I receive, while not comfortable, provide me well within a basic subsistence. In contrast, women (mostly impoverished women) are more likely to access welfare as their income support. The policing of choices a person on welfare must justify or face the negative consequences for are great, and the financial supports are not nearly as generous.
Regarding the health insurance, I have partially-purchased it by having a college degree that opens up my job market more than others, which has resulted in freedoms not available to so much of the American population. I can go to my doctor with very little financial consequence as well as go to my doctor when I feel sick with relatively little worry that it’s going to break my financial security. Lastly, in this regard, my coverage includes mental health services. These services have helped me escape the Depression I lived with for much of my younger, poorer years. While I still experience a measurably-unwanted level of Anxiety, I have also endured a much more extreme version of Anxiety that most often happened during times my insurance made things mental health services and access to many forms of medication out-of-reach. I consider myself more free because of the mental health services I receive.
I am also freer because of where I live. I live in a safe neighborhood with many amenities and stores nearby. Because I have a car, healthy food is within my reach, to say nothing of the entertainment options — once COVID-19 recedes into our past.
Most of the things I listed above were freedoms I have access to, at least partially due to my automatic privileges because of qualities inherent from birth. But the real reason I chose this question is that I wanted to point out that many freedoms are being eroded in the American system. Some intersect with my privileges; others do not. For instance, I live only a couple of blocks from my often well-staffed polling place. The volunteers and other voters don’t question my right to vote because of my skin color. My polling place is accessible, whereas reducing polling places in more impoverished neighborhoods is under execution right now, and the high courts of our country seem poised to endorse these limitations.
Not intersecting with my privileges is the fact that our very democratic institutions are being called into question. Former President Trump has said (and still says) the Election was stolen from him by the fact that liberals got a bunch of illegal and dead voters to choose President Biden. Thankfully, the courts have struck down Trump’s legal challenges scores of times as, first, there is little evidence of voter fraud and, second, during every election season, dead people “are registered” but must be removed from the roles … because former voters, at times, die. Regrettably, a very substantial percentage of the American public believes Trump should still be our President. What does it say about our democratic institutions when questioned by a large portion of the population?
I could comment more on how our freedoms are limited because of how our United States Senate is set up and how our courts seem geared toward making decisions that will further repress BIPOC and more impoverished communities for years to come.
But, instead, I want to end with a story that exposes how democracy is something we not only need to defend beyond our country’s borders; we must be vigilant with attacks from within. Do you want to talk about voter fraud? How about fraudulent activities used to depress voter turnout?
Years ago, I played a small but meaningful role in registering and turning out over 1,000 homeless folks to vote. It is one of the activities I am most proud of in my life. On Election Day, we had volunteers ready to walk or provide a ride to the proper polling places from a daytime drop-in center for those living on the streets. I should note, we had also coordinated an army of volunteers to serve at other drop-in centers, emergency shelters, and transitional housing programs throughout Minnesota. But my example of fraudulent activities used to depress voter turnout comes from something that happened just outside the doors of the drop-in center I used as my command center as I called homeless services to see how their turnout activities were working. I had just gotten off the phone with a shelter worker when a homeless man walked up to me with a flier. The words on the flier made it clear that voting day had changed to the day before. Votes on the real Voting Day, the poster made clear, would not count. The man was disappointed because he was going to vote for the first time in his life, and now, he thought, he had missed his opportunity.
Am I free? Yes, in many ways, I am. But are we free? Because of this story I, unfortunately, found myself in, I saw how some people only want certain people to be free.
There is no doubt that I enjoy many freedoms.
For example. I feel pretty confident that I have a fairly robust freedom of speech. Even with all the recent talk of “cancel culture” and “political correctness”, I recognize that I can say pretty much anything I want without fear of being jailed for my comments. I may suffer other consequences, like losing a job or being shunned by my peers (I hope whatever I say would not elicit that reaction, but you never know) but the local, state, or federal government will not jail me because of it.
But despite the areas in my life where I feel free, I would like to have other freedoms, for myself and for society at large.
The primary one, in my mind, is health care. I think that every living human being can and should receive some care for sickness or injury, just as part of being human. I should never be put in the situation of being afraid to leave my crummy job for fear of losing health insurance. I should never have to choose between medication and food. And I should never face financial ruin over treatment for an accident. All those are very real concerns at the present time in the United States.
The other thing that I would like, and this is not really a freedom or fundamental right but is closely related, is that I wish it were possible to have nuance when discussing the issue of freedoms. In my opinion, no freedom, not even sacred ones like freedom of speech or the right to bear arms, is absolute. There must be times when we should be able to discuss common sense limits to these freedoms that would serve our best interests. But I don’t see that happening in today’s polarized political atmosphere.