With this post, I want to start a series of entries discussing certain concepts and ideas that we Americans seem to understand, but in reality,we find difficult to define. My hope is that you will read this and evaluate your own ideas and definitions and come to understand a little more what being an American means. I know that there are entire books written about these things by men and women much more learned than myself, but my goal with this essay is to get you to examine our understanding of these concepts so that we can try to comprehend some of the problems and suggested political solutions that seem to be swirling around us these days. Indeed, many of us have a tendency to apply head to sand when it comes to politics, especially during Presidential election years. Given that, I think its extremely important to reflect upon some of the seemingly more esoteric terms that we bandy about and think about what they really mean to us as individuals and even as a people and culture. To that end, the first concept I want to discuss is FREEDOM.
I want to explore this concept as I understand it. I don't know your frame of reference so my ideas and conclusions may differ from yours. That's good because my intent is to get you to think about your own ideas of freedom and draw your own conclusions. I want you to think about what it means to you.
If you are 50 or older, you may remember the song "Bobby McGee" that was made popular by the late Janis Joplin. Kris Kristofferson is credited with writing it. Joplin took a little license (freedom?) with the lyrics but the original lyrics contained this line:
Freedom's just another word for nothin left to lose,
And nothin aint worth nothin but its free,
Is freedom just some state of existence where you have nothing left to lose? How depressing! I suppose in someway there is a certain freedom at rock bottom. You are free to gamble because you can only win or draw. Indeed freedom seems to exist in both a physical and a mental state. Prisoners often tell us that they can put them in a cell, but we can't lock up their mind.
Freedom is one of those words that defies any kind of hard and fast definition. I can get as many definitions for it as there are people because freedom is not a tangible object. If I tell you to give me a chair, you have some frame of reference in which to work from. But if I ask you to give me freedom, your frame of reference might easily be completely different than mine. It's a concept that is directly related to individual perception and not an absolute. I can go to a dictionary and get up to 17 definitions. Beyond that are different forms that freedom takes that probably need to be defined even further such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the seas, personal freedom, freedom from slavery, etc. In Communism, freedom of speech is defined quite differently then what most people think under our form of government.
Since providing a hard and fast definition of freedom is probably as easy as nailing gelatin to a wall, I must define it from my own point of view. In order for me to define it, I must stake out some sort of limits. Absolute freedom might seem like a grand idea, but if you have the freedom to inflict pain on other people, then freedom is taken away from the tormented. That said, it means that freedom requires some limitation. In order for us all to have freedom, we must limit our freedom with a heavy dose of responsibility.
It's often said that your freedom to swing your fist stops at the point where it will connect with my nose. We, as a country, a society and culture are constantly testing and exploring exactly how close to the nose we can actually come. Sometimes it looks like the the nose moves, sometimes the fist doesn't move as close and sometimes it seems that the fist actually makes varying degrees of contact. It's in our nature to seek out limits. If you've ever watched a toddler, you will see this clearly demonstrated as the child starts to explore his or her world. Most of want to know the limits. We want to know the rules. We want to know how far we can go and some of us will push beyond those limits. Depending upon what limits are being pushed, that could leave you with a Nobel Prize in physics, or a very long jail term.
Freedom is having choices and understanding the consequences of those choices. It's been said that you cannot legislate morality and by and large that is a false statement. We legislate morality every time a legislative body meets to enact laws. Stealing money is an immoral act so we pass laws to reward those who do that kind of thing with a negative consequence that entails limiting their choices. If we did not do that, then we would be rewarding those who are the victims with their their own negative consequence. It means drawing a line where the nose begins. Chaos is as much the antithesis of freedom as being locked in a prison.
Freedom appears to be a moving target. One person's freedom can easily infringe upon the freedoms of another. Where do we draw the lines? I think more than anything, in this current day and time. where we draw those lines will be at the forefront of policy, both local and national. We need to decide for ourselves what our definition of freedom is and what limits we are willing to impose upon ourselves and each other because these issues are here and on different candidates' agendas. In some respects, they are a constant because interest groups of every stripe and variety are always looking to advance their cause at the expense of some one else's.
Again, my goal here is not advance an agenda beyond asking you to think about freedom and how you think it should be defined. I'm not even asking for you to define it in a comment here although your comments are welcome. If you so choose (it's a freedom thing) to write your own definition, I think it would probably be better to do it as a separate entry, especially if it will be somewhat lengthy. I hope some of you decide to do similar, I think it would make for some fascinating reading and may lead to some interesting discussions as we seek to understand some of the concepts that we take for granted as Americans.
I don't know when I'll get the next one out. I will write it as I get time. In the mean time, I look forward to reading your ideas.