There is a particular irony, in that the idea of America being the “land of the free”, is in fact manufactured by the American government, whilst Americans are to have these innate freedoms outside of said government. From the Declaration of Independence to the Freedom Train, the American conception of freedom has been always delicately constructed by their government in order to fulfil a particular aim.
Particular freedoms awarded to Americans, such as the Bill of Rights written by the ‘Founding Fathers’ in 1789 have created a basis for the trans-generational and indisputable rights of American citizens. However, even at the time of creating these so-called inalienable rights, these were rights being consistently denied to black and brown communities and poorer socio-economic groups within America whilst these same rights were heralded as fundamental for their white counterparts. On July 4th 1776, in the Declaration of Independence, it was stated that:
“that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”
(Jefferson et al., 1776)
Simultaneously, an estimated 6 to 7 million men and women were deprived of their “Life, Liberty and (the) pursuit of Happiness”, under the restrictive structures of slavery. Although this may seem as a direct contradiction to any ideal of freedom, it can also be seen as the root of American freedom. American freedom relies on the subjugation of another group, so that the freedom of Americans reigns supreme in contrast. American freedom depends on comparative politics and American exceptionalism. American freedom is ordained but individually obtained.
In light of the current pandemic, some Americans have taken issue with government orders to stay at home and close their businesses in order to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Claims that in giving these orders the government have overstepped their mark and are denying Americans their constitutional rights, have resulted in protests against the enforced quarantine. Protesters in New York question the government’s position with slogans such as “it’s not about flattening the curve anymore, it’s about taking control” (Ruptly, 2020), which in essence highlights the main opposition to quarantine orders. One woman explained her stance, saying: “for every life that’s lost by covid, I’m sad, but for all the lives that are being changed or ruined because of the shutdown, I’m more fearful” (Ruptly, 2020). This statement poses a challenging objection to American values of freedom, whether stable livelihoods are worth more than lives themselves. For Ibram X. Kendi, the idea that any disruption to the American’s “self-determined” liberty, is considered a threat to freedom in all regards is seen as a reflection of the civil war. He states:
“some Americans want to live in a society that frees them, as individuals, by subjugating the community. That was the psyche of the slaveholder, who believed he was free only if the community was enslaved”
This idea of freedom being as far-reaching for individuals to be able to “disenfranchise, to exploit, to impoverish, to demean, and to silence and kill the demeaned” (Kendi, 2020) proposes a particular set of freedom which includes the freedom to infringe the freedom of others. American freedom is absolute. It is a freedom in which human lives are to be subjected to the lifestyles of others.
Thus, the federal government’s involvement in cases of citizen’s rights has always been difficult to navigate. The 50-state system further ingrains the idea of the individual’s freedom, as individual states are not ‘subjected’ to the all-encompassing laws of the land. This pattern follows for many historical expressions of freedom, in which the central government choose not to take a leading role, in order to promote the freedoms of the American citizens. Eric Foner recognises this in the establishment of the 20th Century “Freedom Trains” stating that, “Since direct government funding smacked of propaganda, however, the project was turned over to the non-profit American Heritage Foundation” (Foner, n.d.). Whilst, the idea was spearheaded by the American government of the time, they visibly separated themselves from the project in order to protect this idea of the freedom of its citizens. However, it was soon made clear that the American government will always have a stake in the American conception and expression of freedom as “(the) FBI began compiling reports on those who criticized the train or seemed unenthusiastic about” (Foner, n.d.). Similar, methods of government intervention are occurring today with republican operatives organizing more than 100 demonstrations against stay-at-home orders in 32 states (Kendi, 2020), further highlighting the intimate connection between the rights of the people, and to the extent that these rights and freedoms have been prescribed by the government. Under the guise of fighting for their freedom, some Americans fight for a particular model of uniquely American freedom advocated and substantiated by propaganda.
“As recently as mid-September 2002, in calling for increased attention to the teaching of American history so that schoolchildren can understand “why we fight”
So, if the American government is always intertwined with the American values of freedom, when does this become an issue?
Foner states that “Most white Americans believe that freedom is something they possess, and that some outside force is trying to take away”. The conflict arises when those providing the freedom are the outside force trying to take it away. American patriotism allows governments to deprive citizens of the freedom to live, in conscription for war but that same patriotism does not allow the deprivation of citizens freedom from death, in government enforced lockdown.
Government intervention becomes a particular issue in regard to economic freedom. It directly opposes the American Dream, which states with enough hard work, any individual can achieve any amount of wealth. Government intervention also has links to socialism or communism, which is often perceived as anti-nationalist. Economic freedom in this regard is limited to what the individual can achieve. Economic freedom is limited.
Various circumstances can limit an individual’s access to wealth, and these can be entirely out of the control of said individual. On that occasion, the individual cannot be entirely free to access any amount of wealth, as propagated by the American Dream. This has been highlighted by the current global pandemic, with 16.8 million American citizens filing for unemployment (Gould and Shierholz, 2020). Their access to wealth has been temporarily suspended. However, it could be argued with more extensive government intervention into the protection of their workforce, that these citizens could still retain their access to wealth. Thus, resulting in a different form of economic freedom that attempts to level the economic playing field. Yet, this form of economic freedom is shunned by the American conception of freedom, which is based on patriotism and cannot be associated with anything reflecting any socialist values. Socialism is not only opposed as an ideology, but as a matter of national identity.
It is, however, debatable to what extent the individual’s freedom is entirely individual. In the American case, I believe that this idea of freedom is cultivated by an outside force, stripping it of any innate freedoms to which it claims to have.
Foner, E., n.d. The Idea Of Freedom In American History. [ebook] New York: Columbia University. Available at: <http://www2.law.columbia.edu/law_culture/Faclunch_sp04/Foner_Feb26.pdf> [Accessed 13 July 2020].
Gould, E. and Shierholz, H., 2020. 16.8 Million Apply For Unemployment Benefits In Three Weeks: The Labor Market Has Been Upended.. [online] Economic Policy Institute. Available at: <https://www.epi.org/press/16-8-million-apply-for-unemployment-benefits-in-three-weeks-the-labor-market-has-been-upended/> [Accessed 13 July 2020].
Jefferson, T., Adams, J., Franklin, B., Sherman, R. and Livingston, R., 1776. Declaration Of Independence. [A Transcription] https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript, Washington.
Kendi, I., 2020. We’re Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholders’ Republic. The Atlantic, [online] Available at: <https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/what-freedom-means-trump/611083/> [Accessed 13 July 2020].
Ruptly, 2020. USA: Anti-Lockdown Protesters March Outside Cuomo’s Residence. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6l8oXmoLATU> [Accessed 13 July 2020].