What happens when your liberty negates my rights?
Photo by Barrie Kreinik
“When they say Freedom they never quite mean it, what they mean is freedom from interference.” - Margaret Atwood, Surfacing
The first time I participated in a text bank for the Biden/Harris campaign, my assignment was to reach out to potential voters in Texas. These voters had not been screened by party registration—we were texting Democrats, Republicans, Independents, pretty much anyone with a cell phone. “Hi So-and-So,” the introductory script began, “my name is Barrie and I’m a volunteer with the Democrats. Can we count on your support for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on November 3?”
Most of my 300 text targets didn’t respond. A handful of those who did said yes. Several others said no or asked to be taken off the list. Then there were the ones who told me to go screw myself (in more colorful terms), the ones who told me what they’d rather do instead (even more colorful, as well as unprintable), and two in particular who called Biden a pedophile and claimed that Trump was going to save their children. But the reply that made the biggest impression on me was one of the simplest, most direct responses I received:
“What’s Joe Biden gonna do for me?”
He was a rare undecided voter and we had an interesting conversation as I scrambled to choose the most appropriate scripted responses to his questions. But it was those first few words that said it all: What’s Joe Biden gonna do for me. Not for my community. Not for my country. For me.
My father had a few favorite quotes that my brain absorbed by auditory osmosis long before I knew who’d spoken them. One of them was JFK’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” I always thought this was an essential American value, a key aspect of patriotism: we’re supposed to be willing to serve our country, to protect it, to defend it against invading forces. But over the past several decades, as columnist David Brooks recently wrote, this country has become a bastion of “socially celebrated self-centeredness.” Ours has always been a nation of individualists, with an every-man-for-himself attitude toward progress and success. But somewhere amid the rise of social media and the selfie, we seem to have lost our sense of responsibility to each other. And lately I’ve been feeling like the primary force against which we have to defend our country is itself.
This got me thinking about what it means to be American, and how some of the principals upon which this country was founded have morphed into grotesque shadows of their original forms. I discovered that the State Department has an online course called, “So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad.” Its section on culture discusses eleven key American values: independence, equality, individualism, democracy, nationalism, meritocracy, directness, innovation, consumerism, informality, and effective use of time. (Though I’m not sure our public transport systems have mastered that last one.) I initially expected it to be propagandist in tone, but the site actually provides quite a balanced assessment of the impact of these concepts on our culture—particularly our intense focus on individualism. In America, the site states, "People are free to do what they want and need, as long as it doesn't interfere with the rights of others."”
People are free. Surely this is the most American of all values, a concept that appears everywhere from our most sacred documents to our most watched advertisements: freedom. In America, we cherish our freedom above almost all else. The first amendment of the Constitution provides for freedom of speech, of religion, and of the press, allowing us (at least in theory) to express ourselves without fear of retribution, worship however we like without fear of oppression, and publish whatever we want without restriction. But the word has been coopted in recent years, its meaning at times perverted beyond recognition. Some argue that their religious freedom should allow them to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Others assert that their freedom of speech allows them to spew hatred and vitriol with abandon. (One of these is on his way out of the White House.) And millions of people believe that they ought to have the freedom to choose whether or not to wear a face mask in the midst of a pandemic.
The problem with these assertions of freedom is that they directly interfere with the rights of others. It’s your right to believe that my sexual identity is an abomination, but when you discriminate against me because of that belief, you interfere with my rights. It’s your right to believe whatever you want about Jews, whether it’s true or not, but when you hurl antisemitic slurs at me because of my religion, you interfere with my rights. And when you refuse to wear a mask when millions of people are dying of a disease that could be kept under control if everyone simply agreed to cover their faces, you are denying everyone around you not only liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but the most essential right of all: the right to life.
Since when did freedom mean permission to do whatever the hell we want?
"Americans value independence and self-determination," says the State Department website. However, it continues, "having such a strong sense of independence can also result in a diminished focus on community and interpersonal interactions, leading you to put your own needs above others." In other words, in our determination to pursue self-determination, we’ve lost sight of everything beyond the self. As the site notes: “Social critics…point out that our focus on ‘me’ has eroded the ‘we’ concept needed for community cohesion.”
Call me a social critic, but I think the American ‘we’ has been eroding for decades now. We’ve become less formal, but also less respectful; more entitled, less generous, consumed by technology and materialism at the cost of community engagement. And the apotheosis of our self-centeredness, of our cultural commitment to serve our egos above all else, is Donald Trump.
There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on right now as Democratic voters try to understand why so many millions of people voted to keep Trump in power despite his abhorrent behavior and abysmal leadership. Though every voter has a unique reason for their choice, many of them likely have much in common with my text correspondent: they believe that Trump has served—and, given the chance, would have continued to serve—their own personal interests. As long as he gives them what they want, they don’t care what he does or says. Of course, voters of every stripe are interested in what politicians can do to improve their lives. But elections are not just about what we as individuals want. They’re about what this country needs—what our communities need—what our most vulnerable citizens need. They are opportunities for us to step outside of ourselves and consider in what direction we want our nation to move. If we’re going to return to being an international exemplar of liberty and democracy, we have a responsibility to use our freedom wisely, for the sake of the common good. If we want to ensure that we get to keep our rights, we have to be willing to protect the rights of others. Maybe then we can add a twelfth value to the State Department’s list: compassion.
So wear a mask, people. Because this world does not revolve around you. It turns for all of us.