Eric Fromm wrote a book called Escape From Freedom. Ironically he published his book in 1941. I guess he only had to catch Hitler’s act for a little while to figure out what he was up to. This book was required hippie reading in the 1970’s and it has stayed with me all this while. In this book Fromm’s premise was that freedom is so scary to people that as soon as people win their freedom they start to give it up. He has lots of evidence to back up his argument.
In America we believe in freedom, we write songs about it. We have made a cult of the “individual” which is also about freedom. We may have achieved more personal freedom than any other culture. But we are piece by piece, giving our freedom back in exchange for things like health care, safety, security? At what point does my individual freedom curtail yours. After all, as long as there is one other person nearby there is no such thing as absolute freedom, and freedom is a meaningless concept if you are alone.
Is freedom really free, or is freedom really a responsibility? We have the freedom to go to school or not after age 16, but we have the responsibility to take care of ourselves as adults, to earn enough money to house ourselves and feed ourselves, don’t we? So although we are free to leave school, as a consequence we may experience less freedom in our adult life because our choices may be more limited.
Are we free to be evil? I’m pretty sure we all agree that the freedoms of good people are a higher priority than the freedoms of bad people, although this is not always practically possible, or in reality doable.
We are free to travel almost wherever we want, to sleep on the beach, to party all night, but bad people are free to mess with us when we do these things, they are free to “play” with our safety and security, to terrorize us.
Perhaps the freedoms we treasure most of all are the freedoms of the mind, the freedom to think as we wish and to speak and write as we wish. Even here we have to accept limitations.
Freedom is a touchy thing, a squishy concept. It is a goal that perhaps cannot ever be reached. We will always have to accept relative freedom as opposed to absolute freedom. How will we know when we have let too much freedom slip through our fingers? People have different “freedom thresholds.” I guess we have to be vigilant that the limits of freedom are not set so low that we wake up one day to find ourselves oppressed or dead. Although in America we have given up some of our “freedoms”, so far we have not given up our “Freedom.”
One of our greatest fears as a result of our national debt is that we have sold our freedom, we just don’t know it yet. We are afraid that we have sold our freedom to China, or our children’s freedom to our largest creditor. This would be one of the saddest ways to lose our freedom. We hope we still have time to buy our way back to solid ground.
We have to remember that the immigration issue is really about freedom in almost the same way that the civil rights issue is about freedom and the gay rights issue is about freedom, terrorism, and on and on. It may be uncomfortable to live in a country that allows a wide range of diversity, but it does taste like freedom. We are constantly threading our way through a maze of decisions to either keep a freedom or give one away or find a balance that allows us to feel free enough. The fact that we make these decisions every day and still seem to come down on the side of relative freedom is America’s most wonderful and admirable trait. We must continue to chose as much freedom as a situation will allow. It is our national “angst.” We are a nation that constantly examines the nature of freedom.