The core of Romney’s big speech in Chicago yesterday was his accusation that the Obama Administration has pursued “an assault on freedom” with new business regulations and higher taxes.
The expression freedom is bandied about a lot, especially by Republicans bewailing its imminent loss—economic freedom, personal freedom, religious freedom. But what about freedom from breathing dirty air? The freedom from hunger? The freedom from economic insecurity? The freedom from disease?
We can pose both sides of most issues as a test of freedom. In the days of the civil rights movement, it was the freedom to sit in a restaurant versus the freedom to deny service in a business establishment. The current flap about contraception pits the freedom of women versus the freedom of a religion to discriminate against women.
Of course, the more we apply the word “freedom,” the more it loses all meaning. And that’s the point!
The value of any word to a propagandist or ideologue increases as the meaning of the word becomes more amorphous, harder to pin down. And there is no more amorphous word than freedom.
The first definition of freedom in Merriam-Webster’s is “the quality or state of being free: the quality or state of not being coerced or constrained by fate, necessity, or circumstances in one’s choices or actions.” The entry, however, goes on for many paragraphs and gives many different meanings to the word. The synonyms for freedom, some contradictory, suggest how easy it is for propagandists to find a meaning to fit the moment: “self-determination,” “independence,” “liberty,” “facility,” “ease”,” right,” “privilege,” “franchise,” and even “generosity” (which is not the essence of the freedom from taxation that Romney would like America’s wealthiest to continue enjoying). Then there’s Kris Kristofferson’s definition, made famous by Janis Joplin: another word for nothing left to lose.
One anecdote on the use of freedom outside the political realm should illuminate the power of words that lose meaning. A few years ago at a family Bat Mitzvah in California, the rabbi performing the service said in his sermon that “Torah is freedom. The more Torah, the more freedom.”
It was of course, a completely false statement. The Torah, which comprises the first five books of the Jewish Bible, does include many well-loved biblical stories and all of the ones told by Jews, Christians and Moslems alike. But the Torah is primarily a book of laws, 613 to be precise, whose purpose is to restrain the behavior of people, i.e., take away their freedom. Thou shall not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery. These are the birds you should regard as unclean. According to the Jewish tradition, the Torah is the source for every Jewish law, even those not mentioned in it. That includes all the laws that take away freedoms related to eating, traveling and mixing the sexes in social situations.
These laws take freedom away from people. The more Torah, the less freedom. And yet so many of the congregants smiled in agreement when the rabbi equated a book of mostly proscriptive laws with freedom.
Whether he knew it or not, the rabbi was using yet another definition of freedom. Freedom is also that feeling of supreme exhilaration and limitless power that people describe as “feeling free.” I remember when I was much younger and religious, I would sometimes read the Torah and get a sudden feeling of being free, like the feeling when I used to take my feet off the pedals and glide my bicycle down a steep hill, or the feeling when I quit one job for another one that paid 36% more. Many TV commercials will say their products help attain this “feeling of freedom.”
From kindergarten on, we are indoctrinated to the importance of freedom and “the feeling of freedom” at school and in the mass media. We are taught that the United States was founded to promote freedom (at the time, of course, only for white adult males who owned property) and that the United States is a beacon of freedom to the world. One of the major themes in our history is the gradual spread of freedom through increased freedom for our citizens and in the foreign lands that the myth says we have saved. We claim that every war we fight is to protect our freedom or the freedom of the people whose land we are invading, or both. Thinking about American freedom can swell the chests of many of us with an almost swooning pride. We have learned to feel the “freedom feeling” whenever we consider our history, culture and laws.
It is this definition of freedom—this feeling—to which Romney appeals when he talks about economic freedom. When he says the policies of his party will increase freedom, he wants people’s hearts to swell with the feeling of freedom and then recoil with the fear at the thought of lost freedom because of environmental regulation, healthcare reform or raising taxes on the wealthy. He never mentions that his tax freedom results in less money for society to help people be free from disease, from ignorance, from hunger, from the helplessness of old age and from the frustration of poverty. He never mentions that his freedom from regulation makes people less free from business scams, unsafe products, dirty air and infectious water.
Many philosophers believe that the essence of civilization is restraint. Learning restraint—limiting your freedom for your future good, the good of others or the common good—is at the heart of the process of growing up from infancy into a mature member of society.
Romney and the rest of the Republicans don’t really want absolute freedom in the economic realm. They just believe that our laws should protect the rights of individuals and organizations to do as they please (outside the sexual realm) as opposed to protecting the rights of people to have the basic human dignities of food, health care, education and the opportunity to make a living and improve their lot. Those who say that unfettered economic freedom enables more people to enjoy all the other freedoms are merely expressing their beliefs, which they constantly and inaccurately present as a fact-based theory. History, however, is filled of examples of how taking away an economic freedom—the freedom to hire children, the freedom to dump toxic chemicals into rivers, the freedom to charge what you like because you have a monopoly, the freedom to pay someone less than minimum wage or the freedom to prevent union organizing—has improved society and helped the economy. It’s one set of rights versus another. We can also call them freedoms, but once we do, the concept of freedom loses its meaning.
In the realm of political campaigning, “freedom” has become something one accuses the opponent of not loving/having/protecting/cherishing. With name-calling, we say, “you’re this,” but freedom in the Republican’s sense is conjured only in its absence as a characteristic. Saying the opponent or the idea is against freedom is a highly sophisticated form of name-calling, dependent not just on conflating different concepts of freedom, but also on a body of unproved assertions and an almost autonomic emotional reaction.
But emotions aside, keep it in mind that when Romney says the election is about freedom, he means the freedom of the economic and social class he represents to continue pulling more and more wealth from everyone else through continued low taxes for themselves and low wages and declining government benefits for everyone else.