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Fourth of July: Liberty and Freedom

It's an age-old question: "What is liberty?"

The word means to be "free of men." Who gets to be free of men?

Is it the freedom to oppress others (certainly, a freedom many seek)? Or the freedom to set all people -- have and have-not, elite and subaltern -- free from the control of other people?

On the Fourth of July, American liberty -- which has somehow become "American freedom" -- still strikes me as a limited vision. The Pilgrims sought to create a new society with absolute religious law -- essentially, sharia -- which is the freedom to oppress. The Founders sought to control their continent on their own terms, free of the encumbrances of Great Britain. This meant the continuance of slavery and the subjugation of native peoples.

Insofar as we blindly celebrate the United States of America, we also celebrate the mass-scale factionalism that is patriotism for the nation-state. Have we enough freedom to spread it to others? We've tried many times -- at the point of a gun.

The popularization of the word "freedom" instead of "liberty" instructs all of these questions. "Liberty" is to be free of men, while the latter word finds itself at home in phrases like "I/we/they took freedoms with _____ ." Sort of like saying, "He had his way...."

Liberty is collective; the word assumes the right for one is the right for all. Freedom is individual; I have my freedom and plan to use it; if yours gets in my way, may the one with more freedom win.

This distinction between "freedom" and "liberty" could not be more important. American freedom has become an economic idea -- we are free to choose our work and buy what we want. It's easy to take away habeas corpus and say we still have freedom.

What's liberty? Well, it's too legalistic of a notion to be spouted on the political pulpit. You can't so much spread "liberty" to foreign people, because they would have to accept Napoleonic/Enlightenment legal principles, like the First Amendment rights. Liberty's hard to spread -- it has to come from the ground up, and there has to be the backing of a Western cultural tradition for liberty to work.

Nope, we can't have much liberty outside of Western Europe and North America -- it's too hard. But freedom -- we can spread that. Just need purple fingers and foreign peasants (voting exclusively for their religious sect, mind you).



Nietzsche's critique of the philosophy of Jesus versus that of St. Paul tells us much about liberty and freedom. Jesus is the representative of true freedom; the enlightened thinker who has no use for controlling others. For Jesus, there were no Christians. Once Jesus dies, St. Paul foments a religious war defining the Christians versus the non-Christians, exerting his will through ideology.

Which version of freedom won out in Christianity, and which version of American liberty/freedom won out? A freedom that would deny the self and deny control, and leave each person to their own devices, would be too radical -- and it wouldn't make anybody any money. This is Jesus' version of freedom, and Thomas Jefferson's version of liberty -- stay meek just enough to live a moderate life, free from the wills of others.

We live under St. Paul's version of freedom -- the freedom to control others. This is also Caesar's version of freedom. Was Jesus about to kill others for not believing as he did? Of course not -- He was a total pacifist. Yet off we go as Americans, spreading "freedom" with war. Thomas Jefferson was the intellectual idealist of the Founders; their economic father is Alexander Hamilton, who sought centralized government power, economic might, and war-making powers.

With a naive, inchoate president who spouts "freedom" while centralizing power to the point of removing habeas corpus for US citizens and arguing that Article II of the Constitution exempts him, in gentlemanly fashion, from the rule of law, it's eminently clear that "freedom" won out. Yes, "freedom," a marketable, malleable, meaningless tripe-expression that is no more than another word for freedom to control people other than myself.

Liberty -- that legalistic, difficult word that requires reading the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and even the Federalist Papers -- isn't worth mention. What's the use of liberty if it can't make you money, or prevents you from wiretapping Muslim people without a warrant, or puts you on the same footing as poor people when you, Sir, earned your freedom and entitlement with hard work and the God-given grace of being born to the right people?

Freedom is cheap; liberty is costly. Freedom is for the businessmen; liberty's for the lawyers. Freedom is the right of the powerful; liberty is justice for the weak. Freedom is for George W. Bush; liberty is for the ACLU.

Yes, the stark dichotomies are inherent: liberty vs. freedom, Jesus vs. St. Paul, and rights-for-all versus rights-for-some. When the politician speaks or  you see the rocket's red glare, will you accept freedom-for-me or liberty-for-all?


 
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