I’ve recently been cogitating a bit about “liberty” – you know, that word between “Life” and “the pursuit of Happiness.”
It’s both central to those three goals and foundational to the American way of life — and how a lot of the people in this country actually behave. And like a lot of words in our language, or anybody’s language, it’s not all that simple, not so easily defined. It has a variety of meanings and a whole lot of different ways in which it’s applied, given individual circumstances.
For the military, liberty generally means you’re allowed to get off the base and away from all those ridiculous restrictions, head to the nearest nightlife and do whatever you weren’t allowed to do on the base.
For European immigrants, the word, as affixed to a big statue, seemed to promise a wonderful future, chances for prosperity, even a whole new way of life. But once stepping foot on the mainland, they often found otherwise – if unable to speak the English language or because they were simply, well, different.
For the author of the Declaration, the word applied only to him and the human beings (primarily men) like him, but not to those he owned . . . and even fathered. And that was the application of the word enjoyed by most other Anglo-Europeans who had already staked out there territories here.
Looked up in Wiktionary, the word has eight different meanings, or uses, the first being: “The condition of being free from control or restrictions.”
Ah, there you go, that’s the one we like, that Americans cling to with all their might and main: no controls, no restrictions. It is used to rationalize a wide range of speech and behaviors that are self-serving and used – often linked with the words “free” – as detours around the law or simple common sense.
It’s the meaning of the word we use when we feel imposed on by government or any other authority. And it’s the meaning of the word uppermost these days in the coronavirus pandemic.
What – you want me to wear a mask to help prevent the spread of this disease? You want me to pull it up over my nose so that I myself won’t be infected?
But of course you have the “liberty” not to do this – and it seems to be the liberty enjoyed most often by the “Me Generation,” which I’m here defining as those between 10 and 30 years old and feeling invulnerable.
Liberty becomes even more a matter of individual choice and interpretation because of the many kinds of people we are, not just the Me Generation. America has been called a “melting pot,” meaning a mixture of differences that will bend toward unity, a “melding pot.” Or so it has been hoped.
That’s obviously far from the case today. Added to our continuing fear of immigrants is the impact of social media, more often used in the service of tribal differences and extremist ideas, the propagation of conspiracy theories, the injection of disinformation by anti-democratic forces and, finally, our devotion to “freedom of speech,” another American ideal that legitimizes anything you want to say or write, no matter how outrageous or stupid.
The result? Well, looking to the future, it’s not pretty. In fact, it’s pretty awful, no matter the winner in November.
The Trumpster has emboldened the Me Generation — and all the others making up his tribe, of whatever age – to denigrate mask-wearing and most of the other mitigations intended to block the virus. If re-elected, he’ll continue to promote this strategy as a support for individual liberty, a matter of personal choice, thus extending the pandemic for years into his second administration.
Biden, of course, has promised to heal the country’s divisions and create a wonderful kumbaya togetherness. I put that in the “unlikely” column.
If elected, his first policy should be a national mask-wearing mandate, requiring the states to establish strict comprehensive penalties for those who refuse to do so. Together with his attempt to put back together the destructions of so much wrought by Trump, he’ll be labeled a dictator, a tyrant, as more fascistic than Trump could ever have been.
Yes, of course, we need an administration of principle and clear direction, rather than one of daily chaos; but a near-term future of national unity is illusory, whatever the November result . . . given the suppression of personal liberties feared by so many Americans.