Of freedom, fiction, and rights…

…or: Ruminations of a godless, freedom-hating, government loving liberal…

…or: Freedom was so two centuries ago…

This got me thinking.

I don’t believe in god. And I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with that. But by the same token, I don’t believe there’s anything right with that either. You could say that I don’t believe the first sentence of this post means much at all. For one, belief in god constitutes such an infinitesimally small portion of religion that I’m often baffled that its even a line of distinction. What’s more is that whether or not god (in whatever form and of whatever expression you prefer) exists, belief in god – like any other belief – is a construction of symbols and language. It’s a cognitive shortcut and a grand fiction. The same can be said of fictions political. Take for instance the related constructions of freedom, liberty, and individual rights. As currently understood – or better – mythologized, freedom is thought of in two similar but contradictory ways. It is (1) the original human condition and (2) a condition made possible only by recent social developments (i.e participatory government and the widespread belief in individual agency). The duality between innate and extrinsic conceptions of freedom presents a classic case of ‘which came first’ and lays bare the tension between the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the architecture of the Constitution: the unalienable rights that are held as self-evident truths in the Declaration and the framework of countervailing institutions and individual liberty set forth in the Bill of Rights are simultaneously dependent upon each other and mutually reinforcing. Without one the other cannot be realized and as one changes so does the other. The relationship leaves us with an uncomfortable conclusion: freedom is conditional and it’s qualities will change over time.

Philosopher John Gray believes the idea of freedom as our original and natural state to be distinctly troublesome. In an interview with The Spectator he says, “The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere.” When I think of this fiction as it relates to the second amendment, I’m inclined to agree. It’s not a lone, singular right that second amendment constitutionalists believe their favorite twenty-seven words defend but our natural human state. But implicit in the second amendment, more so than any other, is the idea that freedom is dependent on external factors and as such is not innate. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” By drawing a correlation between an explicit right and it’s implied purpose the second amendment hints that we can be closer to or further from freedom depending on how that right is exercised. No doubt this too plays a role in manifesting the fervor with which gun rights advocates defend the right to bear arms. But the founders didn’t say that the right to bear arms was essential to the security of a free state. Instead, they charged state militia with that role and simply assumed that enough citizens would choose to exercise their unalienable right in order to make up an effective militia. Would we be less free if everyone chose not to exercise their right to bear arms? I’m inclined to think not. Is the relationship between a militia and security of freedom even legitimate? Again, I’m inclined to think not. For now, however, I’m concerned with thinking of freedom as the second amendment implies – arising from the interdependence of unalienable rights and the institutions within which they are expressed.

In the same interview, Gray elaborates saying that freedom is “not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one… when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand… the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom… tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs.” Certainly we’ve seen this dynamic play out since September 11, 2001. And again since December 14, 2012.

I guess the question then is, “How do we ensure that our other impulses and needs do not preclude our desire and ability to be free?”. I’m not sure I have an answer for that question. It might, as Gray suggests, help to release ourselves of the fiction that we are by nature free. It might help to recognize that freedom ebbs and flows and that perceived threats to our rights don’t indicate an inevitable slide toward tyranny. (I say this to first and second amendment constitutionalists alike.) It might help to recognize that the very notion of a “free State” is a fiction, a myth rooted in religious cosmological thought and that there is no such thing as freedom without qualifications with which to measure it. But to some, many even, I’m sure that sounds like giving up on the idea of freedom altogether – just like to some, declaring oneself an atheist sounds like giving up on the idea of god altogether. But I beg to differ (as does this guy). One need not believe that freedom is intrinsic or ‘natural’ in order to promote and engage it. Nor does accepting the idea that freedom is inherently qualified imply that one is blind to the ever-present threat to freedom, liberty, and rights. It is however indicative of what one views that threat to be.

For some, that threat is government. For others, it’s religion. But whenever I hear either being dismissed outright or being held responsible for the world’s ills, I think of the SNL bit with Phil Hartman playing Frankenstein’s monster. Just put positive and negative terminals on either side of Christopher Hitchens’ or Wayne La Pierre’s neck and you’ve got the same skit. ReligionBADgovernmentBAAADDfireBAAAAAAAAAADDD

For me, the threat is not our institutions. It’s not our religion. It’s not our government. It’ not any of our externalized impulses. For me, the threat is us. It’s you, me, your best man, our parents, our co-workers, and our friends. Eventually, the threat to freedom and liberty will be our kids because our impulses – be they the need for safety and community, or the drive toward equality or recognition, or the desire to be free and creative or secure and protected – are many and complex. But what sets freedom apart from our other impulses is that once it manifests institutionally, it must somehow engender these other impulses while at the same time account for (and inhibit?) the possibility of their excess. Take for instance, my favorite whipping boy, the second amendment. When viewed at the level of the individual citizen, the right to bear arms is merely an extension of the right to defend oneself. But when taken collectively, especially given our lack of gun regulation, the individual’s right to bear arms is a public health hazard. And until someone can show me that the gun lockbox industry is doing as well as the gun makers are, there isn’t much that will make me believe otherwise. As I’ve written elsewhere, the extreme to which the right to bear arms has been taken is as equal a threat to my sense of security and freedom as the threat of illegally obtained guns are to “responsible” gun owners. But how do we manifest the type of freedom described above among citizens as dissimilar yet interdependent as we are in societies as large and complex as ours? I’ve been trying – under the assumption that doing so is easier said than done – to answer that question for over a week*. But as it turns out, it’s not very easily written or blogged about either.

When we speak of the fictions of freedom, liberty, and rights we are telling each other that our lives, our surroundings, and the relationships we establish within them have value – or better – that our lives, our surroundings, and the relationships we establish within them are invaluable. And in order to honor our own and each others’ invaluableness, we attempt to ensure it’s realization through imperfect means. A role in participatory government, a sense of individual agency, financial resources and opportunities to at least be above the poverty line, an education that engenders the ability to enact that sense of agency – all play vital roles in establishing freedom, liberty, and individual rights as the grand fictions of a society that honors it’s citizens’ invaluableness. Are we successful? Not by a long shot. The obstacles to each of the listed are daunting to say the least. And given the current arrangement our institutions, there is no doubt that most of us are less ‘free’ than others (yes, even in America). Add the growing threat of perpetual war and the staggering increase in so-called patriot groups and state militia alongside an equally staggering increase of government surveillance, and I have difficulty believing that when we speak of freedom we are speaking of freedom at all (though no doubt it provides an effective front for anyone who chooses to use it as such). Which brings me to my point.

(I know, “Finally”.)

If we are to look to our institutions for the answer to which of our impulses is being expressed most prevailingly, freedom has taken a backseat to security. Still, we couch it in the language of freedom. This is a major shift away from the twentieth century during which the complimentary impulses of freedom and equality broadened our understanding of each. While we continue to see this trend today, especially in regards to marriage equality, our personal and national resources are now directed toward securing freedom in stasis rather than constantly re-establishing it in expansion. We thus reduce the idea of freedom to something assumed and unchanging – or as John Gray says, “natural”. And when we operate under the fiction that freedom is innate rather than arising from the relationships of our social institutions, we absolve ourselves of both honoring each other’s invaluableness and ensuring the realization of each other’s rights. 

* two and a half weeks by the time I actually finish


One thought on “Of freedom, fiction, and rights…

  1. jmquealy Post author

    Reblogged this on jobsiteliberal and commented:

    I inadvertently started my way down the wormhole of freedom and rights a little over two weeks ago and this is what came out. (My apologies if it sounds like something I would have written as an undergrad.)


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