There’s a great line from the film Easy Rider, where Dennis Hopper’s character, Billy, asks, “What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about,” and Jack Nicholson’s character, George, replies, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s what’s it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things… they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.”
Living in a post 9-11 world, where it’s normal for elderly grandmothers to be submitted to invasive pat-downs before boarding a flight, where peaceful protests are met by legions of armor-clad riot police, where tweets and Facebook postings are routinely tracked by Homeland Security, and where anyone looking vaguely Hispanic must carry government-issued ID with them at all times if they happen to be living in certain states, it seems pertinent to ask the simple question, “What is freedom?”
If you look up its meaning in a dictionary, you’ll generally find something along the lines of, “exemption from external control, interference, regulation, etc.; the power to determine action without restraint.” That doesn’t seem like something that should require a PhD in philosophy or political science to make sense of, yet what does it really mean for everyday people living everyday lives in a country that proudly brands itself as the “land of the free”? How does this concept guide and shape our thoughts, our actions, our beliefs and our society?
As it turns out, important clues to answering this can be found in America’s most recent elections. Regardless of one’s political affiliation (which for many serves as the sole determiner of their elation or disappointment with the results), it seems evident that 2012 will go down in history as a turning point, for it was far more than just a contest of competing visions for who is best-equipped to lead the nation, but rather a referendum on liberty itself. By this, I don’t mean the presidential race or the shakeup in the Senate, for as many others have pointed out, choosing what in most cases comes down to the lesser of two evils hardly qualifies as a profound event. The real action was to be found in the various state-level initiatives regarding gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana for both medical and recreational use. These issues are of primary importance, for they cut to the core of what it means to be free.
Not everyone likes, or agrees with homosexuality. Likewise, not everyone uses – much less condones – pot. But that’s the whole point. Freedom does not mean freedom from offense or freedom from discomfort; it means freedom from arbitrary constraint upon one’s actions. To tell two loving, consenting adults that they are not allowed to enter into a sacred union of their own free will can hardly be considered as being on the side of liberty. To tell a responsible adult that he or she is forbidden to partake in the use of a natural plant that has been used for thousands of years by cultures around the planet, that has shown incredible promise for alleviating a wide range of illnesses, that has been proven to be far less harmful than either cigarettes or alcohol (both of which rank as more damaging to personal and societal health than even LSD or Ecstasy), and which contains an active chemical that is found naturally in breast milk, is the height of absurdity.
Why are we as a society of the 21st century still trying (and failing) to legislate morality? Why are we still interfering with people’s private pursuit of life, liberty and happiness by locking them up for victimless crimes? As philosopher John Stuart Mill pointed out 150 years ago, “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
Whether it’s the illegality of B.A.S.E. jumping, of public nudity, or even taking your own life when terminally ill, we as a country have a lot of work ahead of us if we hope to ever be a truly free society in anything but name. Freedom can be frightening, it can be messy, it can be impious and distasteful, but it can also be empowering, uplifting, and exhilarating – all of which makes it so precious and essential. It’s why people throughout the ages have found it worth fighting, sometimes even dying for – something those on both the left and the right would do well to remember.
Freedom is the right to build a mosque where you wish as well as the right to burn a Qur’an if you so choose. It’s the right to ingest, inject, or inhale whatever intoxicant brings you pleasure or excitement; the right to give or receive any bodily appendage into any orifice of any other consenting adult of any gender (or conversely, the right to abstain from any and all of the above). Freedom means the right to think for yourself and the right to question everything, yet if you prefer, it’s the right to let others think for you and to blindly accept all that you’re told – whatever floats your boat. It’s the right to do business in a free marketplace without undue interference and red tape as well as the right to band together to demand better pay and conditions without fear of reprisal. It’s the right to bear arms yet the responsibility never to seek out “second amendment solutions” against those whom you disagree with (otherwise it’s self-defeating to all the liberty it’s meant to uphold). Freedom is the right to wear a Guy Fawkes mask or a tricorn hat with equal enthusiasm.
Libertarians are roundly mocked by liberals and vice-versa for their respective stances on a wide range of issues, but this seems at best, unhelpful. After all, both terms are derived from the same concept, “liberty.” Both camps are supposedly built upon the common idea of freedom. Isn’t this precisely what conservatives have lost sight of (much to their detriment)? If you’re not harming anyone else (and this includes damaging the environment, such as the air we all breathe and the water we all drink) then what possible basis can there be for restricting anyone’s rights or freedoms to do as they wish?
To quote Mill once again:
[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise… The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others… Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
America is a land of great promise, built upon a noble ideal – the idea that the people themselves have the right to determine their own destiny – not God, not a divinely appointed king, not some elite minority of the rich and the powerful – everyone. The future belongs to all of us and we hold it squarely within our collective hands. What kind of a future do we want for ourselves, our children, and the planet itself (including all the non-human life forms who share it)?
As George from Easy Rider lamented, “You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.” To which Billy replied, “Man, everybody got chicken, that’s what happened.”
All change starts with the individual. Let’s be bold. Let’s be brave. Let’s be free!
Colby Hess is a freelance writer and photographer living near Seattle, WA. He is currently writing a book about science, philosophy, and freethought. Follow him on Twitter @ColbyTHess