As this horrific pandemic eases into a merely bad epidemic, we are ditching our face masks, embracing strangers, and running into crowded rooms to yell, “Free! We are finally free!”
O.K., maybe that’s not quite what’s happening. But after 14 months of fear and isolation, it sure feels like it. However, as we rediscover the outside world, it’s worth asking the following metaphysical question:
What does it mean to be free?
Now, we could go full-blown Sartre and ruminate and pontificate about freedom, but for most of us, this concept has a fairly simple definition. It basically means that we can do whatever we want, as long as it doesn’t mess with somebody else’s rights. That’s straightforward enough, right?
Oh, I forgot to add one thing. Freedom only applies if you are a white man.
Wait… you didn’t know that part?
Well, the historian Tyler Stovall recently presented a rather interesting thesis, which is that “the foundation of liberty beloved by European and North American nations,” is the belief “that freedom is central to white racial identity, and that only white people can or should be free.”
If this is true, freedom is not just another word for nothing left to lose. Instead, freedom is simply whatever white men want at that particular moment.
For example, whenever we talk about the Founding Fathers, we focus on their lofty insistence that “all men are created equal,” while downplaying their propensity for enslaving vast numbers of people. According to Stovall’s thesis, the Founders were not hypocrites for taking up arms in defense of freedom—all while keeping Black people in chains. This is because it was perfectly obvious to the Founders that “freedom” was a concept for white men only.
Indeed, the U.S. Constitution enshrines white men’s power, which is one reason conservatives revere it so much. After all, if you believe that we must live according to the Founders’ original intent, then it’s pretty easy to support white guys being in charge.
And so today, we have a situation where many conservatives “see themselves as engaged in a movement for freedom,” defending their countrymen and heritage “against oppression by an alliance of global elites and the racial minorities and immigrants they exploit for their own ends.”
Hey, if the Republican Party actually had a platform, it would be that.
Stovall theorizes that “freedom is a word that belongs to a vast number of movements, and most of them proclaim it as their goal with some kind of deep sincerity.” As such, if you believe that you no longer have the freedom to shout racist jokes, you grumble in rage at “cancel culture” silencing you. If you are a white man being compelled to wear a mask, your freedom is truly under assault, because nobody tells a white guy what to do (nobody!).
For many white conservatives, their right to say and do whatever they want is paramount, and any limitation—whether by law or societal sea change—is an attack upon the very concept of freedom. For other people—say, African-American NFL quarterbacks who take a knee—freedom was never theirs to begin with. So if it is taken away (or “canceled”), there is no conflict.
In this way, right-wingers can invoke principled arguments in support of their petty grievances, while dismissing the legitimate concerns of all those pesky minorities out to steal their freedom.
This leads to the depressing conclusion that “at its most extreme, freedom can be and historically has been a racist ideology.”
Is there a way to change that perception, so that freedom becomes more of the universal standard that it is supposed to be?
At what point can all Americans proclaim, “Free at last!” and actually mean it?