On April 15, I posted a comment in response to a piece by Chloe Cerutti in which Ms. Cerutti gave a few examples of how socialism is alive and well in America and how it benefits our society. My response alluded to how emotionally charged words like “socialism” and “freedom” have become powerful tools for the Republican propaganda machine.
Volumes have been written about how propaganda and logical fallacies have been used to manipulate the opinions of huge numbers of people who, true to human instinct, would rather run with the herd than think critically and take the risk of being in the minority in their conclusions or, worse yet, alone. The requisite brevity of this forum doesn’t allow any kind of significant thesis on the subject to be submitted. But let’s look at how just one word, freedom, undermines the position of the very people who are using it as a propaganda lever.
Conservative psy ops make liberal use of the word freedom to gin up sentiments for specific actions and to generally keep the flock moving in the same direction. Indeed, nothing pricks up right-wing ears faster than hearing a Republican celebrity bleat about how our freedoms are being usurped. The tagline for the GOP’s Twitter feed reads, “Text FREEDOM to 80810 to receive exclusive updates from the Republican National Committee!” The abortive truckers’ rally that found itself outgunned by normal I-495 beltway traffic in Washington, DC dubbed itself the Freedom Convoy. And well into the cocktail hour on April 22, our very own Marsha Blackburn without context tweeted, “We must fight every single day to safeguard our freedoms.” This was preceded by an April 15 Passover greeting to “our Jewish friends who are celebrating their freedom.”
The word freedom appears only once in the Constitution, in the First Amendment, and is succeeded immediately by the words “of speech”. This Amendment has broad appeal that has allowed some interesting lawyerly twists to the definition of freedom. For example, in recent years the Supreme Court, along ideological lines, has increased protections for faith-based institutions under the auspices of the First Amendment that are not offered to other private, public or secular organizations. These protections extend to hiring practices, provision of goods and services and shelter from litigation. The most recognizable decision would be the so-called “gay wedding cake case” (Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission), which allowed a bakery to refuse service to a lesbian couple because doing so would have supposedly forced the bakery to express a support of gay marriage, which the bakery’s proprietors did not support, and which in turn would have deprived the bakery owners of their First Amendment rights. In other words, and in this case, when Person A’s civil rights are threatened by the civil rights of Person B, Person A wins, in the name of freedom of speech. This and similar opinions have brought numerous other exploitations under the First Amendment, which continue.
So, let’s examine the case of the truck drivers who thought to slow or halt interstate commerce to protest mask mandates that had, for the most part, already been lifted. Certainly, there’s an argument to be made about government regulation of personal health choices. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nearly all states allow religious exemption from vaccination, and a little less than a third allow parents to exempt their children from immunization for “philosophical” reasons. There are no laws on the books that limit intake of fat, sodium, cholesterol or sugars, which contribute to the deaths of more Americans every year than all of our wars combined. Even tobacco smoking, which was a socially acceptable indulgence for most of the twentieth century, is still tolerated and perfectly legal now. Therefore, by extension, self-destructive behavior is validated as a freedom of expression, even when it’s detrimental to society as a whole.
The freedom to carry around loaded weapons is one that most conservatives hold sacred. It would be unusual, in fact, to spend a day out in public right here in Murfreesboro and not see a fellow citizen openly packing heat in a grocery store, a restaurant, at the farmer’s market on the Square, nearly anywhere. What are the odds that the bearer of arms would need to use a firearm in defense or to prevent a crime from occurring? Infinitesimally low. How about the chances that he or she would have the training and presence of mind to do so without unintentionally injuring himself or others? Even lower.
So, leaving certain inadequacies out of the discussion, why the public displays of firepower when gun violence kills more Americans every year than died in Vietnam? Why the refusal to vaccinate or mask when COVID has left more than a million Americans dead in two years and dealt the economy its worst blow since the Great Depression? Why the rewriting of history that’s taught to our children? Simple: it’s a “Don’t Tread On Me” hoisting of the middle finger to the norms and ideals that benefit society. That feels good to some people; it makes them feel like rebels, “freedom fighters”, if you will.
A cornerstone of conservative ideology is that individual freedoms are paramount. But as illustrated above, what benefits the individual is sometimes to the detriment of the group. The notion planted by conservative herd masters that “freedom” trumps the driving idea behind a democratic republic, which is that some people don’t get what they want, but the most good should be delivered to the most people, is an effective and insidious weapon.
There is undeniable truth to the lyrics of the song released by the perennially obnoxious “Up With People” more than 50 years ago; freedom isn’t free. The young man with a pistol on his hip at Walmart, the anti-masker at the school board protest, the parent who refuses to let her child learn the truth about our racist history or about the differences between people, the propagandist who attempts to shield lies, bigotry and demagoguery under the First Amendment, all are exercising their freedom, and at the same time, eroding the freedoms that others enjoy.
The understanding of freedom has been warped and the application of freedom has been a willful malpractice by those who would see us all brought down, and the cycle is not sustainable.