I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Freedom

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Freedom

“What then is freedom?
The power to live as one wishes.”
–Marcus Tullius Cicero

The word “freedom” and its close corollaries (liberty, independence) are woven deep in the fabric of the United States. It is part of the water in which we swim without knowing it (apologies to the late David Foster Wallace and his commencement speech–worth the read). Not for us Americans is the omnipresent deference to one’s social group (family, cultural, religious, or geographic community, or nation even) that one finds in, for example, many near and far Eastern cultures. No, it is an individual’s right to live “free” that is so intrinsic in our culture that we don’t even question it. There is a reason that old Westerns are the most American of movies.

From whom or what is this freedom sought? From anyone or anything that obstructs us from living a life of our choosing, arguably, whether that be a societal or governmental force.

So who or what holds the power to grant or deny that freedom?

In Power Shift, author Alvin Toffler posits that traditional sources of power come from the use or potential use of one of three power sources: knowledge, money, and physical force. Governments, for example, can derive their power: from a military or police force whose potential use of physical force dictates what people can do; through knowledge its executive agencies possess that allows it to make decisions that private citizens cannot make, and to take actions based on them; and/or through the ability to incentivize or discourage certain behaviors through monetary awards.

Understanding of and receptiveness to an idea hinge upon how that idea is framed. So it is with freedom. Two different frameworks have evolved around the word “freedom” as it relates to our society and government in recent decades, such that now different segments of society use that word to advance two very different ideas. We can mostly agree that American freedom is the ability to live how you wish to live, choose who is a part of your life, etc.

But beyond that is a tension: freedom can mean the ability to live free from societal oppressions that plague some segments of our society more directly than others. Behind this is a recognition that the oppressive forces of racism, sexism, etc. limit the opportunities of and take away opportunities from those who are the objects of that prejudice. Those individuals, who on paper are just as entitled to the freedoms of every other American, are barred from not just opportunities, but from benefits that other citizens are allowed (red-lining is an easy example); in short, they are less free. Proponents of this idea of freedom advocate that we do not live in a free society until all members are equally free.

The second kind of freedom is framed as a lack of another type of restriction. It is freedom from governmental regulations, like, generally speaking, excessive taxes or overly stringent laws. Proponents of this type of freedom would give, as a recent example, the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act. This stance resists the idea that lawmakers, who often live elsewhere and don’t know the intimate details of their constituents’ lives, should make laws that limit what their constituents can and cannot do.

At first impression, there is an easy distinction between the two frameworks: the first is a proactive approach to create a society that strives for freedom for everyone by making sure every citizen has access to the same opportunities. (Whether they take advantage of those opportunities is another question.) The society it works towards is free from sociological ills; let’s call it Freedom through Social Equality.

The second framework focuses much more on the role of government. Its proponents may or may not accept that society is plagued by injustices, but either way, they do not want to see the government try to solve those problems. It is governmental overreach that proponents of this freedom resist; this framework will be called, for purposes of this essay, Freedom through Limited Government.

To demonstrate Freedom through Social Equality, allow me to give an example from my days of working on equal opportunity in employment. There are many challenges in hiring. It is very hard to predict how well a candidate will perform in the job and get along with other employees. Many employers use interviews to try to predict, but haven’t we all known someone who is terrible at interviews and so can’t get a job at which they’d excel if given the chance? (Or, conversely, people who interview really well but are sparse on actual skills, or work ethic?) This particular subset of work, equal opportunity, has to do with reversing hiring practices that intentionally and unintentionally favor some candidates while disadvantaging others. This is done through several ways: choosing words carefully for a job listing, soliciting applications in a certain way (mitigating complete reliance on the “ol’ boys’ network”), paying attention to interviewing techniques and even locations, using the same set of interview questions and ratings of the answers for all interviews, just to name a few.

On the macroscopic level, proponents of Freedom through Social Equality believe we as a society should likewise study how society disadvantages some while giving advantages to others, and then actively work to reverse those inequities. As the body which holds the power to regulate civic behavior, it is the role of government, such proponents believe, to implement this work.

And in fact, the government has regulated behavior through policy for decades, if not for the purpose of erasing inequalities, then at least for encouraging what our civic leaders believe are behaviors that benefit society. Our current tax system provides an easy demonstration: filing jointly is meant to benefit married couples. Why? Because our government decided that it would be good for society to encourage the stability that comes with marriage, so it gave a tax benefit to those who chose to make the commitment of marriage.

Then there’s Freedom through Limited Government, there are fundamental underlying assumptions through which proponents of this view see society. The first is that less restriction leads to more innovation and more prosperity. So markets will grow stronger with only basic and necessary regulation. Markets exist to make money. When regulation becomes excessive, organizations have a burden of compliance (through, for example, filing out report forms, providing training, or carrying out mandatory practices) that requires spending money and effort that could otherwise be spent on their core mission or on innovation.

Recently, market theories have been applied elsewhere in the public sphere: two that are on many people’s minds today are health care and education. Market theory says that if we leave these areas to compete, enterprising minds will come up with ways to make health care cheaper or offer stronger education systems. Currently, there are public options for education–and in very few places, specialized medicine beyond primary care–that anyone can access. Taken to its extreme, market theory would privatize both these services.

An underlying assumption behind market theory is that money is the main–or at the very least an important–motivator for behavior: everyone wants to earn money, and to pay less money for goods and services. But there are other powerful motivators for behavior. For people who hold a strong spiritual or even political ideological worldview, following those beliefs may be an even stronger motivator than money. Proponents of Freedom through Limited Government, I would argue, can hold different worldviews (there are pure market capitalists, deeply religious people, pure libertarians, etc.), but what they hold in common is that government should, to the degree possible, not promote any worldview.

It is here, at the intersection of constituents’ worldviews and the role of government, that the tension about what freedom is comes into sharpest focus. Because of course, every government reflects, to some degree, the values of the people who elected it. This country began as one based on Judeo-Christian values. While the separation of church and state has been pretty universally adopted, there are values from this tradition that remain. Some are now challenged (like the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman), while others continue to be widely cherished (like the importance of honesty, or hard work). As a society, our values are reflected in our criminal laws, tax code, and in countless other areas of legislation.

But given that our society, today more than ever, consists of such a variety of worldviews and motivators, there is the question of what, or whose, worldview–or put another way, moral code–a civil society should abide by. That is what much of our political tension boils down to in the current climate. What behaviors should the government continue to regulate or encourage, and what should the government leave to the private sphere? Is it the role of government only to advocate for policies that will bring economic growth to its constituents (and consequently enrich the government)? And if government’s role should be limited to economic policy (in addition to the basics of building public services (roads, waste services, etc. and of running a national military), that raises another question: how far into other areas should the government go in order to advance economic growth? Do issues like wealth disparity or climate conservation have an impact on economic strength, and if so, is it then within the government’s purview to address them? When it comes to behaviors, to what extent should the government regulate them? Why is it acceptable to mandate some behaviors, like wearing a seat belt in the car, but controversial whether the government should allow or ban the use of recreational marijuana? And should the government be consistently present across spheres: economic, civic, moral/ethical, etc?

These questions bear some contemplation. While freedom is important, so is the need to preserve another aspect of our American heritage: a country whose laws are fair, where movement between socio-economic class is possible, and a country that is governed by the rule of law, to name just a few aspects. How do we keep the American ideal of freedom for the individual without allowing the individual freedoms of some to tread on the opportunities of others? At what point do individuals’ rights to freedom strike a balance with the country’s civic health?

This country’s stars and stripes offer a very visible demonstration of this balance between individuality and membership in a group. Any one of the fifty stars has clearly defined boundaries; its bright white does not fade gradually into the surrounding red. But any one of the fifty stars alone is just a star, its power diminished by its solitude. Placed among the collection of 50 stars, though, the strength of those stars is striking.

“We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”
–Barack Obama

Seeing the Pixels

Seeing the Pixels

I shut my ears to the voices of discord and anger. I shut my eyes, searching for the peace that the God of all things bestows. Colors flow through my mind: ruby anger and amethyst death and obsidian fear and jade destruction.

In the face of darkness, emboldened and unveiled these past months, I find myself mute.

The fact is, I’m tired of being outraged, of watching greed and narcissism use power to oppress. I’m tired of being sad, of grieving for all the senseless loss of life and love and for all the pointless, useless pain.

‘Hug your loved ones close and appreciate the good in your life.’ We’ve all heard a variation of this message in response to life’s hardship. It is important, because gratitude gives richness to our lives. But is it enough? In the face of active corruption and cruelty, is it enough?

A still Voice reminds me that there has always been and always will be darkness in the world, but that there is also light. The Pantocrator urges me to keep my own peace in the world around me. Reminds me that this life exists for how I use it to prepare for what comes next. Urges me to be the light. And so I imagine what would happen if more of us tried to be light.

What does it mean to be light? With each oversimplified meme and soundbite I encounter, I am becoming more and more convinced that it means shining light on things as they are, not as they’ve been made to look. We live in an age of spin doctors–that wasn’t just a nineties band. Shining a light means looking beyond the spin: listening to or reading actual sources, not just someone’s interpretation of them, and evaluating them on their own merits. It means analyzing leaders’ messages and then calling out their inconsistencies, because too often the stories they tell change on a weekly basis, and it takes someone reframing what has happened for us to see the truth. Be that someone.

Yes, there are some diametrically opposed beliefs about how we should proceed as a country, and there are some very, very strong feelings about them. Feelings of anger, of defensiveness, of contempt, of hurt. These feelings are valid. And I’ll be honest. Speaking for myself, I don’t always know what to do with them, other than be aware of them, examine them, and when appropriate, direct the fire they ignite into a solution.

My point is this: there are proponents for every cause and every political stripe that use the same tool to their own ends. They use a broad brush with which they paint the “other” side, dismissing it as stupid or evil (the adjectives used are harsher), or with which they paint their stance as flawless. Those strong feelings we all have are exacerbated by those with the giant paint brushes who would convince us that the other side hates us and, if left unchallenged, will take away everything we value.

Can we leave the fear mongering and diversion tactics to our current head of state and his team of trusty sidekicks? (And by that I really mean call it out.) We the people are being played, and it is time to step away from the tweets and direct our attention to what the government is and ought to be doing.

We are, as I’ve said before, a big, complicated country. Healthcare, public education, gun control, welfare, emergency and disaster management, environmental regulation, tax reform, taking a knee and the NFL, name the issue. Now read something longer than three sentences about it, or have a respectful conversation with someone who disagrees with you. It doesn’t take long to see that the issues are multifaceted and often intertwined. If they were simple, smart people would have solved all the things.

We have to start applying our minds and not only our anger to these issues. We have to zoom in and see the pixels. They are not just red, yellow, and blue; they are all the colors that emerge therefrom. And if we can’t each zoom in on everything –and none of us can–then we have to choose what we can zoom in on and let others do the same.

I love that so many people are talking about topics that in other days would have been obscure: gerrymandering and redlining, to name a couple examples. I believe very strongly that information and awareness among citizens are crucial to developing a truly democratic civilization. And I am realizing that forbearance and a willingness to listen before defending are also important–and skills I need to work on. I won’t ignore that there are those who will always hold their broad brush and only see red, refusing to see anyone on the “other” side as anything but a *#&^%#. But they are by no means the majority, and they cannot be the force driving this country. Our strength is in our many diverse experiences and voices, and we ought to allow each other the space to question, explore, and learn.

When I was in college, I attended a talk given by the outgoing president about the college’s motto: Lux Esto. He reflected that the Latin phrase actually had two translations: “be light,” the commonly used translation, and “let there be light.” In other words, shine your light and enable others to shine theirs. I don’t know why that message stuck with me, but I understand it now. I cannot think of another time in my life when it has been more important.

In the face of darkness, emboldened and unveiled these past months, lux esto.

Examining our Relationship to Washington

Examining our Relationship to Washington

What do we expect from Washington? Specifically: 1) Do we as citizens ultimately want the same things from our government? 2) What role should government play and not play, in our lives?

I saw a bumper sticker the other day: “I Vote My Values.” Well, sure, lots of people do, right? And it works when we all believe the same thing. It works just great in a country that is monolithic socially, religiously, and culturally. But how well does it work in America? Because America is not that country.

America is a country at a crossroads, where our values are testing and being tested by our traditions and history. Chief among these values is a deeply held belief in every individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; a belief in everyone’s freedom of religion; and freedom from tyranny. The beauty of this crossroads is that the true meaning of these values is being held up to the light and truly examined, for many people, for the first time.

Our traditions and history, as has happened at previous crossroads in the story of America, also need to be examined so that we can preserve what is important, and know why we are doing so. Our traditions and history tell a story of a country that has been at turns deeply xenophobic and also inherently welcoming, whose members are hard workers with big dreams and also are broken and struggling. But the traditions and history we hear most often told are the ones told by the powerful majority, as is most often the case with history. That history is of hard work leading to success, and success being defined, on a personal level, as owning a home with a white picket fence, a late-model car in the garage, 1.8 kids, closets full of clothes and recreational equipment, belonging to the Judeo-Christian tradition, having a nice big flat-screen TV in the living room, and perhaps a dog or a cat. Fit this mold and you will have lived the American Dream.

And yet. America is a country of over 318 million people. 318 million. We are not a “split screen” America or a nation of two Americas. We are a nation of dozens of Americas. Americans are urban folks, rural folks, and lots of suburban folks; religious folks, spiritual folks, and atheists; market-driven folks and values-driven folks. Americans include people who seek solitude and open spaces, and people who are spooked by any place without a data connection and a good cappuccino. Americans are married and Americans are fiercely single. Americans are every shade of human skin. Americans are rich and Americans are counting every dollar until their next paycheck.

You think all these people share the same values? Absolutely not. We make different choices and have different priorities. Regardless of how lightly or seriously those values are carried, and regardless of how much someone else may disagree with them, the beauty of this country is that we are free to live the lives we want, so long as they don’t infringe on others’ rights to do the same. We don’t have to agree with each other or support every decision our fellow citizens make–we don’t even have to like each other–but we do have to respect each others’ liberty. To tamper with that is to risk our own liberty–because what happens when your values and choices are under attack and those protections are too bruised and broken to preserve your liberty?

Is there a way for all of us to live alongside one another? Our country’s founders believed so, and they laid out a road map for it in their early writings. (Haven’t read the Constitution lately? Refresh your memory; most relevant as today’s background are the amendments, the first 10 of which are the Bill of Rights. And don’t forget the Declaration of Independence.) There is a lot packed into these relatively short documents, but the vision of the society the founders imagined has an overarching theme of freedom. I’ve never heard anyone, regardless of political stripes, disagree about the importance of preserving freedom. (Americans have, though, framed “freedom” in many ways over time, which will be a topic for a future blog post.)

Besides the desire for freedom, what do our expectations of Washington have in common? Are we voting for our leaders based on a common vision of what we want America to be? I’d argue the answer is yes, and no. Most Americans want the country to be safe and prosperous, and we want good public services (clean, well-maintained roads and public spaces, clean air and water), fair taxes, and good schools for our children. Most Americans want the country to be the fabled “land of opportunity,” free from oppression and full of big dreams. But as evidenced by the two Americas described by our main political parties, we don’t agree on how to achieve that America.

In normal political times, what we would see on C-SPAN is debate and discussion about how to achieve that America. That, I will posit, is the role that government should play. The role that government should not play is to force everyone to conform to a certain set of values (except, of course, the values that are universally held–e.g. murder is bad–and that preserve our democracy). So when we “vote our values,” are we saying that we want to send representatives to Washington to enforce our own values in government? How about if we turned that around and sent representatives to Washington who would preserve everyone’s rights to have their own values, while working on the issues government is supposed to work on?  I for one look forward to the day when the government’s work is slow, thoughtful, and focused–and, let’s face it, more boring to everyone but the policy nerds among us. I look forward to a government where foreign policy, economic policy, education policy, climate change, and the like are the topics of debate. By people who understand them because they have devoted their careers to studying these issues. And I hope that when that day comes, more of us stay tuned in.