Mistaking the avoidance of responsibility for ‘freedom’

Published 3:57 am Wednesday, June 11, 2008

By Staff
According to a National Public Radio tribute, the recently deceased film director Sydney Pollack was fond of the following statement that he included in more than one of his many successful films: “You think that not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth.” He used it to skewer the CIA and other serial prevaricators.
If Pollack had lived and was now directing the movie expos/ of the modern American political right, he might well have used a somewhat similar line to shine a light on their increasingly shrill “think tanks” and pundits. It would go something like this: “You think that increasing your own wealth and comfort and ignoring everyone else is the same thing as freedom.”
Here in North Carolina, the ripest targets for such a skewering are the inhabitants of the Pope Inc. Empire — the Locke Foundation, Civitas Institute and so-called Americans for Prosperity — each of which regularly attacks public actions to provide essential services as “coercive” and as “assaults on freedom.”
Recently, the Pope people launched two new “pro-freedom” broadsides. The first came on a Locke Foundation blog that focuses on Wilmington-area issues, “Squall Lines.” It was there that a Locke staffer made the following statement as part of an attack on efforts to better control storm water pollution:
The next day, the Civitas group released an online newsletter in which it sought to publicize a planned rally at the state Legislative Building later this month. The promotional flyer for that event features the following statement from the director of Civitas’ sibling group, Americans for Prosperity:
While the feelings and emotions displayed by the authors of these statements are no doubt born of some brand of genuine disaffection, it’s also clear that these people are seriously delusional.
Somewhere, there probably are some true, back-to-nature “environmentalists” like the Unabomber who would love to take the world back to a simpler, less developed, pre-technology era. But that has nothing to do with the environmental advocates speaking out on behalf of controlling storm water runoff (and its many disastrous consequences for all of us). These people are full participants in modern society who want balanced, reasonable development. The point of their work to preserve open space and clean water and air is not to “eradicate freedom,” but to preserve it — to assure that all of our children and grandchildren will have some opportunity to enjoy the freedom (to live, to breathe) that we have now.
As for the broader question, just who is this “we” that has “less individual freedom” than at anytime in North Carolina history?
Obviously, it’s not the 2.5 million nonwhite North Carolinians. They’ve only started to enjoy something approaching full citizenship in the last few decades. The same is also true of the state’s 4.5 million women of all races. Their freedom continues to accrue at a slow rate after centuries of struggle. How about children? Were they freer when the law allowed them to labor full-time in a factory before their 10th birthday or when free public education was only sporadically available? What about people with disabilities or mental illness? Don’t even start with the GLBT population. Heck, even privileged white men had less freedom to say and read and believe what they wanted just a few decades ago. Does anyone remember the Speaker Ban?
But let’s be charitable for a moment. Perhaps the spokesperson was referring somehow to a collective “we” that is somehow missing out on some precious freedom. If the reference was meant to draw attention to the recent assault on civil rights and civil liberties perpetrated by the Bush administration in the name of the “war on terror,” he might have a point. The fact that our nation would arrest and detain people without trial, torture them in undisclosed places and maintain a growing gulag does, in fact, represent an enormous retreat in the cause of freedom for all.
That reality, however, doesn’t seem to be what this person had in mind. What he appears to have been saying is that intentional, publicly funded solutions to societal problems somehow make us less free; that by its very nature, for instance, the act of guaranteeing affordable health care to a poor child is an inherently coercive act.
But, of course, even a moment’s reflection reveals that this assertion is ridiculous — the equivalent of a spoiled teenager’s complaint that his “freedom” is unjustly restricted by the requirement that he contribute his fair share to the general welfare of the household that makes his wealth and comfort possible.
Indeed, it is one of the great ironies of our time that, for all of their sanctimonious preaching about personal discipline and responsibility, it is the members of the modern American right wing whose guiding star for societal behavior is unfettered personal greed.
And it is one of the great causes for hope for all of us that more and more people are coming to grasp the practical shortcomings and moral emptiness of such a philosophy.