Commentary

How should we define “freedom” since none of them are absolute?

How should we define “freedom” since none of them are absolute?
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“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe!”

These words attributed to Albert Einstein come to mind when I think of all the people in the United States and other richer nations who refuse to vaccinate themselves or follow masking guidelines in public, but not because they lack availability, but, rather, because they lack critical thinking faculties to separate facts from lies, science from conspiracies.

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These idiotic ideas are too incredible and numerous to even begin to enumerate, but they cover a range from spy chips devised by billionaires to surreptitiously having one’s body polluted with risky experimental drugs to guard against a virus that they also say does not exist because it is a hoax.

Vaccine mandates

The concoctors of these conspiracy theories dangle the promise of “freedom” in the face of their followers: freedom from masking, freedom from toxifying the body, freedom from being led down the deadly path to vaccinated slaughter.

And they promise them their individuality, that essential vital quality that forever separates them from the crowd, from the conformists whom they are taught to believe have sacrificed their freedom long ago for some deceitfully guaranteed sense of security.

They have turned the pandemic into a political weapon for their own gratification in their lust for power and control. They have polluted the body politic, which places everyone, including themselves, in serious jeopardy.

A litmus test by which any group or society may be judged is the way in which it treats young people. In this regard, the Republican party scores deep red indicating extreme acidity to the point of life-threatening toxicity.

The Party that promotes itself as “pro-family” and “pro-life” seems not to have a clue, or at the very least, a cynical view about the true meaning of these words.

As pediatric Covid-19 infection cases in Florida have soared an incredible 84% a few weeks ago due largely to the more highly contagious and virulent Delta strain of the virus, and though the overall state infection rate is currently the highest per capita in the nation, DeSantis issued an Executive Order banning the implementation of mask mandates in schools to “protect parents’ freedom to choose whether their children wear masks.” In May, he tweeted that “the time for government mask mandates is over.”

The Florida governor took this action despite the current Center for Disease Control’s recommendation for universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status.

DeSantis exploits the false and fraudulent binary opposition with Individual Freedom on one side and Public Concerns on the other. These issues, in fact, are joined together not in opposition, but as intricately connected.

But DeSantis seems less interested in ensuring the public health of Texas residents and more concerned with using his strong individual freedom mantra as a basis for his fundraising efforts in his quest for reelection in 2022 and as the current frontrunner for the Republican Party’s standard-bearer in the 2024 presidential sweepstakes.

Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona has also prohibited mandates for masks, vaccines, and vaccine passports. He argued that CDC guidance is “just another example of the Biden-Harris Administration’s inability to effectively confront the Covid-19 pandemic” that will “only diminish confidence in the vaccine.”

While Texas remains as one of the major epicenters in the high rate of Covid-19 transmission, Governor Greg Abbott lifted all mask mandates throughout the entire state to the dismay of an increasing number of local officials.

“With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus,” said Abbott. “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent.”

The governor clearly has disregarded public health best practices as that state’s schools are about to reopen and has clearly placed business interests over the health of Texans.

Not only does primarily red Republican states continue to inflict corporal punishment on young people, violate reasonable disease mitigation strategies in schools and communities, but has violated the rights, the “freedoms” of youth in so many other ways that it seems the list is endless.

So, how much “freedom” does any of us really have when people around us fail to heed the warnings to vaccinate or to wear face masks in public?

If these conservative politicians, anti-vaxxers, and the disgraced twice impeached former guy in the White House doesn’t care about or trust scientists and the current residents in the White House who are taking decisive countermeasure to inhibit the spread of the virus, if they don’t care about their own health and that of their loved ones and neighbors, they should at least care about and trust the frontline workers – police officers, firefighters, members of the National Guard, medical professionals, caretakers, essential services workers who are risking their lives to save ours, and yes, to save the lives of the protesters in this war against an invisible enemy.

School Curriculum

Under the guise of “freedom” to determine “their children’s” education, though not a new phenomenon, we are seeing some parents, legislators, and school administrators attempting to place severe limits around the teaching of our nation’s past and the legacies of this history upon the lives of people and the functioning of institutions today.

Led initially at a White House Conference on American History, conducted by the former guy while in office, he blasted “critical race theory” as Marxist and lambasted the 1619 Project (named after the year white slavers kidnapped Africans and dumped them as property in Virginia).

“Critical race theory, the 1619 project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda,” the former guy exploded, “ideological poison that if not removed will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country. That is why I recently banned training in this prejudiced ideology from the federal government and banned it in the strongest manner possible.”

Since his initial salvo, Republican legislators throughout the U.S. have enacted new laws and policies intended to define the narrow parameters of what and how students will discuss our country’s past and our present.

Many of these efforts have attempted to ban critical race theory, the educational framework that examines how policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism.

Theory, though, is not simply some notion fabricated by intellectuals in the Ivory Tower. Instead, social researchers develop theories from studying real human behavior, the lived experience of people and groups. Researchers’ results are empirically based rather than coming from the researchers’ passion to propagandize or impose their personal, political, or philosophical agenda.

Much like scientific testing for medical treatments, therapies, and mitigation efforts, which must demonstrate that they treat or cure what they are developed to treat and continue to show effectiveness in large samples of patients, so too must social research.

But the Republican party generally, with all its paradox, irony, and fraudulence in advertising in so many ways too numerous to cover fully, has proven itself dangerous to young people and other living things.

For example, though Critical Race Theory has been taught primarily in higher education, and specifically in graduate courses in legal studies, charges of “imposing” CRT on young unsuspecting “children” so those white students will come to hate themselves for being white has been labeled by conservative legislators and parents alike. This is a ruse, a justification for limiting all school-based discussions and historical investigations on issues of race and other issues.

We saw this occur recently in a Texas school district when a curriculum supervisor advised teachers who discuss the Holocaust in their classrooms to include books that “balance” Holocaust books with “opposing” views. What “opposing” views?

What, though, could be more “patriotic” and “pro-American” than for people to confront our nation’s racist past, the foundation on which this nation arose and whose legacy continues to oppress, divide, and divert us finally and completely from our founding concept of “liberty and justice FOR ALL”?

A fuller and deeper age-appropriate commitment to teaching the truth from multiple perspectives is far more than exposing historical facts. It relates on an existential level to issues of personal and collective identity. It connects to our ability as a nation to become aware of and acknowledge our past so we can ultimately take constructive actions to work toward a better, more just, and equitable future.

Will a fuller and richer examination of our history upset the apple cart? Will it contradict the sacred scrolls of acceptable knowledge? And if so, is this necessarily bad?

This teaching has the very real potential of overturning the apples across the foundations of our society and contesting the sacred scrolls. And, no, this is not necessarily bad. This teaching will allow students of every background and identity to “see” themselves in the course content they study.

This is much preferred over our current situation in which our brave transformative educators are saddled to a neutered curriculum and pablum of memorizing dates and names for the passing of standardized tests.

So, how “free” are students in their rights to know the truth as opposed to the whitewashing imposed by parents, legislators, and school administrators in their “freedom” to determine curriculum?

Climate and Carbon Footprint

Against mountains of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, the climate deniers, including Donald Trump and significant numbers of his Grand? Old Party are perpetrating a delusional fraud against volumes of reputable evidence to the contrary that if allowed to continue, will end in the extermination of all life on this planet (except, or course, cockroaches who seemingly survive almost anything).

When will conservatives begin to conserve our planet and walk in the shoes of communities most affected rather than claim that they have the “freedom” to expand their carbon footprint to any lengths they and industry chose?

For a party claiming to stand as “pro-family,” what kind of legacy and what kind or future are they really bequeathing to our youth? For a party that claims to promote political conservatism and “traditional values,” what is more traditional and valuable than conserving and thus sustaining the Earth’s resources responsibly and equitably?

While differing marginally on specific issues, many Republicans march in lock-step to the drummer of conservative political and corporate dogma centering on a market-driven approach to economic and social policy, including such tenets as reducing the size of the national government and granting more control to state and local governments; severely reducing or ending governmental regulation over the private sector; privatizing governmental services, industries, and institutions including education, health care, and social welfare; permanently incorporating across-the-board non-progressive marginal federal and state tax rates; and possibly most importantly, advancing market-driven and unfettered “free market” economics.

How “free” are we now as mining, oil, and lumber companies lobby to exploit the land, and as legislators grant corporations enormous tax breaks and subsidies?

How “free” will we be if conservative Republicans succeed in abolishing the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Protection Agency, the US Department of Education, the US Department of Commerce, and other governmental agencies?

How “free” will we be if conservative Republicans succeed in the US Congress with their threats to privatize our national parks, and to loosen environmental and consumer protections of all kinds?

Constitutional Freedoms

When we consider the rights granted by our great Constitution, in addition to the words inscribed therein, we must also address the legislative actions and judicial decisions, which further elaborate and add precision to the boundaries of those rights.

Freedom of Speech

Let us take the First Amendment of the Constitution for example, and explicitly the section stating that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech….”

While these few words seem very expansive, like all rights, they are certainly not absolute given the judicial decisions that have come after the amendment’s ratification.

Of the several restrictions or limitations to free speech and expression, some of the most important fall in the areas of libel, slander, obscenity, fraud, child pornography, harassment, sedition, incitement to illegal conduct and imminent lawless action, true threats, and commercial speech such as advertising, copyright or patent rights violations.

The Supreme Court has held, for example, that “advocacy of the use of force” is unprotected when it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and is “likely to incite or produce such action.”

In addition, a juvenile court in Massachusetts ruled in 2017 that repeatedly urging someone to commit suicide was not protected speech under the First Amendment, and found a 20-year-old woman, who was 17 at the time, guilty of manslaughter on this basis.

On the matter of obscenity, under the Miller test (from Miller v. California (1973)), speech is unprotected if “the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the [subject or work in question], taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,” “the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law” and “the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Freedom to Bear Arms

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has expanded (clarified) the definition of “A well-regulated militia.” The Court, in its 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller extended the right to individuals. From the ruling:

“The Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” That right, however, “is not unlimited.”

Though the types of firearms at the writing of the Constitution appear rather primitive compared with the technologically evolved weapons of today, in 2016, the Court ruled on this point in Caetano v. Massachusetts:

“The Court has held that the Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding, and that this Second Amendment right is fully applicable to the States.”

So, does this mean that all firearms, even the military-style semiautomatic or so-called “assault” weapons, must be available for sale to individuals under constitutional law?

In four separate cases in different federal Circuit Courts of Appeal, judges ruled that states placing bans on semiautomatic weapons are, in fact, constitutional and that the Heller decision excluded these types of weapons. Therefore, individual state laws were upheld.

  1. Washington, DC, Circuit, 2011: Assault weapons and large capacity magazines are “too dangerous for self-defense reasons.”
  2. 7th Circuit, Chicago, 2015: Upheld a ban on “any semiautomatic gun that can accept a large-capacity magazine.” Also, the concept of Federalism allows local municipalities to enact gun safety restrictions.
  3. 2nd Circuit, New York & Connecticut, 2015: Unanimous ban: “semiautomatic assault weapons have been understood to pose unusual risks,” resulting in “more numerous wounds, more serious wounds, and more victims. These weapons are disproportionately used in crimes, and particularly in criminal mass shootings like the attack in Newtown. They are also disproportionately used to kill law enforcement officers.”
  4. 4th Circuit, Richmond, 2017: Maryland’s ban on 45 kinds of assault weapons and its 10-round limit on gun magazines were upheld as constitutional.

To date, the United States Supreme Court has decided not to review these lower court rulings.

In addition, the federal ban on assault weapons, The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, was enacted by Congress in September 1994. The ban, which also included barring high-capacity magazines, expired in September 2004 as required in its 10-year sunset provision. The measure has not since been reauthorized by Congress.

As a provision inserted as a rider into the 1996 federal government omnibus spending bill, the Dickey Amendment, named after Arkansas Republican Representative Jay Dickey and lobbied heavily by the National Rifle Association, passed the Congress into law. It mandated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

So, what other limits, on the national, state, and local levels, should we as a nation consider and enact on the sale and ownership of firearms? Many people within the larger Gun Safety Movement have proposed “common sense” solutions. Unfortunately, what one person determines as “common sense,” another personal considers as “freedom killing.”

How free, though, are any of us as an estimated 11,000 people are murdered annually, and another 22,000 lose their lives by guns through accident or suicide?

How free are we when the United States has established itself as having the most firearms per capita than any other nation with 120.5 firearms per 100 residents?

How free are we as the guns lobby purchases our politicians in the service of firearms manufacturers in their quest to acquire even more power and profits?

The “Social Contract”

The theory of a “Social Contract” developed as far back as ancient Greece. Though iterated, reiterated, and reformed by numerous philosophers and public figures, the foundations of this social contract stand on the premise that people live together in community with the agreement that establishes moral, ethical, and overarching political rules of behavior between individuals, groups, and their government in the formation of civil society.

A violation by any of the signatories – individuals, groups, governments – jeopardizes the very stability of that progress toward a fully civil society.

We witness politically conservative figures either refusing to sign this contract or for those who may have previously etched their names, reneging on the terms and stipulations. For them, they abide by the motto: “That government is best that governs least.”

Individual “Freedom” without responsibility or concern for the community endangers the very existence of nations.

The days of wild West rugged individualism are over. Either we as a nation change our style of living to consider more about the common good, or else we will certainly and very quickly increase our chances of dying individually, as a democracy, and as a nation.

But I leave those who believe in individual “freedom” over “freedom” with the common good to remember singer-songwriter, Kris Kristofferson’s, words from “Me and Bobby McGee”:

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

And I would add, including one’s life.

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