Many countries mark an Independence Day, a celebration of breaking free from the rule of another country. It marks the moment when a newly-emerged nation declared its self-governance. When we look at freedom in 2019, a time of current global turbulence, a country’s historical marker of breaking free from shackles of restriction takes on a more important role.
In the United States, we celebrate independence with fireworks, picnics, and public gatherings as a reminder of the happiness that comes with finding freedom from restriction. The United States Declaration of Independence argues the case for the separation and divorce of one people from the governance of another. The often quoted phrase regarding the right to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” has helped to shape our national image of the American spirit.
For over 243 years, many have come to the United States seeking freedom from the shackles of poverty, violence, religious intolerance, homophobia, cultural rigidity, class immobility, and unwelcome national oversight.
While Independence Day commemorates the freedom to do as we will on a national level, freedom – of all sorts – is something we should cherish everyday.
What does it mean to be able to live where we want, to worship as we please, or not to worship at all? How does it feel to love, to marry, or to have sex with whom we want? How do we value having the choice to state openly how we feel about politics and about what we think the world should look like?
For those of who live in countries that have declared independence, each of us cherishes what it means to be free, even as we grapple with restrictions on that ideal.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, through the establishment clause and the free exercise clause, addresses freedom of religion as many know it today in the United States. As we celebrate that continued freedom with each Independence Day, I cherish the ability of all to live openly without the restriction of a national religion, combined with the ability to practice a faith or to choose not to engage in religious belief at all. This freedom is present even when local or national leaders emphasize one religion over others.
It is this freedom that drives us to help neighbors, community members, co-workers, and complete strangers re-build houses of worship after tragedy, violent acts, or natural disasters. While we have the freedom that allows us to display symbols of our religious affiliation, we also have to fight to practice and enjoy that freedom. There are places where it is not safe to display jewelry, flags, or symbols that indicate a less commonly known religious practice. In some areas of the United States, it is safer to publicly appear to belong to the larger religious tenor of the community and then practice one’s religion privately. Legal freedom, even though it is in the foundational bedrock of the country, does not necessarily change hearts and minds of the larger community.
The word “freedom” sounds very simple: we sing it, we praise it in songs, we use it to express how we want to live our lives. Freedom to, freedom from, freedom with – these are all shorthand for “I can be myself and it doesn’t matter what people say or think.” But is freedom just being able to say whatever we want to say at any time, regardless of the pain caused to others or the lack of truth in what we say? If we choose to speak a lie, is that actual freedom, or are we deceiving ourselves?
We acknowledge the protester who marches with a sign, tweets in support of a cause, or speaks openly at a rally as exercising freedom of speech. In embracing our freedom, we should ask where we are choosing not to speak and when we are choosing remain silent. Not all speech is protected. When we choose to deceive in cases of fraud, we lose that right. Obscenity as doesn’t receive the protection of free speech. (I always thought this was odd, as what some might consider obscene, others might consider normal or perhaps even mild.)
Freedom of speech does not change our individual human nature regarding what types of information we choose to ingest: we see and believe what we want to see and believe, and we discard the rest. The current test for freedom of speech lies in the dissemination of information during the long and seemingly never-ending campaigns for political office in the United States. Media outlets have real and perceived biases, as seen by the public; therefore, the choice of informational source has a direct impact on how an individual receives the news.
By extension, this choice also impacts how an individual sees larger community, national, and international affairs. One recent example of this impact was at a town hall meeting in Michigan, where a participant expressed surprise that there had been any controversy over the Mueller Report because she only watched conservative news. One danger represented by the limitations of a restrictive one-viewpoint usage of the media is that this woman did not get the most accurate information. This impacts freedom of speech as well.
Freedom of the press goes hand-in-hand with freedom of speech. The press should be able to state what is actually happening to give the public a clear lens into world, national, and local affairs. When journalists are murdered, tortured, or given limited access to tell the truth as it is, we all suffer the loss of accurate and correct information. Rumors, deception, and lies by omission and commission flourish when the press are not permitted to do their job.
The past few decades have seen a growing wave of newspaper closures, leaving so-called “news deserts” where the few press outlets that remain are overburdened to provide coverage for more areas with fewer people. We fight against food deserts in urban areas all the time, but until recently, not much has been said about the even larger damage done by lack of timely, accurate information. We live in a global economy that is run through technology. Those who do not have the information and technological resources to keep up will be left behind. This is anathema to what we celebrate with each passing Independence Day.
We do not seek restriction due to lack of resources, but the ability to be ourselves – one hundred percent. That is the crux of what we think of as freedom. If someone wants to live in the backwoods – go for it. Individuals have the ability to work a job or start their own businesses without interference, without too much interference by the government.
Freedom means that we can fly the Pride flag or the transgender flag, that we can proudly post a Thor’s hammer or a pentacle, without having to fear that our homes will be endangered. Freedom to live means we don’t have to worry about our neighbors calling the police or worse, our neighbors choosing to think or act against us because they do not like our religion, politics, sexuality, race, or culture.
While we are not there in many places, despite what is written in our Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, I believe we will get there. These are all freedoms we aspire to, and in some cases, if we are lucky enough to be in a community that is of like mind, we can pretend that these freedoms exist for our world universally. That is the world we create – even though we know that that may not be the case everywhere.
Freedom is the reason we get up in the morning and why we keep doing whatever we do in our lives. If we don’t like it, the drive for freedom is what makes us change our path. It drives us to find what we want and need. Sometimes we are too scared to reach for freedom; however, just knowing it is there and a possibility makes even the darkest times that much more bearable.
In a perfect world, freedom is what’s on the menu for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snacks. Freedom – we don’t say it often enough. It shouldn’t take a special day with fireworks, parades, picnics as a reminder that it is the most important part of our lives.