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Reclaiming "freedom" in the age of coronavirus: Don't allow Trump and the right to claim it

Conservatives think they control the concept of "freedom." But progressives have a deeper, richer tradition



Paul Rosenberg
May 23, 2020 4:00PM (UTC)

On May 6, Anand Giridharadas set off a bit of a firestorm in a "Morning Joe" preview of his "Seat at the Table" monologue:

There is a primordial American tradition going back to the Founders of being freedom-obsessed, even though we are a country founded on slavery and genocide, being freedom-obsessed to the point that we're always so afraid of the government coming for us that we're blind to other types of threats, whether it's a virus, whether it's bank malfeasance, climate change, what have you.

He went on to note how Ronald Reagan had intensified the fear of government, how neoliberal Democrats after him had distanced themselves from government, and how Donald Trump has epitomized the logic of "Government doesn't work — elect me and I'll prove it" that's now the icing on the cake. But it was that initial formulation that really grabbed people's attention. 

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Fox News ran a story about this, as did the conservative site Townhall. Giridharadas tweeted his thanks for their amplification of his ideas, to which I added:  

Not just obsessed with the idea of freedom, but with strangely perverted versions of it, defined by slaveholders at nation's birth, defined by settlers claiming others' land before & after, defined as "market freedom" by neoliberal theorists, the list goes on & on. "Free for me!"

The right is always appalled that anyone would ever say anything remotely critical about "freedom," because conservatives have spent decades trying to brand the word and the concept as their private property. Efficient branding is pretty much the opposite of critical understanding. Yes, liberals may care about equality, right-wingers may acknowledge, but in doing so they trample on freedom! This is why, for example, Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act, and why Sen. Rand Paul struggled incoherently when Rachel Maddow asked him how he felt about it half a century later, and never owned up to where he stood. The ghost of slaveholder freedom is not easily laid to rest. 

Of course progressives do believe in freedom, of a very different sort: The freedom sought by slaves and their descendants, most starkly, echoed in freedom songs and an explosion of liberation movements in the 1960s. Now, in the age of coronavirus, what could be more pressing than to be free of the virus — not just individually, not just nationally, but globally, as a species?  

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It's not government tyranny that's keeping us from living normal lives. It's the virus that's doing that. Those who are demanding their freedom to spread the virus are just prolonging its tyranny over the rest of us. They are furthering our oppression, and endangering our lives.

Two models of freedom

There are many ways you can slice this, but perhaps the simplest comes from George Lakoff in "Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea." He explains that abstract notions of freedom all derive from physical, bodily ones. The physical experience of being able to move freely is the foundation of all ideas of freedom. 

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Liberals and conservatives may have different ways of shaping their concepts of freedom, based on different worldviews, but this is what they have in common — making freedom an "essentially contested concept," as first described in an essay by W.B. Gallie. It's vital to understand what these two concepts of freedom have in common, as well as what they do not, and the reasons for both. Otherwise conservatives will continue to wield "freedom" as a sword, blinding us to what's actually going on as they imperil the freedom of all.

"The central thesis of this book is simple," Lakoff writes. "There are two very different views of freedom in America today, arising from two very different moral and political worldviews dividing the country. The traditional idea of freedom is progressive. One can see traditional values most clearly in the direction of change that has been demanded and applauded over two centuries." 

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He provides a wealth of examples, starting with the expansion of voting rights and citizen participation, from white male property owners to all white men, then to formerly enslaved men, then women, then younger voters. Lakoff goes on to cite the expansion of economic opportunity, working conditions and workers' rights, public education and "the expansion of knowledge," public health and life expectancy, consumer protection and so on. 

These popular examples might not immediately seem like instances of freedom, at least partly because progressives haven't used that term nearly as much as conservatives have — even when talking about the black freedom struggle. Indeed, conservatives have used the term far more often to invoke rolling back those expansions of freedom. 

But if freedom is at least partially about having the capacity to realize your dreams, then everything Lakoff lists above surely belongs in that realm of freedom — as progressives could and should claim, if they used that language more robustly. As we struggle to free ourselves from this pandemic, that's exactly what we should be doing.

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"Progressive freedom is dynamic freedom. Freedom is realized not just in stasis, or at a single moment in history, but in its expansion over a long time," Lakoff writes. "You cannot look only at the Founding Fathers and stop there. If you do, it sounds as if they were hypocrites: They talked liberty but permitted slavery; they talked democracy but allowed only white male property owners to vote. But from a dynamic progressive perspective, the great ideas were expandable freedoms." 

The opposite is true of conservatives, he concludes:

What makes them 'conservatives' is not that they want to conserve the achievements of those who fought to deepen American democracy. It's the reverse: They want to go back to before these progressive freedoms were established. That is why they harp so much on narrow so-called originalist readings of the Constitution — on its letter, not its spirit — on "activist judges" rather than an inherently activist population."

A common core — and contested views

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Despite these deep differences in how freedom is viewed, there is a common core meaning and logic involved.

"Freedom is being able to do what you want to do," Lakoff writes, "that is, being able to choose a goal, have access to that goal, pursue that goal without anyone purposely preventing you. It is having the capacity or power to achieve the goal and being able to exercise your free will to choose and achieve the goal." In addition, "Political freedom is about the state and how well a state can maximize freedom for all its citizens."  

This represents the uncontested core of what simple freedom and political freedom are all about. And the underlying physical foundation is straightforward:

We all had the experience as children of wanting to do something and being held down or held back, so that we were not free to do what we wanted. These bodily experiences form the basis of our everyday idea of simple freedom — for reasoning about freedom as well as for talking about freedom.

"Freedom is being able to achieve purposes," Lakoff summarizes, which in turn is "understood metaphorically in three fundamental ways of functioning with one's body." First, "Reaching a desired destination (by moving through space)." Second, "Getting some desired object (by moving one's limbs)." Third, "Performing a desired action (by moving one's body)." 

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He goes on to make two important points. The first is about freedom as a visceral concept, "tied, fundamentally via metaphor, to our ability to move and to interference with moving. There is little that is more infuriating than interference with our everyday bodily movements." 

The second is about its cultural significance in America: 

Part of being an American, culturally, goes beyond achieving isolated purposes to having a purposeful life. Thus, life itself becomes structured in terms of space — goals you want to reach (where you want to be in life), things you want to get (rewards, awards, things that symbolize success), and things you want to do or achieve. Dreams are seen as lifetime purposes. "The American Dream" is based on this metaphor.

All the above applies to the uncontested core meaning of freedom, Lakoff explains. But liberals and conservatives differ sharply on how that uncontested core is fleshed out. Conservative talk a great deal more about freedom, he notes:

The radical right is in the process of redefining the very idea. To lose freedom is a terrible thing; to lose the idea of freedom is even worse.

The constant repetition of the words "liberty" and "freedom" by the right-wing message machine is one of the mechanisms of the idea theft in progress. When the words are used by the right, their meaning shifts — gradually, almost imperceptibly, but it shifts.

What distinguishes the progressive from the conservative version of "freedom" is the underlying worldview that in both cases fill in the contested areas in metaphorical logic. Lakoff first characterized these competing views in "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think" (my review here) as metaphorically structured by two distinct parenting styles, first distinguished by Diane Baumrind: that of the nurturant parent ("authoritative" in Baumrind's typology) vs. the strict father family ("authoritarian"), as Lakoff calls them. 

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Lakoff's terms underscore their differences, while Baumrind's capture something critical about their more nuanced relationship. Authoritarian parenting is often justified by the false assumption that the only alternative is indulgent, "permissive parenting," a third alternative that Baumrind described. (A fourth alternative, "neglectful parenting," was added later.) But authoritative parents combine permissive parents' nurturing, responsive approach with the authoritarian parents' willingness to set high standards — albeit sometimes quite different ones.  

As Lakoff notes, authoritative parents are more successful in raising children to be the autonomous moral agents, capable of acting freely and responsibly, that authoritarian parenting is supposed to produce. So there's a valid argument that progressives have a better grasp of freedom than conservatives do. 

Threats to freedom and the role of security

One part of Lakoff's discussion involves interference with freedom, specifically in the form of harm, coercion, or limitations on property — each of which is also a contested concept. These lay the foundations for understanding the fundamental role that security plays in protecting (and thus advancing) freedom. There is, in short, a common logic, which gets filled in differently by progressive and conservative worldviews. 

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By harm, Lakoff means something serious: "sufficient to interfere with normal functioning." For example: "If someone breaks your leg, she is interfering with your freedom to move. If someone kills you, he is interfering with your freedom to live your life."

Metaphorical harm — such as economic harm — can be trickier.  What counts as harm? As Lakoff notes: "Many conservatives believe that social programs harm people because they make them dependent on the government, while progressives tend to believe that they help people." 

This is a direct consequence of Lakoff's characterization of progressive and conservative worldviews: that of nurturant parenting vs. the strict-father family. It's also an empirically testable question: Only a tiny fraction of social spending goes to people who could even conceivably fit the conservative stereotype of the "welfare cheat" — people who could work but do not, for whatever reason.

In contrast, recall that Giridharadas spoke about "other types of threats," and mentioned the pandemic, financial mismanagement and climate change. These are all forms of harm that can limit our freedom. As Lakoff explains, such limits must come from human actions — someone breaking your leg, not having a tree fall on you. But if government fails to protect you when it should — as happened with Hurricane Katrina, for example — that malign neglect certainly qualifies as interfering with your freedom. 

Coercion is being forced to act against your will, which has a straightforward physical foundation: "One of our major metaphors for the freedom to engage in purposeful action is the freedom to move to a desired destination," Lakoff explains. "Coerced action is, metaphorically, forced motion to an undesired location." What's more, "Further metaphors map physical coercion onto economic coercion, social coercion, and religious coercion."

Property is linked to freedom in two ways. As Lakoff puts it, "the freedom to achieve one's purposes is, metaphorically, the lack of any interference in getting and keeping desired objects." Second is the literal fact that "wealth can buy many kinds of freedom." So property means freedom, literally as well as metaphorically. But as Lakoff cautions, "[I]t is often contested whether certain property is properly yours." 

In a nation built on land dispossessed from its native inhabitants, whose vast wealth was in large part created by slave labor, this is a touchy subject. Lakoff takes a less confrontational approach: 

Take the issue of taxes. Conservatives say, "It's your money. The government wants to take it away." But almost everyone gains part of his or her income through the use of a government-supplied infrastructure (highways, the Internet, the banking system, the courts). Is there a moral debt to pay to maintain that system?

Thomas Paine certainly thought so. Here he is, from "Agrarian Justice":

Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally.

Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich…. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man's own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.

While the Tea Party movement, funded by the Koch brothers, tried to give its anti-taxation agenda a patriotic Boston Tea Party gloss, America's anti-tax tradition actually stems from the Southern slaveholding economy, as Robin Einhorn explained in "American Taxation, American Slavery.

"What I found is that in early American history, slaveholders in particular were terrified of majorities deciding how to tax them," Einhorn told me in an interview. "So they came up with strategies of how to stop that. There is a long tradition of denying majorities the right to decide how to tax wealth in this country." You can call that tradition anything you want, but it's strange to insist that it's quintessentially about "freedom."

Finally, Lakoff discusses the crucial role of security: 

If harm, coercion, and limitations on property interfere with freedom, then security is a guarantee that such freedom will be preserved. Just as physical harm and physical coercion are the prototypical forms of harm and coercion — what we first think when we think of harm and coercion — so physical security is the prototypical form of security. Physical security of oneself and one's property is central to the concept of freedom.

Security is central to the Anglo-American idea of freedom in another way. It lies at the very foundation of John Locke's legitimation of government in Section 123 of his "Second Treatise on Government." Rights are God-given, enjoyed without limit in a state of nature, Locke argues.  But the "enjoyment" of the property a person has in this state "is very unsafe, very unsecure," he argues. "This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers," so governments are formed voluntarily, surrendering absolute claims to all rights in order to secure what is most fundamental. Locke's thinking was echoed as well in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, with its declared purpose to "promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

The role of security is thus fundamental to any conception of freedom in modern liberal democracies. It is the very reason why we form such political orders in the first place, and it is also why Donald Trump and his fellow authoritarians, from Vladimir Putin to Jair Bolsonaro to Viktor Orbán and so on, revel in making us all so existentially insecure.  

When Giridharadas spoke about "other types of threats," including the virus, "bank malfeasance" and climate change, those are threats to our freedom in a fundamental sense, because they undermine the social foundations on which all our freedoms rest. Not the abstract, theoretical foundation of "God-given rights," but the pragmatic, real-world foundations that secure them for us in the here and now. 

Final points

I've only scratched the surface of Lakoff's book, tracing a few consequences of the simple core message: Freedom is an essentially contested concept rooted in physical experience, and its liberal and conservative versions derive from very different worldviews. Three more points Lakoff touches on are worth noting. 

First, political conservatives often want to live in nurturant communities too. As Lakoff observes, "Fundamentalist communities can be nurturant and loving toward members who fit in." There's an underlying sense in which "liberal" values — grounded in nurturance and empathy — are universally recognized, although conservatives perceive them as conditional, only for those who are deemed worthy. 

For example, there's significant conservative support for large government programs like Social Security and Medicare, and Donald Trump made a point in 2016 of pretending he would defend them, while accurately noting that other Republicans would not. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic having claimed nearly 100,000 American lives, Trump's lack of empathy and abdication of nurturant leadership are painfully clear. 

Second, Lakoff notes a difference in understanding causation in moral and political disputes, "where the progressives argue on the basis of systemic causation (within a social, ecological, or economic system) and the conservatives argue on the basis of direct causation (by a single individual)." 

This helps explain why progressives see moral harm in environmentally destructive practices like mountaintop removal mining, for example, while conservatives "tend to argue that your coal mine would not directly cause any known particular deaths or illnesses, and so you — and others — should be free to mine your coal." If the government prevents you from maximizing potential profits, that specific, individual restriction of "freedom" is the only one they claim to see.  

That's similar to how the "reopen" demonstrators seem to think. They don't recognize the systemic risk posed by the virus, and claim not to believe that their activities make it easier for the virus to spread. They only see government action — which they mistakenly blame for shutting down the economy — as an act of tyranny or spiteful malevolence.

Third, Lakoff argues that political freedom has a common, uncontested core:

Political freedom begins with the idea of self-government: Tyrants and dictators can be avoided if we choose those who govern us and make sure that none of them has overriding power. The attendant concepts to simple political freedom are self-government and its democratic institutions — within the national government: Congress, the administration, and an independent judiciary, with a balance of powers and similar structures at lower levels; within civil society: free elections and political parties, a civilian-controlled military, a free market, free press/media, and free religious institutions.

At this level of oversimplification, all of this is uncontested. The details are, however, thoroughly contested….

At least that's how things stood in 2006, when "Whose Freedom?" was published. That's no longer the case 14 years later, with severe democratic backsliding underway in America. If Donald Trump is leading the way, he's by no means alone. The "contested" details of the past have prepared the way for our current crisis, and there's considerable continuity over the decades, as I've discussed in previous articles about "constitutional hardball," for example. But it is clear that Trump has utter disregard for any balance of powers that would curb his own, and we're now in a qualitatively different place than before the 2016 election. It's no longer the case that progressives and conservatives both believe in the uncontested core of political freedom. The American right appears to have turned its back on that shared assumption once and for all.

"Whose Freedom?" is not the only guidebook to our current situation, but it helps delineate major aspects of the task before us: First, not to let conservatives claim to be the only ones who care about freedom, as if it had a simple, uncontested meaning. Second, to articulate a more robust progressive model of freedom, and make clear how it applies in the current moment. Third, to prioritize combating the most grave and substantial threats to freedom — threats like the coronavirus that is killing thousands of us every day, and like the climate catastrophe that may devastate our world for centuries to come. 

If we can preserve ourselves and our freedoms from these threats, we will have time and opportunity for legitimate debate on the contested aspects of the idea of freedom. In other words, we will have the freedom to shape a better future for everyone. 


Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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