It annoys a lot of American liberals that the word, “freedom” has achieved a kind of totemic status on the political right. Witness last week’s annual Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, or any Tea Party-oriented gathering. Only conservatives know what liberty is. Anybody that disagrees doesn’t understand freedom or is trying to destroy our freedom. Etc. Really grating.
But, it would be very inaccurate to say the Tea Party is the first American political movement to insist it alone understands the true meaning of freedom. A few years ago I read an interesting book called, The Story of American Freedom. The historian author believes that defining “freedom” has been the central animating struggle of U.S. history. That history, he says, is a more complex story than most of us assume. It has not been a simple, linear march towards greater and greater liberty, or even a story of a fixed set of freedoms being extended to new groups of Americans. Rather, he says, each American era sees its consensus on freedom’s meaning challenged. It gets defended, and a revised definition – usually more expansive, but not always – evolves. How can this be in a country that’s core values are supposed to be fixed in the Constitution and even universal?
Good topic idea, I thought, especially since the way our history works, if the Tea Party wins, their version of freedom becomes the right one. On Monday, I’ll just open up by listing some kinds of freedoms (like economic, religious, etc.) and tracing his basic argument of how freedom’s meaning has evolved. This will be short and with little detail since you all don’t need a history lecture. Then, in discussion we can apply it to our times and our political wars.
Discussion Questions –
- What are the different “types” of freedom: Political freedom, economic, religious, speech, privacy, family autonomy, etc.? How are they related?
- How has the definition of freedom changed throughout American history? How has the concept evolved in the last 4o years, as our politics has polarized along liberal/conservative lines?
- Liberal Freedom: What do you think is the current liberal definition of freedom? Your critique?
- Conservative freedom: Same.
- How do you think most regular Americans define freedom? Do they agree on its main components? How different is that from the definitions liberals and conservatives seem to have and wave around all of the time?
- A bit about the book I read that sparked this topic: The Story of American Freedom. A nasty but still useful conservative critique of it is here.
- Some Tea Party-ish views of freedom.
- A very thoughtful analysis of the conservative and liberal conceptions of freedom, although it favors the latter. Long, but a must-read.
- Fire-breathing, very liberal view of what freedom means and how much of it Americans have lost in recent years.
- What is Libertarianism?
- Two key concepts to understand: Positive liberty and negative liberty.
- Long but good optional read: Do we want to live in the Libertarians’ world? A skeptical but not totally hostile view of the philosophy.
NEXT WEEK: Do/Should International Organizations Have Power Over the U.S.?