A panel of scholars was recently asked what qualities make America great. All but one of the scholars proclaimed that, among other things, America is great because it was founded on the principle of freedom. We all know this is so, but what exactly is freedom? Merriam Webster defines freedom as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint”. Who among us wouldn’t want to endorse that principle? After all, our ancestors left their homes on foreign shores and travelled across a treacherous ocean to seek this kind of freedom in the new world and our forefathers fought brutal domestic and foreign wars to maintain that freedom. Surely freedom is the foundation from which all other rights and privileges spring.
Why is it, then, that for long periods of time throughout history, from medieval times to the Reformation to Nazi Germany people somewhat voluntarily have given up personal freedom? Why is it that freedom can be quite frightening, so much so that for millennia people have attempted to escape from it?
The obvious answer is that freedom does not come without a price. Commensurate with any right or privilege, such as freedom, is a corresponding responsibility. We don’t talk much about responsibility because it usually entails some form of work, and after all, work sounds like the antithesis of freedom. Responsibility focuses on character and personal integrity in order to be fulfilled. Without hard work on character-building, it is tough to make responsible decisions. So freedom actually isn’t free? In addition to all the lives that have been sacrificed to gain and maintain our freedom, personal freedom comes with a pretty hefty cost for all of us every single day, though few recognize or acknowledge that required burden.
Freedom implies the need to make choices because humans, unlike animals, don’t make decisions based on instinct. Geese instinctively know when to fly south, squirrels know instinctively to bury nuts, dogs know instinctively when to sit by the window awaiting the master’s return, and bears instinctively know when to hibernate. According to social psychologist, Erich Fromm, in his book Escape from Freedom, the more separated from nature man becomes, the less acute are his primal instincts and thus the more he is left to his own devices to make the kind of wise choices that will maintain his freedom. At this task, Fromm observes, man is unusually ill-prepared.
As a young child, human beings don’t have to make many choices; we can live securely within the structure of our family. Supper is at 6:00, Bonanza comes on at 7:00 on one of our three channels, bath-taking is on Saturday night, grandma visits on Sunday for pot roast, and your right to roam extends only to a distance from where you can still hear your mother’s beckon.
Individuation is another word for growing up. Individuation is the process in which a child becomes distinct from his family. Individuation differentiates you from everybody else; it is how a being becomes an independent, separate entity. And therein comes the need to make personal choices. But without instincts and the family structure to share the responsibility for those choices, decision-making can become quite frightening; not only for the young adult, but also for the parents who just sent the novice decision-maker off to college.
Again, according to Fromm, if we are part of a group (a clan, a union, a political party, a cult, a social strata, an ideology) we can hedge on individuation somewhat because tradition, group norms, leaders, or precedent and perspective tend to make our decisions for us. Loathe as they may be to do so, most Republicans will still vote for their party’s nominee, even if it’s Donald Trump. And, if he’s elected President, they won’t have to hold themselves entirely responsible for Trump’s actions; you see, it was the party that told them to pull lever ”A”. Just as many voters turn a blind eye, so too did most Christians during the Inquisition, most Germans during the Holocaust, and many Americans during recent questionable wars and military incursions.
It can be frighteningly lonely being a solitary individual, without sidekicks or a gang, and history has taught us that that loneliness can be unbearable; so much so that following the crowd to a lynching or burning a cross (or books) or simply accepting someone else’s dogma at face value is somehow more palatable and reassuring. The intolerable feeling of isolation and powerlessness in humans often leads to behavior that is intended to help the individual escape from freedom, but instead, subjugates people to what they perceive to be a higher power or authority.
Freedom is not for the faint of heart. To be truly free takes character and personal integrity. And character and personal integrity takes self-discipline. Self-discipline is the foundation of freedom. This mastery of self, is acquired only by the practice of self-denial and is always acquired from within, not from without. Unfortunately, these qualities do not seem to be much a part of the American psyche these days. Our culture is best described as one of instant gratification. Our motto is often “if it feels good, do it”, and then, because it feels so good, do it over and over, and before you know it, children start walking into classrooms and shooting their teachers and classmates – because it feels good.
One of the worst consequences of this modern psychosis is addiction. As a result, instead of being free people we have become, through our addictions, slaves to so many seemingly innocuous things; things like food, video games, bullying, gambling, Facebook, shopping and consumption, as well as more destructive addictions like pornography, child abuse, and violence (in all its forms). We are enslaved by our lack of self-discipline. And contrary to an addict’s belief, there are very few victimless crimes.
Where did it all start? How did we get lost? What went wrong? More importantly, how do we make it right?
Spiritual writer Matthew Kelly states “the moral decay of modern Western culture began when we put aside self-discipline, when we stopped expecting it of ourselves, and when we failed the tests of friendship, parenthood, and leadership and stopped expecting it of the people around us.” The foundation of great nations is freedom. The foundation of freedom is not military strength, but character. And the foundation of character is self-discipline.
Demagoguery is an appeal to people that plays on their emotions and prejudices rather than their rational side. It is a manipulative approach to leadership, often associated with dictators and sleazy politicians, who appeal to the worst nature of people. Throughout history generations of people have acquiesced to demagoguery because of their feelings of insecurity, powerlessness, and loneliness. They have also acquiesced because they weren’t willing to put in the hard work necessary for them to choose wisely and make their own disciplined decisions.
Yes, freedom is a great privilege, but we must see it in the context of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ adage: “Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins”. Freedom must be tempered by insight, tolerance, and self-discipline. If we want to prevail against demagoguery we must put in the hard work it takes to arm ourselves with knowledge, facts, and wisdom.
Reading, writing, and arithmetic are all still important subjects in our schools today, but if we don’t also strongly emphasize character building, delayed gratification, and self-discipline we can expect to see our freedoms slowly atrophy and disappear. And that’s where Fascism and demagoguery always gain a foothold. “Gird your loins and fresh courage take” America; “we have met the enemy and they are us”.
Point to Ponder: What would you be willing to give up or forego in order to maintain your freedom?
Question to Consider: Who or what is responsible for the diminished character of the American people? How would you rejuvenate our country’s character?