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Defining “Freedom”

I read a comment today, “Still boggles my mind that the people who hate being told what to do, want an authoritarian government.”

Well, obviously, that is generalizing, but it seems like pretty accurate and powerful generalizing to me. More than I can ever remember, we are besieged by people going berserk about not wanting to listen to anyone who tells them that they should be vaccinated, and wear a mask; and about a variety of other things. They love to use the word “freedom” to validate their absolute refusal to listen to medical evidence, and scientific data. Not just about Covid, though that is paramount. About global warming, about gun violence, about safety laws. “Don’t tell me what to do!” is their most important expression of being.

But yet most such people, I would say over 90%, are avid supporters of Donald Trump. Trump is an absolute authoritarian, a would-be dictator. From calling the media “the enemy of the people,” to lying about every fact, to urging his supporters to beat up protesters at his rallies, to his lavish praise of dictators of other countries, to trying to overthrow the newly elected government of America, every single thing he does screams out that he wants to be a tyrant, and already is, as far as he can get away with it.

His acolytes, including people like DeSantis, Abbott, now Youngkin, are busily trying to enact an agenda which not only ignores medical evidence on Covid, but bans any book which they don’t like from being taught. They encourage vigilantes to report teachers who say anything which they might disagree with. In Texas, the absolute exemplification of “no government is going to tell us what to do,” they are trying to make every abortion illegal, and to encourage people to turn in and sue anyone whom they claim had any part in providing an abortion.

So how does one make sense of this psychologically? Well, “many people are stupid, and many are illogical, and most of them are both,” might cover most of it. Riverdaughter has very helpfully described something which I had not previously heard of as a scientifically named disorder, but which seems very accurate to me: Oppositional Defiance Disorder. I have not delved into the literature on it, but it would seem to connote a psychological need of some people to vehemently disagree with and fight against anyone or anything who even suggests what they should do. As if their entire identity rests on being able to scream “No!” at any statement which would imply that the person saying it knew more than the person who had ODD.

Does this come from having had cruel or authoritarian parents? Probably not in most cases, though it would explain it in those that did. What makes someone so absolutely intransigent about not accepting or following thoughts or suggestions or rules coming from someone else, or some body, no matter how knowledgeable or experienced or explanatory they might be? Does it even matter at this point? We are not talking about a few hundred members of a cult, even a dangerous one. We are looking at millions of Americans who behave as if being vaccinated is the worst thing that could happen to them, an obscene assault upon their body and psyche.

And yet, these people who continually use the word “freedom” to describe their position, continue to support people who want to tell everyone else what to do: to forbid them to have an abortion under any circumstances; to not read or learn about this or that book; to not say anything against the totalitarian leader; to not express any position contrary to their own.

Many of them threaten extreme violence against anyone who ever says anything against Trump, or any of their other authoritarian heroes. These were people who wanted to kill Whitmer and Pelosi and Pence, and all those many people whom they threaten on social media, including those who just want to help out by working at polling places. “Do what we want, or die,” is what these self-described fighters for freedom are saying over and over.

We all know of Nat Hentoff’s book, “Free Speech for Me, but Not for Thee.” Is it as simple as that? There are people on the Left who also fall into that hypocrisy. But what is going on in with the Right is far more than just inconsistency. In fact, one could view it as a variation of the attitudes of all those people in history who have supported tyranny; they always see it as a battle between “good” (the tyrant and his followers) and “evil” (anyone who does not submit to him). This can be portrayed in religious terms, or devotion to secular tyrants, or obedience to a cult leader. It is not new in that sense. But in America, where “freedom” is such a powerful emotional image, it seems to be some horrifying mutation, where “liberty” is actually offered as the rationale for fascism.

Historians and psychologists will have much to try to analyze. How did the modern birthplace of democracy get filled with so many people who hate democracy in its classic definition? Is it just a convenient shield to carry into battle for tyranny? Or are these people so psychologically twisted that they actually believe that wanting to kill everyone who disagrees with them is a manifestation of liberty? Is the liberty always only just for them?

Directly put, it seems that these millions, tens of millions, of people want no one to ever tell them what to do (unless it is the authoritarian calling them into battle under the false flag of freedom), but they want to tell everybody else what to do at every moment of their day. The medieval church did that; the potentates and tyrants and their subordinates did; but I don’t know any historical precedent for it being cloaked under the name of “freedom and liberty.” I doubt that this was carefully planned out, but it is certain that the people who have been employing it have rejoiced in how effective it is.

Note that there is this weird affinity for Russia and other totalitarian regimes, among these people who keep declaiming about freedom. This strange feat of psychological gymnastics is growing. Trump would bellow about being free and having rights, while praising the most oppressive and freedom-hating tyrants. “Slavery is Freedom”? Bannon is an absolute fascist who would have had a place in Nazi Germany, and who keeps talking about fighting for liberty.

It may be an insidious technique of demagogue tyrants. It may be a manifestation of how their minds are twisted. It is a strange thing to behold, even comparing it to history. Our side needs to do some stronger proselytizing about freedom, since the word has such a powerful resonance to most Americans.

Freedom to drive your car 150 mph. is actually tyranny over everybody else who might be in the way of your death weapon. Freedom to flaunt your guns is tyranny by terror. Freedom to go around with no vaccination and no mask takes away everyone else’s freedom. The freedom in America is meant to be collective freedom. Is a murderer exercising his freedom when he kills other people? Is the bully who kicks your child in the stomach simply expressing his free right to do what he wants?

Freedom is the right of all people to live in relative safety and comfort. No one will force you to get vaccinated, but the rest of the people who value that medical advice, have the right to protect themselves from you, by not letting you go to the workplace, or be on a plane or in a classroom. Freedom is not another word for extreme selfishness or egotism, where what you want is forced upon everyone else. That perversion of the concept of “freedom” would send us back to the “jungle,” Hobbes’ depiction of “the war of all against all.”