The idea of freedom is one often skewed, depending on where one happens to be born. Nowhere is this more evident than for those of us who are born in the United States. Here, the idea of what ‘freedom’ constitutes is buried in rhetoric and is seen as something to be earned, as opposed to a given ontological right. Militant and violent individualism paired with an extreme tie to the economy dictates what “the land of the free” will allow to continue in the realm of personal freedom.

Over the last two years, with COVID lockdowns and vaccine mandates, the idea of what personal freedom means and its bearing on our society have become further debated, with the holes built into this nation left glaring for all to see. Let’s look at what this means and where hopefully — though it’s unlikely — we will be able to patch up these holes.

American freedom doesn’t exist

From the outset of this country, for generations upon generations, the propagandized ideal of freedom in this country has been battered into us. There has been no escape from the continuing echoes of unjustified American exceptionalism. The self-touted freest country in the world only tops the (developed) world in maternal mortality rate and defense spending. While the second category is constantly, wrongly argued to be insurance for our ‘freedom’, the freedom we experience in this country leaves us ranked in 25th to 121st place in categories that matter (education, income inequality, peace).

The idea of American freedom exists only in the textbooks still being used in schools and in the train that is the mainstream media. Our staunch capitalist system is already built upon a foundation of racial and class inequality, to the point that if that inequality didn’t exist, neither would the system. When you consider the extreme rate at which we incarcerate people (and again, disproportionately for those from already subjugated groups) and the trickle-down effect of loss of personal freedoms for the remainder of life for those incarcerated, it is not hard to see why we rank so low amongst similarly developed countries.

When this system is employed in conjunction with its need for a dehumanizing lack of empathy, it is not difficult to see the lack of legitimate freedom. The entire idea of what this country determines ‘freedom’ is built around playing the game the way those above you deem it should be played and, should the chaos of life strike you down, it is up to you to fix it and play the game better.

In the “land of the free”, the only real freedom still left to half the country is the freedom to starve, go hungry, and die. So how then, in this land of freedom, has it become an argument on what constitutes an affront to personal freedom?

We mistake freedom for convenience

When it comes to striking down another human’s freedom (of choice, of religion, of life), many Americans deem it an ethical necessity. “You made a mistake, so you must pay,” they’ll cry, no matter how minimal or maximal the effect of the perceived wrongdoing. The feeling of individual superiority to the homeless, the addicts, and the ‘criminals’ allows most to dehumanize and wipe their hands clean of these ‘dregs of society’ — all whilst continuing to drink alcohol, maintain generational trauma, and perpetuate this horrific ideal. Unless the genetic and situational lottery is won, there exists a thin and tenuous gap separating these two factions, though it is not seen as such.

The dehumanizing of those deemed ethically wretched is necessary for the maintenance of this country in the way it has always been run. The second those who thought themselves ‘untouchable’ by the same ridiculous and inhumane standards they placed on those ‘below’ them were affected by the most miniscule of setbacks, for the good of society, the outcry began. Everything became about personal and bodily freedom. Lack of haircuts and access to restaurants and bars were the seeming back-breaking straw.

Those who would take away freedom of bodily choice from others began screaming about medical freedom, in one of the few developed countries in the world where that phrase doesn’t exist. The cacophony still hasn’t stopped. They are now, rightfully, treated and viewed the same way they view those below them for the first time, and they don’t like it. The lack of convenience to eat and drink and shop and work where they want, free of ridicule and shame and judgement destroyed them. They have always done what they wanted, with their illusion of freedom. The moment the illusion broke, they could not handle it, and the fits began.

So, what is freedom?

True freedom, as I see it (one person), does not and cannot exist fully in the world we live in today. Too much weight is placed on the individual need to ‘earn’ the right to live. Legal tender signifying nothing, but whose value is agreed upon, rules all. The very act of our birth was a revocation of freedom, and the perpetuation of life in society as it exists today further removes freedom, daily. We are forced to come to terms with how much of ourselves we are willing to relinquish at the simple opportunity to live — adequately for most, well for few.

Our freedom is determined by our economics, rather than the other way around, and for that, we are diminished. The idea of mere existence for its own sake is unthinkable. Why is it that we can’t explore interests always? Enjoy and create art always? Work in something that is meaningful and contribute to society without worry for survival?

How sweet it must be to toil under the illusion of prescribed freedom. How awful to be so easily swayed towards a sociopathic lack of empathy to ensure your illusion persists, rushing headlong into a blind future with an expiration date we are willfully expediting, insisting that a majority must suffer unjustly along the way. The only reason this supposed ideal persists is due to an agreement, an agreement most of us choose to make every day.

Every day we have that freedom of choice. Every day, our freedom is ours to reclaim. The potentiality is there; isn’t it past time we acted on it?

Marcel Ettesvold is a writer and thinker from the Tri-Cities. Read more on his blog: Absurdist Rambling: A Space for Philosophical Nonsense