Letting freedom ... freedom ... freedom ... ring

America has always had a complicated relationship with freedom. The comments in 1954 of Howard Mumford Jones, American intellectual, critic, and professor, are eerily prescient in 2020:

“While it is true that we in this nation remain free to be idiotic, it does not necessarily follow that we must be idiotic in order to be free!”

On one level, we have FDR’s State of the Union Address in 1941 outlining the Four Freedoms — Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear. At the time, most people considered these quintessential American values. Today, many ask: Freedom for who? Freedom from what?

Our embrace of independence and individualism has been a hallmark of our national identity that has often confounded the rest of the world, friend and foe alike. At its best, this self-identification as exceptional, can-do people has fueled an entrepreneurial spirit resulting in technological leadership that is usually lacking in countries more prone to lockstep groupthink. During times of crisis, this has positioned America as the entity that must be heard from before any definitive action is taken.

Less endearing is when this morphs into an entitled attitude of national swagger, particularly when it seeps into everyday life. Attending the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, I witnessed this first hand. Inevitably, as we lined up for an event, the only people cutting in line, going in the “out” door, attempting to scale the stairs marked “no entry”, were … wait for it … Americans. A national tragedy? No. A poor reflection on us? Yes.

The problem seems to be that a recipe that calls for both freedom and responsibility can be problematic. Temperature variations and poor timing can really throw things off. Try adding a dash of common courtesy, and sometimes it just boils over into an inedible mess.

Perhaps another Howard Mumford Jones quote can add some insight into why we continue to fail to find the right balance between freedom and responsibility. “Ours is the age which is proud of machines that think and suspicious of men who try to.”

The words of a man who died 40 years ago. “Ours is the age …,” I’d say we’ve hardly aged at all!


M. A. Duca is a resident of Twin Lakes narrowly focused on everyday life.

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