“And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”

– America the Beautiful

 

September 10, 2005.

The smell of Oscar Meyer bacon filled the air, calling my father and I inside after a morning playing catch out back. My grandfather, upon finishing watering his prize-winning hydrangeas, followed us in to steal some before the plate became empty. The three generations of Johnstone men — who might all have been slaves merely 150 years earlier — sat at the table before we piled into our rusted black Ford Expedition and took the scenic 45-minute drive to Ann Arbor. Though it was only 11 a.m., I still felt the energy in the 110,000 people of every race, religion and color who steadily filled the stadium. We might have been culturally and politically divided six days of the week, but today, this one Saturday afternoon, for this one moment, we were all on the same team. For the first time, I saw America, and it was beautiful.

We rose to put our hands over our hearts as the Star-Spangled Banner played.

***

I love this country with every fiber of my being. Now, this does not mean I love the petulant president or his sycophantic cult of personality — I do not. Similarly, it does not mean that I worship our slave-owning founding fathers — I do not. What this means is that I love the central thesis of this country: the principle on which we were founded. See, while most countries were founded on some ethnic or religious unity, we are unique in that the United States of America was founded on an idea … or really, a dream.

The essential theory of this country is that a free multicultural society could grow each and every day to have a more perfect union. At the core of this theory is the principle of freedom.

Freedom is an interesting word, and I’ll spare the Samuel Alito-esque pedantic dictionary definition because no technical definition is adequately universal. Freedom is a member of the rare chorus of polysemic words — like romance, hope and love — that are seemingly empty vessels to which people attach their own beliefs and aspirations. While many find this frustrating, I find it fascinating. The ever-evolving definition of this word tells a complex and uniquely beautiful story about this country, but our relationship with it provides a warning about the direction in which we are headed.

Including the First Amendment’s five freedoms that Amy Coney Barrett does not know, the word freedom is only used eight times in the Constitution. While that is shocking now, it makes a lot of sense considering that of all presidents who served full terms, our nation’s first two presidents used the word freedom the fewest times.

In fact, the word first came to national prominence in former President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union, where he outlined our four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. It is remarkable that, amid one of the darkest periods in our country’s history, we not only rallied around the flag, but we rallied around this one word that redefined the American experience. However, this was not the experience for all Americans. 

Segregation was rampant, especially in the military. Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. Black and Hispanic Americans lacked civil rights. Jewish Americans were still a vilified minority. Thus, we have to examine what FDR meant by freedom.

Much like the founding fathers, he meant freedom for white Anglo-Saxons and, sadly, this has been the prevailing narrative throughout American history. This exclusionary definition of freedom has toxified the word for many in our country, especially many liberal Democrats, which is part of the reason why many Republicans believe they have a monopoly over the principle. Thus, it has become something of a dog whistle, and this began with the master of dog whistles: Ronald Reagan.

Reagan, known as the great communicator — whose racist war on drugs imprisoned nearly six times more Black Americans than whites — used the word freedom more than any other president. However, noting that Reagan was an archconservative who ignored crises facing gays and was propelled to prominence on the back of a white backlash, his “freedom” is probably not mine. In examining this, it is critical to remember that all freedom comes at a price.

By freedom, Reagan meant limiting government to increase personal freedoms at the expense of poor people who depended on government services. He meant bringing religion into the public square to increase the “freedom” of Christians despite the imposition on other religions. He meant increasing defense spending to perpetuate capitalism across the world at the expense of the rights of South Americans who were living under brutal dictatorships. He meant increasing the presence of law enforcement to protect the freedom of white people at the expense of the lives of Black people.

Twenty years later, George W. Bush — who used the word “freedom” the third most frequently out of any American president — redefined the word to mean freedom from terrorists and other malign actors. However, this came at the expense of not only our personal freedoms (i.e. the Patriot Act) but also the freedom of millions of Iraqis whose country was invaded on a false premise.

While these facts are probably uncomfortable for those who support conservatives, it is important that we face them and accept any complicity: I think that this is the essential lesson of American history. For example, after the enslavement of millions of African-Americans, we fought a civil war, reckoned with the injustice, enfranchised their descendants and one of these descendants became president. That is not patting this country on the back; instead, it is a lesson in what we can do when we redress the grievances of those who were wronged. 

With that being said, Democrats need to stop playing rhetorical games by using words like fairness and equality instead of freedom. Former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton used the word freedom less than any president since FDR, preferring to lean toward collectivist themes in their speeches. While I appreciate the sentiment, this strategy is ineffective, as it could turn off rural people and many in the working class with American pride, and flies in the face of our core principles. 

Instead, to inspire everyday Americans, Democrats need to apply the rhetoric of Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy, which amplifies freedom and redefines the word. For liberal Democrats, freedom means the right to not only survive in this country but thrive. It means to give everyone the opportunity to succeed. Now, these may come at the expense of rich people having to pay their fair share in taxes or businesses having to abide by additional regulations, but that is still freedom. Our freedom just comes with a different price, and I believe that it is one people are willing to pay.

I love this country with every fiber of my being. I love it not only for what it is but for what it can be. Together, we can move forward united as one, and hopefully, tomorrow, we will. With that, please go out and vote for the candidates who will advance our freedom.

 

Keith Johnstone can be reached at keithja@umich.edu.

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