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What Is Freedom, Anyway?

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Let me tell you a story.

My father grew up in a small coal-mining town in Appalachia. When he was around 10 years old, he knew a man who was a sign-painter. I'll call him Earl.

One day Earl decided to run for Congress. He made a sign that displayed his campaign message and mounted it on the side of his black Ford Model A for all to see. The sign read: "EQUAL RIGHTS FOR WHITES."

Think about that. This was Appalachia in the early 1950s. Blacks had few if any rights. Whites had all the rights. And here was some white guy driving around with a sign demanding equal rights.

For him, freedom was a zero-sum game. More freedom and more rights for you meant less freedom and fewer rights for me.

That got me thinking: What is freedom, anyway?

There are those who think that freedom is the ability to load a semiautomatic pistol with a 33-round magazine.

Suppose that were true. What would that tell us about freedom?

I think it would tell us that freedom is the ability to kill a lot of people without re-loading. That's not a very inspiring definition of freedom, at least for me.

Others think that freedom is the right to exploit your workers by not giving them decent protections or benefits, like access to health care. Again, not the most inspiring definition.

But what if freedom was fulfilling your natural potential to the greatest extent possible? A lot of radical hippies have played with this idea.

After all, everybody has potential. Even the weakest and the most vulnerable among us have something to offer, if we just help them find it.

There are lots of inspiring stories in this regard. But I wonder about the stories we don't hear about.

I'm talking about people who, God forbid, make mistakes or get really unlucky. Maybe they're born in a poor neighborhood or into a fractured and violent family. Maybe they have a child and drop out of school. Maybe they do some time and end up stuck in a minimum wage job and need food stamps to feed their kids.

True, someone truly exceptional could rise above it all. But it's hard to see how most people could achieve their potential in a situation like that.

I tend to believe that if you're going to have the courage to find out what you can really do, you should be able to take a few things for granted. For example, you should know that no matter the risks you take -- like founding a business, writing a novel or starting a charity -- you'll still have a meal on your table, a roof over your head and a doctor you can visit, even if everything goes to pieces.

In particular, you'll have the option to go school for education or back to school for retraining -- no matter if you have no money, several kids, or even a non-felony and non-violent record. And you should be able to do it without burying yourself under a mountain of debt.

I know -- what about personal responsibility? But a couple of mistakes shouldn't ruin your life. And if you don't have a rich family or a community to back you up, then yeah, you might have to get a little help from the government.

Isn't this just sort of obvious? I mean... umph, er... eh?

Maybe it's not obvious. But it's civilized -- the sort of thing you'd expect in a modern, industrialized and forward-looking country.

It's not even new. This is old school. Back in the 1950s -- when Earl was driving around town with his sign -- both parties generally accepted a progressive New Deal paradigm intended to help normal citizens fulfill their potential.

One raving liberal made this clear. "I have just one purpose," he said once. "... and that is to build up a strong progressive Republican Party in this country." That guy was Eisenhower.

What happened? How did 'freedom' go from being all you can be to carrying an assault rifle into Chipotle?

This brings us back to Earl.

You may think that people like him are now few and far between. I'm not so sure. Earl wasn't an outlier. Back in the early '50s, he was an omen that smart political spin-masters could use fear and hatred to pry apart the body politic.

Mark Twain had this all figured out over a hundred years ago. Go back and read Huckleberry Finn sometime. Finn's father is a drunkard, a bully and a bigot. He resents Huck's ability to read, gets drunk and beats him up. (I quote him below, so get ready for the N-word.)

In a rare moment of lucidity, he goes on a long political rant. "Call this a govment!" he growls. "Oh yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio... They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages... They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to?"

Huck's father hated the government because it allowed somebody black to vote. For him, freedom was exclusive. If others got rights, his were less meaningful.

Sounds familiar? It should.

"Heaven help the God-fearing, law-abiding, Caucasian, middle class, Protestant, or -- even worse -- Evangelical Christian, Midwest, or Southern, or -- even worse -- rural, apparently straight, or -- even worse -- admittedly heterosexual, gun-owning, or -- even worse -- male working stiff, because not only don't you count, you're a downright obstacle to social progress... That's how cultural war works. And you are losing."

So did Charlton Heston sum up the concept of zero-sum freedom. Gays can be accepted, even married? Your straight marriage must be less special. Illegal child immigrants can be citizens? Suddenly your citizenship feels almost worthless.

Since the start of the civil rights movement, very devious people have figured out how to make these seething resentments work for them. Angry voices on talk radio. Screaming man-babies on cable news.

It's the idea that if somebody different from you is getting their rights then yours are being taken away. And the govment's in on it.

So what is freedom today?

I like to think that somewhere in this mess, there's still the idea that people should achieve their natural potential. That could include -- oh, I don't know -- a grant for adult education or re-training from time to time.

But mainly, freedom today is the ability of amoral blowhards to feed the fears of resentful people and make millions doing it. It's politicians using ignorance and anger to gain and maintain power.

This is not a great way to build a great future for a great country.

That's our right, I suppose.

That's our freedom.