Our political identity helps determine how we understand words
This past Fourth of July I found myself meditating on the word “freedom.” Such activities are generally the realm of philosophers and academics. To most people, the meaning of “freedom” is just as obvious as “happiness” or “love.” It’s when you think about it that it gets complicated. That’s why nobody likes to talk to scholars at cocktail parties.
My mind wandered to an event I experienced almost twenty years ago. I was sitting at one of my daughter’s softball games when my son, likely about 6 or 7 years old at the time turned to me. He was excited — they were playing a song over the loudspeakers he knew well: “I’m proud to be an American” by country singer Lee Greenwood.
I’m not a particularly big country music fan, and neither is my 23-year old son now. In fact, I imagine he’ll be embarrassed to hear that I shared this memory with you. But back then, I enjoyed watching my young son happily sing along, swinging his arms to the music.
A line from the song stood out to me. “I’m proud to be an American because at least I know I’m free.” I wonder what Lee Greenwood would have responded if I asked him what exactly freedom means in the context of this song.
You see, Greenwood first released the song in 1984. I was in high school back then, and things were different. Back then, the idea of an African-American president seemed as absurd as the idea of gay marriage. Liberalism appeared to be on retreat as Reagan ran for re-election, appealing to evangelical conservatives and white southerners. In fact, Greenwood sang the song at that year’s Republican National Convention. I remember watching it on TV at home with my grandmother.
At the time, liberals felt that they had to apologize. We had been demonized for protesting the Vietnam War. The protests of 1960s liberals to end the war and protect civil rights were framed by conservatives as “anti-American.” In the wake of Watergate, Jimmy Carter’s failed presidency added to that impression when he complained about America’s crisis of confidence in what was tagged by conservatives as the “malaise speech,” even though Carter never used that word.
In a sense, conservatives were correct. Liberals like my mother-in-law were protesting America as it was at the time. They had a vision for a better America, one in which all children, regardless of ethnicity, gender or social background, would have an equal chance, without fear of being sent to fight in a pointless foreign war. To them, freedom was the ability to fight for their vision of a better America.
To conservatives, however, this freedom was a threat to their freedom. To them, freedom was the right to do whatever they and people like them wanted to do, no matter how that trampled upon the freedom of other people not like them. They wanted to be free to marry the people they wanted to without fear of seeing a same-sex or interracial married couple. They wanted to be free to worship as long as they didn’t have to associate with people who worshiped differently from them. They wanted their children to have the best schools, and wanted to make sure their children would only associate with other children just like them.
Even then, society was moving away from the restrictive society these conservatives envisioned.
In 1967, the Supreme Court decided Loving v. Virginia, which allowed people of different races to marry. This decision, by the way, became the basis for the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case which legalized gay marriage. A married couple’s right to legal birth control was only mandated in 1965 in Griswold v. Connecticut, which led to 1973’s Roe v. Wade.
These decisions really only reflected a society that was changing. In 1960, the birth control pill became readily available, likely helping usher in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As people moved to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s, families became less connected, as the movie Avalon details. The civil rights and feminist movements starting in the 1950s and 1960s started to bring non-white and female voices to the fore. Change was certainly afoot.
These changes made conservatives feel as if their “freedom” to only associate with people like themselves was under attack. As a result, they weaponized the word, coming to understand it not as a broad-based freedom for everyone, but an effort to protect the oppressive society they had enjoyed the benefits of.
Last January, Trump said “we are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” If we understand that quotation as a liberal understands “free,” it makes no sense. After all, how does offering free education or health care make people less free? But if we understand it from a conservative’s perspective, socialism implies a society in which people of color have equal opportunity to white people. If their idea of freedom is to be able to keep people of color invisible, then socialism is a threat to their freedom in that way.
In 1984 and Animal Farm, George Orwell described how totalitarian regimes change the meaning of words to suit their purposes. The irony is, however, that the changing usage of this word dates back to at least Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s and perhaps even Barry Goldwater in the 1960s. It was Goldwater, for example, who said that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Again, the “liberty” he was fighting for is the same as the “freedom” of later conservatives.
At any rate, this history demonstrates that Trump is not an aberration. His extremism, racism and misogyny are the inevitable result of the direction the Republican party has taken over the past fifty years. When journalists bemoan the fact that Trump has taken over the Republican party, they are missing the point that he just recognized what it really was.
At the same time, as we try to find a way to bridge the divides in our country, this realization makes me pessimistic. After all, how can we discuss issues if we can’t even agree on the meaning of a simple word?
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