The year 2020 said recklessly, “Hold my beer!” on Day 1, and it’s only gone downhill from there. What a time it is to be alive.
On this solemn Memorial Day, Americans are being treated by 2020 to the biggest live morality play of freedom and its meanings since the Civil War. In a way, what we are being forced to think about is even more fundamental than the question of slavery, federalism, and the Union. Whether slavery is enforced – and make no mistake, institutional slavery must be enforced by government, or it cannot exist – is not quite as basic a question as what freedom is, and why it’s important.
Memorial Day is one day, and it should be dedicated to remembering our war dead. So there is a limit to what we have the time to ponder otherwise.
But the issues and questions are so insistent this year that it would be hollow and superficial to ignore them. We say that it is in service of America and all she means and holds dear that our men and women in arms have perished. In 2020, there is reason to ask, more urgently than before in the lifetime of anyone among us, what that really means.
I’d like to cut one small slice through this. With the coronavirus pandemic, we are seeing a remarkable juxtaposition of the two concepts of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” These concepts are often referred to, respectively, as negative freedom and positive freedom.
The same human activities can be at the center of both types of freedom simultaneously. Probably the best-known example comes from the very first freedom memorialized in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment starts out: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
That passage, right there, encapsulates freedom from and freedom to. Congress cannot compel us in the matter of religion (freedom from). Congress cannot impose prohibitions on the free exercise of religion (freedom to). That is as the Framers meant it, and that’s how we have understood it for more than 200 years.
It was only a very short list of freedoms and rights that the Framers thought needed to be enshrined in the Constitution. They said nothing about wearing face masks in public, for example. And although they undoubtedly understood the concept of avoiding risky behavior when there was an epidemic disease at large in the population, they didn’t address government’s powers in that regard in the Constitution, because they were writing it for the federal government and not for the states.
But does that mean that wearing face masks and actually attending church services are not matters of freedom? What makes them matters of freedom?
This is what makes them matters of freedom: proposing to have the government compel or prohibit us in regard to them.
There’s too little understanding today of life that goes beyond mandates and prohibitions levied by the government. But our Founders understood that such tools of government inherently and always affect our freedom. There’s no such thing as government not having an impact on freedom. There’s only limiting what government is allowed (or required) to do.
It is possible for government to not have an opinion on something, and to wield no sword over us as regards that thing. America’s Founders took that as axiomatic. It is possible for many of the people to have passionate opinions about something, and for the government to still wield no sword over us as regards that thing. The Founders also took that as axiomatic.
The year 2020 is revealing to us how many Americans no longer have the slightest idea that this is how the Founders saw it. The Founders’ view was that all democracies had collapsed in the past because they ended up creating governments with too many intrusive powers and interests to avoid civil strife. The more government seeks to regulate and control us, the more the people will disagree on ends and means, and fight among ourselves over them.
Only if government has a smaller charter can we avoid making everything in life about our disagreements with each other. That’s why the Founders gave us a constitution: to limit the charter of the federal government.
What 2020 is showing us is that, in terms of mindset, there are many people who are very fearful of both freedom from and freedom to. They can’t bear that others should make their own decisions about things like wearing masks and attending church. And it’s the atmosphere of regulation and control that matters to them, not logical consistency in the regulations. The same people will insist that churches or synagogues much be kept closed for business, while ignoring the people crammed into subway cars, visiting liquor stores, or shopping together in droves at Walmart.
Masks, meanwhile, apparently work in some venues (Home Depot) but not in others (stationary postures on the beach).
The sheer stupidity of the argument, as it is framed through pandemic policy points, doesn’t seem like what our forebears bled and died to endow us with.
But rather than leave you with a sour taste in your mouths, I want to take this where it needs to go. To be sure, America is seeing tremendous ugliness come out in 2020 (and it is not the fault of President Trump or any other one person).
We have people all but screaming “Burn the witch!” at someone who shows up to grocery shop without a mask. No consideration – none – makes it virtuous to shriek at and hound another person in this fashion.
— McAuley (@McauleyHolmes) May 25, 2020
These people don’t have an idea of freedom at all, nor any idea of “science.” Their only idea is fear.
We have people who insist on their freedom from wearing masks, too often by taunting other people. To suggest that they aren’t helping the cause of freedom this way is not to say they should be compelled by the government to wear masks.
But the straw man that it does mean that tends to take over the debate. It becomes an either-or proposition, often argued stupidly on both sides and impossible to find common ground on.
Then there are the people who very selectively want to see churches remain closed, thus denying others their freedom to (in this case, to exercise religion). An astonishing number of governors have this attitude.
As with the either-or mask proposition, the closed churches are too often argued in basically stupid terms. It may be safe enough to open the libraries, but no matter how well folks social-distance at church they’re still unsafe; or, conversely, social-distancing is meaningless bunk and churches should just be open for business, period – forget the common-sense precautions: masks, spread-out seating, temperature-taking for entry.
All of these things are unhelpful. It’s easy to see only these points of contention, and the ignoble taunting over them, and want to throw our hands up in despair.
But I submit to you this: that this moment is exactly what our honored dead gave their lives to leave us with – because we can see what’s happening, and we can make choices.
Never in history has a nation been as blessed as ours, to see the truth before us, not be deceived, and have the power of choice. Even those among us with little idea of freedom and little understanding know that what we are doing during this crisis is having a debate about freedom.
When freedom is in peril, there are always forces endeavoring to obscure that very point. The attempt is to convince us that this isn’t about our freedom; it’s about some crisis-specific issue, and freedom is either secondary or isn’t really in danger at all.
But when governors will open gyms and restaurants but not churches, we all know it’s about freedom. When mayors suffer thousands of people to ride cheek-by-jowl in trains every day but send the police to break up carefully-distanced classrooms in yeshivas, we all know it’s about freedom. When sheriffs arrest people – even masked people – for sitting still at the beach, but can’t arrest government officials for moving helpless old people into nursing homes that can’t take care of them properly, we all know it’s about freedom.
When the police are actually dispatched to prevent parents from working to put food on the table for their children, we all know it’s about freedom.
The ability to see, think these thoughts, have this debate, keep it up for debate and ensure it matters to our policies going forward – this is what our forebears died to give us. We may be wrong sometimes; we may be imprecise; we may be short-tempered, or crass with each other, or whining or intimidating or rude – but we are not deceived. We are not already defeated.
We can have hope because even people who can no longer define freedom well have a visceral sense of its importance. We can hope because even the people who don’t want freedom know this is about freedom.
In his 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields,” John McCrae wrote:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
McCrae wasn’t strictly writing about freedom, as we are debating it today in our inimitable American way. But he posed the question that has begged earnestly for an answer in recent years. Have we caught the torch from those failing hands, now turned to dust in Flanders Fields?
And in spite of an entire century devoted, just behind us, to breaking down our minds and spirits and turning us against freedom – insisting instead on a morality of resentment and false “victimhood” and fear and doubt – in spite of 100 years and five generations of that enterprise of horrific spiritual destruction, the answer is yes.
We have caught the torch. We are doing what our ancestors died to enable us to do. We know a fight for freedom when we see one. The price of life is not losing freedom; the price of life is using freedom.
We know freedom is less either-or than it is both-and – and that is a hard slog for the soul and spirit, and for wisdom and patience. But there is all the difference, in that distinction, between despair and the dead hand of the past, and hope and a future.
All honor to our noble dead for their sacrifice, and endless love to them, for they are ours and we theirs.
We have caught the torch from them. Now be ours to hold it high.