Liberty is out, and freedom is in. Less than a year ago, President Bush said in his second inaugural address, “We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom … We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind.” The word “freedom” abounds outside of just rhetoric; there is the U.S.A. Freedom Corps, which allows one to volunteer through the federal government, and the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan organization devoted to free speech and free press. Pope Benedict called for worldwide religious freedom this past Monday — the same day India’s Dish TV released the Freedom Package, which offers 40 channels without a subscription fee. We also can’t forget Freedom fries, and the Francophobe’s favorite, the Freedom kiss.
When the word “freedom” simultaneously describes a way to cut and fry potatoes and the basis of our president’s foreign policy initiative, its meaning starts to dissolve. Veterans remind us that freedom isn’t free; in India, however, it comes with 40 channels and costs 2,690 rupees. As soldiers in Afghanistan fight for the fourth year in Operation Enduring Freedom, there is danger that the word “freedom” has become little more than a platitude. We do have freedom, or liberty, or whatever word describes our ability to do almost anything we want as long as we aren’t bothering others. But in the process of our continual pat on the back about how free we are, we forget to look elsewhere.
In the summer of 2004, I was in Oaxaca, Mexico. The Oaxacan indigenous population was protesting in front of the state capital building, and had built a fence in front of the entrance of the building. For weeks, the Oaxacan capital was inaccessible. Thinking of the history of Latin-American repression, I wondered why these protesters were allowed to do this. After all, they were directly affiliated with the Zapatistas, who some Mexicans regard as terrorists. Yet here in the United States, when marriage-equality activists attempted to protest on the steps of the Massachusetts State House, they were arrested, no questions asked. Baffled, I asked how the authorities could allow a shutdown of a Mexican state capital. With a roll of eyes, a Mexican told me that the workers and governor simply went in the back door.
Hearing this, my father asked if Mexicans better understood basic rights than Americans. We, after all, have allowed simple forms of peaceful expression, like the protest in Boston, to be halted. Even some college campuses are cordoning off free speech zones, which seems to naturally relegate the rest of the campus to a “no free speech” zone. The village squares of yesterday are the malls of today, and malls are off-limits to protest. Even as we parrot the word “freedom” in every context imaginable, it seems that some Americans do not treasure even basic freedoms as much as they claim.
As college students, we know that in some respects, this is a familiar problem. Most of us are under 21. We can join the military, vote, be convicted of a capital crime and even serve in most elected offices, but we cannot buy alcohol. There are 404 soldiers who have died in Iraq, but would have been thrown out of most U.S. bars for being underage. Around the world, people laugh and say, “the land of the free, except when you are under 21.” It would be equally ludicrous to legally restrict access of those over 85 to rope and firearms, just because Americans 85 and older have the highest suicide rate. The disparity between the age at which one becomes a citizen and the age at which one can purchase alcohol may not be a solely American custom, but it certainly presents questions about the nature of freedom in this country.
Of course, something as petty as the right to buy alcohol is not the best determinant of freedom; the ability of the government to incarcerate its citizens is. The United States not only has the most prisoners in the world, but it has the highest rate of incarceration. A good rule of thumb when comparing prison sentences with other Western countries is the rule of 10: sentences here are generally 10 times as long. One in 37 Americans has served time; for black males, it is as high as one in three. Is this a product of the ballyhooed freedom?
This is not to say that banning alcohol possession for those under 21 does not have its merits. And crime rates often decrease as the number of prisoners increases. Still, the near-constant references to American freedom have gone consistently unquestioned. The word appears in the Constitution for a reason, and it does not deserve to be a platitude.
Eric Purington is a freshman in Morse College.