It’s a sad statement on modern affairs that the word “freedom” has been reduced to a generally meaningless term, thanks to the constant gaslighting by the right. Every rule, regulation, protocol that the right doesn’t like, doesn’t agree with their ideology or that hurts their feelings is trumped up as an attack on freedom. The right thrive on such conspiracies.
But while they press all the hot buttons to get their followers riled into a frenzy over perceived slights against alleged freedoms, you seldom hear the right speaking of responsibilities or obligations, unless it’s a call for funding and donations to their party or cause.
As Ralph Austin Bard (former US Assistant Secretary of the Navy) said in 1942 (emphasis added), “Freedom, like any other virtue, does not exist in a vacuum. It must be worked and practiced to exist at all. And like any other virtue, it imposes upon those who would have it the unpleasant tasks of discipline and sacrifice.” Bill Moyers (2008) said ‘Freedom is not license but responsibility.” Eleanor Roosevelt (1960) said, “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”
Canadian and American conservatives have been drifting (and often marching briskly) into American-style libertarian territory; an uber-rightwing, authoritarian ideology that promises people can live without government, laws, regulations, public ownership, or taxation. But they offer no viable alternative. All that matters to libertarians is profit; their religion is the prosperity gospel in which their god’s favour is expressed in the accumulation of personal wealth.*
Libertarians and their compatriots, the alt-right, believe private enterprises will maintain order, provide clean water, ensure safety, provide healthcare and education, maintain an army, and fill the potholes. Not for free, of course: it will still be a user-pay system, but the payments will be made to corporations and warlords rather than to elected governments. Libertarians would exchange open, democratic government providing public services to everyone for indentured servitude to oligarchs and corporations who do it for profit, providing services only to those who can afford them. Libertarians would do away with public ownership of everything and return to a feudal, warlord-run economy in which, of course, the rich are in control.
Basically, it’s nothing but a selfish, rightwing con game promoted by the rich and corporate interests to reduce or eliminate their taxes and operating regulations while convincing the middle and lower classes it’s a movement for their own freedom.
This is not freedom. The chaotic, feudalistic world of Mad Max is not a life to aspire to.
Because we all live in a society under the rule of a government, we have very few actual freedoms. We have many rights and privileges, however; all of which come with rules, regulations, restrictions, caveats, and controls. Societies are shared spaces and in order to avoid chaos and anarchy, those shared spaces have rules and laws, which work best when crafted to make them fair for everyone rather than only for elite groups or individuals.
Traditional codes of civil behaviour and politeness are not enough to maintain social order because they depend on people being basically good, honest, moral, and ethical. Such self-control never works simply because there will always be greedy, corrupt, violent, ambitious people who take advantage of others. Laws and regulations impose responsibilities to transcend self-interest and work for the greater good. That isn’t a loss of freedom.
Some rules may, of course, impinge on what selfish people who only think of their own interests, convenience, and desires may think of as a loss of personal freedom. But being inconvenienced by a law that benefits the majority is not a loss of freedom.
For example, laws that require wearing a seatbelt while driving were challenged by people demanding the freedom to be thrown through the windshield if they had an automobile accident. Legislators wisely decided that the proposed law was not actually an assault on freedom (except perhaps the freedom to be stupid), and passed them anyway.
The freedom to race along neighbourhood streets at high speed, while ignoring traffic signs and pedestrians, and driving over lawns and sidewalks is curtailled by society’s rules about how we must drive in such areas because in shared spaces we need rules that protect and secure everyone, not just a few would-be racers. Yet there are few, if any, protests demanding governments do away with traffic lights, end speed limits and remove restrictions on which side of the road you can drive on.
The freedom to smoke tobacco is heavily restricted in public and shared spaces like restaurants and stores. Ditto with the freedom to drink alcohol or do a wide range of legal, recreational drugs. Yet there are few, if any, protests demanding governments end the non-smoking or non-drinking mandates and allow consumption of drugs everywhere in all circumstances.
But the right is not actually defending freedom in their protests against laws and mandates: they are using Orwellian doublespeak: rightwing supporters are “free” only to challenge the rules that their leaders oppose or find inconvenient, not all rules. The right has a plethora of authoritarian rules about race, religion, sex, birth control, voting, immigration, reading, and reduced taxes for the rich that are not allowed to be questioned. Theirs is a hypocritical do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do ideology (much like that of our own mayor).
Regulations from others, however (especially from political opponents), are presented as a challenge that must be thwarted, attacked, protested, or ignored. For the right, freedom means nothing more than allowing every form of selfish, inconsiderate behaviour unless, of course, it threatens their own ideologies like censorship. The right will scream about assaults on free speech if someone opposes neo-nazi rallies, but will happily ban books that contradict their narratives. Free doesn’t mean free speech or a free press to the right; it only means free to believe what the right says is true or permitted. “All that is not mandatory is prohibited.”
Take another example: driving. We don’t have the freedom to drive. We are granted the right as long as we have a valid licence, insurance, a safe vehicle, we stay within the speed limits, we drive on the correct side of the road, we obey traffic signs and signals, we are sober when we drive, we wear seatbelts, we don’t use our mobiles to text, our cargo and passengers are safely stowed, our emissions are within acceptable standards, we don’t make too much noise, we pay for the fuel we use, we don’t park in the middle of a street, and we don’t run into people. Even if you have a licence to drive a car, you are not free to drive a truck, train, bus, or motorcycle without meeting other requirements.
You may own a house, but you are not free to do anything you want with it. There are building codes, property standards, noise bylaws, setbacks, fire and safety laws, and other regulations that define what we can do on our own property. In some condos or planned communities (like Reston, VA) the rules are much stricter and can even define what colour you can paint your dog house. Plus you have to pay taxes, utility fees, service fees, etc. to live anywhere. You are not free to stop paying what you owe.
You have a right to work, but no one is obligated to hire you. When you have a job, you are constrained by your employer’s rules and codes of conduct. Similarly, when you enter a place of business (including shops and restaurants), you have to abide by their rules as well as society’s (although the latter always takes precedence). There are no protests against the mandate that you have to pay for whatever you take from a business.
We have all sorts of privileges, like being able to use public facilities and parks, being able to shop, eat in restaurants, own pets, own books, watch TV; all of which come with rules that restrict so-called freedom. You do not have the freedom to walk into a shop naked; to defecate in a public park; to walk out of a store with something you didn’t pay for; to own dangerous animals or pets not vaccinated against rabies or unlicensed. Yes, you can do all those things but doing so is likely to get you arrested or fined (or both).
Terms like free speech and a free press are misleading; both come with obligations. You cannot, for example, freely spout or print lies, hate speech and racist propaganda in any civilized society where hatred is not tolerated (Fox “news” notwithstanding). The right, on the other hand, feels no obligation to restrain what they say or print, and easily disregard as inconvenient any requirement for truth, justice, or facts (for example, look at the tens of thousands of documented lies spouted by Donald Trump, the misinformation and disinformation spouted by rightwing podcaster Joe Rogan, of the claptrap being spouted by the organizers of the pro-pandemic truckers’ convoy).
You have very few actual freedoms that extend into the shared spaces. Those freedoms usually revolve around personal tastes and peccadillos that don’t interfere with others. No one is trying take these away from you. For example…
You are free to breathe (although I would suggest being in a truck convoy impinges significantly on that). Unless you are a prisoner or under house arrest, you are free to experience the weather. You are free to think or believe anything you want, although you are not free to impose your thoughts on others, and not always free to express them unrestrainedly outside your own home.
You are free to like Bruce Willis movies and dislike opera, to prefer the Rolling Stones over the Beatles, tea over coffee, and red over white wine (or vice versa). You are free to dance naked in your own house, at least until the neighbours see you and complain.
You are free to read what you choose (unless you live in a Repugnican-controlled state that bans books). You are free to put your compostable waste into the garbage bin, even though you really should put it into the green bin. You are free to sing in the shower, to buy whole wheat instead of all-grain bread, to spread chunky peanut butter on your toast instead of smooth, and to drink carbonated water instead of liquid-sugar soda pop. Or not. You have the freedom to name your children Spot and Rex, and name your dogs Bill and Sue. You have the freedom to get a tribal tattoo of a tribe you’ve never belonged to and likely never really existed outside the tattoo parlour.
In a larger context, you have freedom of religious belief, although the right would dearly like to limit that to their form of pseudo-Christian Talibangelism, and others might get shirty if you profess no religion whatsoever. And what you can do with any religious belief may be curtailled when it runs counter to public safety or welfare (religious exemptions to avoid vaccinations are codswallop).
You have the freedom to vote for the party of your choice (although not in a Repugnican-controlled state that quashes voting rights, especially for people of colour). You have the freedom to hold opinions and views that run counter to the government’s views, and you can even hold them when they run counter to science, facts, intelligence, or common sense (as every Fox “news” viewer and MAGA-hat-wearer proves).
But when you enter the shared spaces, when you go out among other members of society, when you interact with others or engage in business, you do so within a complex web of rules, regulations, responsibilities, and obligations that hold our society together. You are not free to do whatever you want in shared spaces. You have a responsibility to behave in a way that does not harm others.
Social media (an ironic term) is in some ways responsible for the breakdown of the notion that we all have responsibilities and obligations along with rights and privileges. Social media is intensely anti-social and most platforms allow unfiltered personal interaction that is virtual anarchy, with no constraints over the spread of misinformation and disinformation. An article in BigThink, titled “Is social media killing intellectual humility?” noted:
The Internet of Us becomes one big reinforcement mechanism, getting us all the information we are already biased to believe, and encouraging us to regard those in other bubbles as misinformed miscreants. We know it all—the internet tells us so. In other words, the internet encourages epistemic arrogance—the belief that one knows much more than one does.
The internet has precious few spaces where responsibilities and obligations matter, let alone are being enforced. The bigger spaces, like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok are mostly uncontrolled, unmoderated, free-for-alls where conspiracies, pseudoscience, and misinformation are treated with the same gravity as facts. Yet these are prisons compared to the QAnon and similar rightwing spaces, where every form of abuse, misinformation, disinformation, lie, hate speech, and treason is permitted. In those spaces the puerile who can scream the loudest rule.
And that is the swamp from which the alt-right participants who hijacked the so-called Freedom Convoy came. The convoy began as a protest in favour of selfishly prolonging the pandemic. It was never about “freedom” because 1) most of the vaccination mandates are provincial, not federal, so taking it to Ottawa was pointless, 2) it’s the USA that requires truckers to be vaccinated in order to cross the border, not the Canadian government, and 3) demanding the Senate and Governor General resign if they fail to obey orders has nothing to do with vaccine mandates. The protest was hijacked early on to push a right-wing agenda onto the government.
Besides, any protestors waving swastikas or US Confederate flags were never about freedom. Their abhorrent ideologies were always about violence, racism, slavery, white supremacy, and restricting freedoms, not granting them. If you tolerate their presence among you, you’re siding with neo-nazis and racists; you’re promoting hate, not fighting for freedom.**
Demanding an end to all COVID-19 mandates is not fighting for freedom either (except perhaps the freedom from responsibilities and obligations to others). It’s a demand to prolong the pandemic, a demand to let people get sick and die, a demand to ignore all the medical and scientific evidence about the virus and its prevention.
The organizers know the federal government has no say in provincial mandates and that Ottawa cannot act on them. The organizers are misleading their followers as to their main goal: to get free publicity and media attention for their alt-right ideology to help build their base. It’s a very Donald-Trump-ish strategy and it’s working: they’ve conned a lot of Canadians into thinking it is about freedom, and not a well-planned alt-right campaign to spread division and unrest (aka doing Putin’s work for him).***
We do have one freedom, however, that is worth fighting for: the freedom to help others. The freedom to help our family, our friends, and even our neighbours. Why, we can even help our community and our country! We have the freedom to help ensure the people who we care about, who matter to you, whose lives intersect ours are safe. The freedom to not cause harm to anyone. The freedom to do good for others without being conned or forced to do so, to help one another without requiring payment or coercion. And that is the one freedom the truckers and their handlers don’t seem to want.
Maybe because it smacks too closely of responsibility.
* Noam Chomsky said in an interview, in 1990 (emphasis added):
Libertarian in the United States has a meaning which is almost the opposite of what it has in the rest of the world traditionally. Here, libertarian means ultra right-wing capitalist. In the European tradition, libertarian meant socialist.
And in 2009, he said (emphasis added),
The weird offshoot of ultra-right individualist anarchism that is called “libertarian” here happens to amount to advocacy of perhaps the worst kind of imaginable tyranny, namely unaccountable private tyranny. If they want to call that “libertarian,” fine; after all, Stalin called his system “democratic.”
** Andrea Freedman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, is quoted as saying in 2022:
“The only way to get these toxic ideologies to crawl back under the rock they slipped out from is for all Canadians to roundly and unambiguously reject and condemn these symbols of hatred. The pernicious nature of antisemitism is that it morphs and becomes a convenient hook for all manner of grievance, real or imagined.”
*** Writing in the Western Standard this week, far-right columnist Linda Slobodian wrote:
If the truckers who converged on Ottawa last weekend must park there for months until the government carries out the will of the people, so be it.
The “will of the people” is not expressed by a minority, whether they are protestors or not. If it was, the Occupy Wall Street movement would have changed the economies of the world. The antiwar protests would have taken the USA out of Vietnam in the 1960s. The Take Back the Night protests would have stopped toxic male abuse of women. Anti-abortion protests could have reduced or eliminated women’s reproductive rights. All of these were much larger and more active over a longer period than a one-time, pro-pandemic truckers’ convoy. The will of the people gets expressed through elections, not violent, disruptive protests, and especially not those that tolerate participants flying racist flags. That, too, would not be “freedom.”