The Constraints of Freedom

I went back and forth for the title of this blog piece. Should it be the constraints “of” or “on” freedom? Because, I am saying both… 

Emma Goldman once said that, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Decades later another “fellow traveler” of anarchism, Noam Chomsky, said “Freedom without opportunity is a devil’s gift.”
It’s hard not to find a lot of truth in that. Unless you are chained to your freedoms you can’t miss it. We are free but we lack the opportunity to take full advantage of it. And as Chomsky later went on to say, that is criminal. We are constrained by our lives. Not the lives we make for ourselves. But the lives we are forced to accept out of circumstance.
Bills, bills, bills, and more bills. Work, work, work, and more work – or for many, not enough. When your life, like most of us, is centered on staying afloat of debt, you find you are hesitant to use your freedom. The truth is that freedom is a liability for us in the lower classes – the downtrodden, and the dispossessed.
Sure, I am free to speak my mind and seek grievances against my oppressors. I have these freedoms per our constitution. But am I really free to take off work and risk arrest – will my debt be understanding and accommodating? No, not really. I limit or sacrifice my convictions to keep from getting an evictions notice.
Elsewhere, others and I have talked about what freedom is. The American sociologist, C Wright Mills, put it this way:
Freedom is not merely the opportunity to do as one pleases; neither is it merely the opportunity to choose between set alternatives. Freedom is, first of all, the chance to formulate the available choices, to argue over them — and then, the opportunity to choose.
Many of us on the “participatory” left would add that the formulating and choosing should often be done in conjunction with others affected by the decisions.
But there is another dynamic to freedom. Even in Stalinist Russia everyone was free to agree with “Uncle Joe.” No Russian was thrown into oblivion for toting the party line. The real test of freedom comes from challenging power.
And that’s what Emma was getting at too. If voting was really aimed at challenging power then power would make it illegal. The rock band, Metallica, has this song from their … And Justice for All album called “Eye of the Beholder” in which James Hetfield says, “you can do it your own way if it’s done just how I say.”
Now it isn’t easy to stand up for truth and for justice. Sometimes it means being frustrated. When you tell the truth and take a stand, sometimes it means that you will walk the streets with a burdened heart. Sometimes it means losing a job…means being abused and scorned. It may mean having a seven, eight year old child asking a daddy, "Why do you have to go to jail so much?" And I’ve long since learned that to be a follower to the Jesus Christ means taking up the cross. And my bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter. Before the crown we wear, there is the cross that we must bear. Let us bear it–bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and bear it for peace. Let us go out this morning with that determination.
Those words above are from a speech Martin Luther King Jr., gave about a year before being assassinated. It was on why he was opposed to the war in Vietnam. Even atheists like me find tremendous respect and agreement in these words. I don’t have to believe in his religion to get the point.
In all of the oppressions that we face; from the wars on foreign lands to the sexist wars in our homes to the destruction of the natural world and the horrendous costs being afflicted, those of us who have taken that first step into dissent are daily coming to terms with the reality that there are consequences of our actions. If we sit by and do nothing as we walk off the cliff we are assured the immediate safety and security of following the herd. But if we break away and try to change trajectories we risk being ostracized, ridiculed, fired, persecuted, marginalized or worse: disappeared (this is more likely if you happen to live in a country we are liberating or democratizing).
That’s often been the reality of life: to get anywhere you got to struggle against opposing forces, whether it’s gravity or the Whitehouse. The right thing to do is, more often than not, the hardest thing to do. That is what King was getting at. He used Jesus as a parable. Even for unbeliefables like me we can’t deny that if redemption is what we seek then crosses are what we must bear.

Leave a comment