On ‘freedom’

Conservatives don’t all speak of ‘freedom,’ but when they do, the hairs on the back of your neck should stand on end, fully erect.

As I have studied conservatism, notably for my dissertation,[1] I have noticed that capitalist libertarians and neoliberals mean by by the word that they should be ‘free’ to exploit workers and the environment for personal gain, externalizing the associated costs, and thus burdening society at large with the costs they incur but should not have to pay for. Environmental pollution, extraction, and other degradation all take a toll on all life on earth; low wages and poor working conditions ultimately depend on state-subsidized social safety nets: Capitalists profit but object when presented with the cost. Capitalist libertarians and neoliberals will call any suggestion that they should reimburse the rest of humanity for those costs a “job killer.”

And so, when I have spoken of ‘freedom,’ I have warned people to ask, for whom, to what, to whom? These are critical questions, because freedom is nearly always constrained: Somewhere I saw an expression that “My freedom to swing my fist ends at your jaw.” Freedom of speech is generally understood not to include yelling “Fire!” at a crowded theater. There are always limits on freedom and when conservatives invoke the word, they are objecting to those limits.

We have seen this recently with Donald Trump’s supporters in ‘boat parades:’ Speaking of a neighbor’s capsized boat, which had been docked in River Falls, Wisconsin, at the time, Keith Smith said, “Boaters all know they’re responsible for their waves, but nobody cared. They just kept going and going and hooting and hollering.”[2]

Thus we see that authoritarian populist ‘freedom’ is that to be obnoxious, even to threaten or even enact violence. The “hooting and hollering” that Smith spoke of is a hallmark. The heroes in the Dukes of Hazzard hooted and hollered as they lept their car, the “General Robert E. Lee,” emblazened with a Confederate flag on its hood, over various obstacles recklessly to escape a corrupt sheriff, whose jurisdiction conveniently ended at a county line and whose cars were, conveniently, not so capable. It is generally the sound of kids being reckless. Authoritarian populists never grow up, as they drive their monster pickup trucks[3] recklessly and are outraged when fellow drivers don’t also drive recklessly or don’t get out of their way. They relish carrying weapons that are useful only in mass killing in situations that demand precisely the opposite, asserting their “second amendment” rights.[4]

“Second amendment” rights blend into white supremacism, and thus paleoconservatism, as well, as we saw when Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf allowed gun stores to open (under some conditions) even during a lockdown meant to curtail a pandemic:

“The right and ability to protect yourself and your family, particularly in times of crisis, is the very definition of ‘life-sustaining’ and unquestionably protected by both the Second Amendment and the state’s constitution,” said Adam Kraut, the [Firearms Policy Coalition’s] director of legal strategy.[5]

It is increasingly apparent that this gun nuttery is directed against Blacks in particular and blends with support for police ‘freedom’ (from even the most minimal accountability[6]) to do what they want, even when that includes killing people, especially and disproportionately Blacks.[7] ‘Freedom’ here implies a freedom to lynch Blacks or to launch a race war against them and, as it “back[s] the Blue,” it gains the support of neoconservatives, who are strenuous in their support for so-called ‘law and order.’[8]

Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson, writing for the New York Times, observed that

When religious nationalists invoke “religious freedom,” it is typically code for religious privilege. The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.

This form of “religious liberty” seeks to foment the sense of persecution and paranoia of a collection of conservative religious groups that see themselves as on the cusp of losing their rightful position of dominance over American culture. It always singles out groups that can be blamed for society’s ills, and that may be subject to state-sanctioned discrimination and belittlement — L.G.B.T. Americans, secularists and Muslims are the favored targets, but others are available. The purpose of this “religious liberty” rhetoric is not just to secure a place of privilege, but also to justify public funding for the right kind of religion.[9]

In general, we may understand of evangelical Protestants that proselytizing is central to their expression of faith.[10] Hence questions of school prayer, for example, where social conservatives seek to impose their own faith upon others and protest loudly that their “religious freedom” is being curtailed when government is properly secular.

I do not so often hear the word ‘freedom’ deployed by functionalist conservatives or traditionalist conservatives—these are the blatantly and unapologetically authoritarian tendencies of conservatism. But when I hear the word, I ask, for whom, to do what, to whom? Because it almost always means oppression or exploitation for somebody.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  2. [2]Keith Smith, quoted in Matt Stieb, “Boats Keep Sinking at the Trump Boat Parades,” New York, September 7, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/09/boats-keep-sinking-and-capsizing-at-the-trump-boat-parades.html
  3. [3]Monster pickup trucks—I am inclined to call them ‘testosterone trucks’—seem to be preferred vehicles for Trumpsters. See, for example, Hollie Silverman and Alta Spells, “1 person is dead after a shooting during protests in downtown Portland,” CNN, August 30, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/30/us/portland-protest-fatal-shooting/index.html
  4. [4]Their interpretation of the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution ignores Article I, Section 8, which renders the word ‘militia’ in terms that seem much more like the National Guard than of a bunch of white supremacists playing war games with deadly weapons.
  5. [5]Brian C. Rittmeyer, “Wolf allows gun stores to reopen on limited basis during coronavirus shutdown,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 25, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/regional/wolf-allows-gun-stores-to-reopen-on-limited-basis-during-coronavirus-shutdown/
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Time to take the guns away,” Not Housebroken, January 6, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/2015/01/04/time-to-take-the-guns-away/
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Donald Trump’s ‘brown shirts,’” Not Housebroken, September 12, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/30/donald-trumps-brown-shirts/
  8. [8]See David Benfell, “On the pretense of ‘law and order,’” Not Housebroken, September 11, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/11/on-the-pretense-of-law-and-order/
  9. [9]Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson, “Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to Hell,” New York Times, December 29, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/29/opinion/william-barr-trump.html
  10. [10]Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “After Trump and Moore, some evangelicals are finding their own label too toxic to use,” Washington Post, December 14, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/after-trump-and-moore-some-evangelicals-are-finding-their-own-label-too-toxic-to-use/2017/12/14/b034034c-e020-11e7-89e8-edec16379010_story.html

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