Politics in the land of the inalienably free
Boston in winter is the sort of cold that hurts your teeth. The wind gnaws the paint off house fronts and the snow entombs SUVs whole. If I had been in the harbour in December 1773 I would have tried to boil the tea instead.
My nose turns pink and peels on day two, and on day three I sit at a bus stop submerging my corpse-blue fingertips in a takeaway clam chowder. I want to be indignant about the weather to someone but the beaming gloveless keep telling me it’s a pretty mild winter this year. It’s not, but then this is the city that endured six smallpox outbreaks, an earthquake and a fire before it even thought about igniting the American Revolution. This is the city where people ran 26 miles in the 2013 Boston Marathon, watched a bomb go off at the finish line, and then kept running to Massachusetts General Hospital to give blood. This is not a city cowed by mere weather.
I’m here on Super Tuesday trying to do a report by absorption, where I’ll watch people at polling booths and catch snippets of conversation and stitch them together into a vignette of the 2016 election in the cradle of the revolution. But I only get one good snippet—a guy in a Red Sox jumper calls Melania Trump a vampire and does an impression that is half Slovenian and half Terminator: ‘ve vill make america great’—before it becomes apparent that I’m missing a large chunk of the political lexicon. I don’t speak American Freedom.
I know that freedom doesn’t become me. I don’t cope well with the removal of all limits to my individual powers because what I do with my individual powers is eat.
America is the global capital of eating for your freedom and not for your body and every time I reach for another fry I think, when in Rome!—trying not to remember that Romans invented the vomitorium. I eat doorstop-sized ginger molasses cookies with a thick gooey middle, a perfectly resistant outside crust and a fabulously geothermic distribution of heat. I eat razor-thin almond snaps that leave a traitorous forensic spatter of icing sugar all down my scarf. One midnight I eat a toasted sandwich stuffed with a mystery cheese that is the consistency of a plastic chopping board after an encounter with a hot frying pan and the sort of orange that usually signals ‘I am an extremely poisonous mushroom’. That last indulgence leaves me with such severe stomach cramps the next morning that I cannot straighten my back past 45 degrees. I tell a taxi driver I’m pregnant so he won’t be sour about driving me the hundred metres to the nearest train station. This is not the first time this frenzy has overcome me: when I was 15 I snuck away from a tour of the Liberty Bell to buy a whipped cream and m&m cookie the size of my upper torso and because nobody stopped me eating it all I ate it all, and immediately vomited.
I know this isn’t the sort of liberty Boston voters have in mind when they say they’re voting Republican to protect the second amendment even though they’ve never owned a gun, or the sort of liberty that motivates middle-aged men who probably microwave their dinners to stand in the biting Massachusetts cold wearing tri-cornered hats firing recitatives of weholdthesetruthstobeselfevident at schoolchildren. These people are thinking of something altogether less adolescent than a tourist vomiting rainbow into a bin. They’re thinking of a guiding principle at the heart of their humanity; the sort of underscoring value without which they think democracy fails. They’re thinking of the sort of liberty that it seems reasonable to die for—imagine the degree of ideological commitment required to think you’d die for freedom.
It all seems embarrassingly earnest to me, like the reverent hush around freedom couldn’t possibly be unironical. It is not. I learn this the hard way after I tell the waiter at Mr Bartley’s Burgers in Harvard Square that I think bald eagles look like they’re wearing little leg warmers and he deadpans me so hard it takes a full minute to realise he’s not acting. The burger he had just sold me was called The Taxachu$ett$.
Unblinking commitment to capital L Liberty is completely foreign to me. It just isn’t a staple of my political diet: the freedom card doesn’t have the same argument-stopping power in Australia that it does in America. Think about the differences between the gun regulation debate in the United States and the 1996 Australian equivalent. In Australia the relevant consideration was, will these laws stop mass shootings? Twenty years later when statistics show they did, it’s more or less game over. Our largest gun advocacy group these days is the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia, who in 50 press releases have never mentioned a ‘right’ or a ‘freedom’ in favour of gun ownership. Their headquarters are in Plumpton, and they have a cookbook. The freedom flag flies nowhere in the Australian gun debate. Even David Leyonhjelm, our most libertarian politician, makes his argument in terms of price tags and not rights: ‘the ongoing costs of the registration systems are unknown’, protests his website rather feebly.
But in the United States version of the same discussion, the question of outcome must bow to the question of liberty. The multibillion dollar lobbying force of the National Rifle Association is singularly focused on the right to bear arms, and once the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the second amendment gave individuals the right to carry guns, the gun debate became personal liberties all the way down. Sarah Palin got rapturous applause from lacquer-haired knee-high-booted Alaskans every time she said ‘law abiding citizens have the right to carry guns’; Trump gets an even bigger roar when he says ‘I’m a real big second amendment guy’, and meanwhile diners in New York have to put stickers on their doors that read ‘no phones, no guns’ as though this is as routine a request as ‘please leave umbrellas by the door’. I stopped to take a photo of one of these stickers and my incredulity must have showed because a passing homeless man laugh-roared, ‘Good luck taking either from an American, honey!’ John Howard got it right when he turned down an opportunity to comment on the 2015 San Bernadino shooting, telling Radio National: ‘The last thing I want to do is pretend the culture and the circumstances in America and Australia are the same. Gun possession is seen as being some kind of fundamental right of the individual.’
Some kind of fundamental right of the individual: Howard picks up the term in verbal tweezers like he’s working to even understand it. His is a nation that snickers at uncritical rights-worship: the best rights-invocation we manage is the collective columnist bleat of ‘free speech’ when someone gets censured for being stupid on air, but as Andrew Bolt’s lawyers found out, free speech is scissors here and the Racial Discrimination Act is rock. Meanwhile in America you can carry a sign to a soldier’s funeral claiming ‘god laughs’ at ‘fag soldiers’ and the Supreme Court will sanction you, because as Chief Justice Roberts put it, the individual right to free speech means governments ‘may not intervene in debate’.
Why the difference? Part of the explanation, I suspect, is in the way American foundational documents lean on what philosophers like to call the ‘natural’ view of rights: the view that man’s entitlements are born when he is, or as Jefferson put it, that ‘the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time’. The thought is that a person’s rights and freedoms spring from some fact of his humanity: his claim to liberty is made legitimate just by his being a man. The revolutionary appeal is obvious. If freedom is every man’s birthright, then the case against an occupying government writes itself. And so the natural view of rights became a binding theme in the literature of the revolution: in 1772 Samuel Adams described the ‘right to freedom’ as a ‘gift from God Almighty’ and cited the familiar triptych of life, liberty and property as ‘natural rights of the colonists as men’. Jefferson picked up the thread when he wrote in Rights of British America that ‘a free people claim their rights [from] the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate’, and the Declaration of Independence itself declares that men have powers ‘to which the Laws of Nature’s God entitle them’ and are ‘endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights’.
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By the end of my time in Boston the declaration was starting to feel like a dense rap that I knew by the rhythm of its consonants instead of the meaning of its terms, but it’s worth not letting its familiarity turn your ear deaf to its claims: the idea that freedom adheres to your humanity is a long way from uncontroversial. Jeremy Bentham thought that natural rights theories were ‘from beginning to end so much flat assertion: [laying] down as a fundamental and inviolable principle whatever is in dispute’, and for someone like Hobbes, who thought that before government ‘there can be no property and no dominion’, Adams’ natural right to property is close to incoherent—perhaps that’s why the founding fathers ultimately changed the ‘pursuit of property’ to the ‘pursuit of happiness’, though that would probably mystify Hobbes even more.
But coherent or otherwise, natural rights make for good battle cries. ‘Man is born free’ looks as good at the start of a treatise as it does on a revolutionary flag, because its promise is a reassuring one: no matter your government, no matter your circumstances, your humanity guarantees your rights. They are not the product of some institution or contract for which you ought to give thanks on bended knee: they are in a literal sense your birthright.
What is government supposed to do or be for a people born free? One view is that legitimate government involves the surrender of one’s natural rights; that to escape the hellscape of a lawless existence surrounded by equally powerful beings, we inhale, count to three and drop some freedoms in exchange for things like roads and a guarantee of not being knifed for food. Natural freedoms are on this view a sort of snakeskin we wriggle out of on our way to mutually civil existence.
This view had some supporters in Britain, where Algernon Sydney observed that ‘liberty being inconsistent with any government, we find no place in the world where the inhabitants do not enter into some kind of government to restrain it’, but across the Atlantic it found little sympathy. The liberty cake had been baked; what else was there to do but eat it? After all the inalienable-rights stuff in the declaration, the founders wrote that ‘to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men’: government is not formed in the surrender of birthrights, it is formed to protect and preserve them.
I think this foundational sense that rights pre-date and transcend government might explain the American fondness for the people and narratives of the wilderness, the national nostalgia for life beyond or before government where a man, his rights, and a horse or two can get on with things. Think of the way GQ Magazine anointed the reclusive woods-dweller Eustace Conway ‘the last American man’, or the near-universal adoption of styling historically favoured by agrarian workers: nowhere are flannel shirts and beards more ubiquitous than in Manhattan, where the only thing to work with your hands is a subway turnstile.
The idea of inalienable freedom is an appealing one, and the idea that you don’t have to give it up is better. The revolutionaries of the eighteenth century knew that and the advertisers of the twentieth century did: when 7/11 asked their in-house publicity department Stanford Agency to promote the 32-ounce soda cup called ‘The Big Gulp’, Stanford came back with the line ‘Big Gulp gives you another kind of freedom: freedom of choice’. That was 40 years ago. 7/11 has since introduced the Team Gulp, a container that holds a gallon (or 1490 calories) of soda, and when then mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to ban soft drink containers larger than 16 ounces he was sued by Coca-Cola, which claimed the legislation interfered with people’s right to choices. Bloomberg tweeted a plea to remember that ‘NYC’s sugary drink policy will help save lives’, but the rule was found unconstitutional and overturned. That night Jon Stewart slurped a giant Coke Zero on air to massive applause, and I remembered vomiting rainbow into a bin.
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Cut back to Super Tuesday in Massachusetts. Not so much Sundown as sunfade: at one point there was a cold-cracked brightness to the day and at the next point there wasn’t. A scone-shaped woman outside a church hall is wrestling with the wind to secure a ‘vote here’ sandwich board. Every time she manages to hold one end down a violent gust yanks the other end straight up, and the instant the wind dies the sandwich board snaps back on itself and her fingers, causing her to drop the whole ensemble and begin the process again. This goes on for what feels like hours, the woman dancing a reluctant tango around the sign as it folds and unfolds like a pair of cardboard jaws. Lots of us are watching, none of us help.
On the TV in the pub I am huddled in, CBS is running a story about a woman with kidney failure who found a donor after a year-long social media campaign. This is weird enough but what makes it doubly weird is that it’s the second such story I’ve seen in as many days: on a flying visit to the Harvard philosophy department I’d seen a sign from a man named Jeffrey Borenstein asking someone with O-type blood to give him a kidney, or at very least visit the website jeffreyneedsakidney.com to find out more. The sign said ‘You can save my life’ in big red letters, and it seemed clever to put it in an Ivy League philosophy common room. Even the formulation was genius: don’t tell a philosopher they should save a life, just point out that they can and stand back. At least that’s what I thought until I noticed that the nearby flyer offering ‘advice for teaching at non-elite schools after graduation’ had no flappy info-tabs left at the bottom, and Borenstein’s poster had all of its tabs. Lots of us were watching, none of us had helped.
Because you don’t have to help. When the individual self is the centre of your national story about rights—instead of, say, the power of contract or the mercy of others—the product is a national character of defiant solipsism. When your rights were endowed by your creator instead of forged in a handshake, there’s nobody to whom you owe a debt of gratitude and no contingent society to be thankful for. The individual is the primary actor and other people play no part in establishing your rights: even as Robinson Crusoe alone on an island you would still have a handful of coconuts and your rights to life, liberty and property. Other people and their freedoms move around you and occasionally you bump up against each other and take each other to court, but the basic freedom-having unit is one of complete and defiant individualism.
Perhaps this is why there seems something dementedly self-interested about those parts of the American right that stick most fervently to the god-given view of freedom. Nothing in a landscape of natural rights requires thinking in terms of debts or gratitude to others—or even thinking of them at all. Against this sort of backdrop, acts like the CBS kidney donor’s stand out as startlingly compassionate; it takes a hefty dose of self-discipline to look to others at all, much less to make their lives better at your expense, when the foundation of your polity is so literally self-centred.
Across Boston on Super Tuesday news rolled in that Trump had declared himself the presumptive nominee. His ascent has infuriated the GOP establishment and baffled commentators: where does this unqualified, inexperienced, orange-tinted buffoon find the audacity to think himself deserving of the nation’s highest office? And what makes his supporters so eager to hear that their freedom will be protected while simultaneously so eager to hear that others’ will be arbitrarily stripped? How do Trump or his supporters exist in the clanging cognitive dissonance of being owed and never owing? Perhaps the answer is more simple and patriotic than we might have thought: perhaps this is just the event horizon of certain truths held self-evident.