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Michigan coronavirus protesters shout 'liberty!' — as right-wing rhetoric weaponizes freedom

What might happen if we were to understand liberty as a type of freedom that holds us accountable for the welfare of all Americans?
Image: Michigan Protests
Protesters rally at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on April 30, 2020.Paul Sancya / AP file

What is the difference between liberty and freedom in the eyes of many Americans?

Absolutely nothing.

And therein lies not only the problem driving the culture war around coronavirus shelter-in-place orders but also arguably the crux of all fronts of America's culture wars, from guns to religion to speech to — now, it seems — haircuts.

It is a slippage skillfully leveraged by conservatives.

"LIBERATE MICHIGAN! … LIBERATE MINNESOTA! … LIBERATE VIRGINIA," the fatuous President Donald Trump tweeted in April. "And save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!"

This week in Michigan, armed protesters are heeding the call. But the petulant rallying cries echo across the United States.

"Give me liberty or give me death!" — so goes the universal whine, lifted from Patrick Henry's Virginia Convention speech in 1775. Leaving aside the obvious reply, there is a greater, and certainly more delicious, irony in the protesters' call for liberty that inspires me, too, to reach for another popular quote from American culture: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Because, my fellow Americans, liberty does not mean what you think it means.

Liberty is a type of freedom defined and limited by civil society. It is not an unrestrained, unchecked license to do whatever one desires. Rather, liberty is a right constituted by the society — or, here, nation — one lives in.

This is perhaps why one of founding documents of this nation, the Declaration of Independence, does not once mention the word "freedom" but instead champions the "inalienable rights" of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

The preamble of the Constitution, too, mentions "liberty" only in the context of forming a more perfect union.

And yet, as the quarantine protests make clear, a popular yet factually and legally inaccurate sentiment has infected the minds of many Americans. To paraphrase, it goes something like this: "This is America, and I am free to do whatever I want!"

As the quarantine protests make clear, a popular yet factually and legally inaccurate sentiment has infected the minds of many Americans.

But, actually, no. You can't. Americans must abide by laws, regulations and codes, from their towns' garbage collection rules to the federal law declaring that 18 is the legal voting age. The general — indeed, patriotic — spirit is that collectively, as Americans, we will follow these laws to promote and ensure the "general welfare" of "the people" — all people — "of the United States."

"But," you may scoff, "the First Amendment!"

You mean, the First Amendment that in no way says that you can do whatever you want?

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." (Emphasis added by me.)

Without a doubt, the tension between liberty and freedom resides at the very foundation of this nation. It is a tension that, over time, has widened into an incredible and increasingly partisan chasm between "the good of the people" and "the good of the person."

The belief that personal freedom is more valuable than the common good factors heavily in right-wing logic. And it has, particularly in the 21st century, been the strategic linchpin of right-wing efforts to squash social and economic justice movements, particularly through race-baiting, xenophobic rhetoric. Such rhetoric, which we are seeing starting to creep into anti-quarantine protests, is designed to stoke the fear of oppression in white American society.

"Now give people back their FREEDOM!" tweeted the multihyphenate wannabe rapper and Mars colonizer Elon Musk. "Time to get your freedom back!" tweeted Trump fan girl and Fox News host Laura Ingraham in celebration of the Michigan protests.

It is not simply our understanding of "liberty" that is lacking. The rhetoric of freedom — and it is very specifically an American understanding — is code for ethical carelessness, as well as political and social dominance. "Freedom!" functions as the invincibility shield of white supremacists, who shout it like "fire" in a theater. And, like the chaos of a fire, it is tactically deployed by Republican and conservative leaders to incite civic unrest and the public's distrust of government.

In addition to the president's endless, flagrant tweets ("The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now"), in New Hampshire, two former state representatives — both Republicans — created a petition to "Reopen New Hampshire" in protest of the governor's shelter-in-place orders. Last month, Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama — also a Republican — ranted against the state's orders in the name of freedom.

And let's not forget that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who flew to Dallas to get his hair cut by a salon owner who was jailed for defying the state's quarantine orders. "Thank you to Shelley Luther and the team at Salon a la Mode for giving me my first haircut in 3 months & more importantly for standing up for liberty and common sense," he wrote on Twitter, adding that he "stand[s] with Shelley" and that she was "wrongly imprisoned."

One has to wonder why some Americans are so furiously opposed to shelter-in-place orders and why they believe that these orders, which are intended to protect and safeguard not only their health but also the health of all Americans, are so deeply oppressive.

In an article at The Atlantic, historian Ibram X. Kendi traces the rage of these protesters to what he calls the "slaveholder's psyche." The psyche is a mentality, even a way of living, represented by the fine yet significant distinction between the "freedom to" and the "freedom from," he explained. This is not simply a difference in preposition — it is one of power and privilege. There is a stunning difference between the freedom to enslave and the freedom from enslavement, the freedom to infect and the freedom from infection. "Some Americans want to live in a society that frees them, as individuals, by subjugating the community," Kendi observed. "That was the psyche of the slaveholder, who believed he was free only if the community was enslaved."

Data show that people of color are suffering higher rates of COVID-19 infection and mortality than white people. Data also show that pandemic protesters are largely right-wing white people. It does not take a genius to comprehend how the language of freedom and liberty has been weaponized against black and brown communities in America.

But language matters. Instead of indiscriminately crying "freedom!" or "liberty!" to defend one's assumed right to offend or harm, what might happen if we were to understand liberty as a freedom existing and expressed alongside the freedom of all Americans? Liberty as a type of freedom that holds us accountable for the welfare of the nation and all its people? Might we, then, form a more perfect union?