America, Do You Want Fries With That?
Cast your mind back to 2003 when the neo-conservative hawks in
George W. Bush’s government had their way and started yet another
bloody military excursion in to the Middle East. This time Iraq.
Washington tried its best to cobble together a coalition of other
countries in a far from convincing effort to show some kind of
international consensus for the war. France, a considerable
European military power, declined to join Washington’s coalition. Cue
much gnashing of hawkish teeth and, naturally, the renaming of
“French fries” as “Freedom fries” by way of indignation that the
French had the temerity not to be on the side of “freedom.”
Of course, the very word “freedom” is a big deal in the American
political psyche. And while freedom is of course a very big deal, it’s
worthwhile looking at the American interpretation of it compared to
other Western countries. They are not as similar as you may initially
The American Revolution was very much a product of its time.
Nascent capitalism, with an emphasis on white enfranchised elites
having the freedom to make money and own property (including
slaves as human possessions) was in the ascendancy. This was being
free in the “freedom to” sense of the word. Freedom to make
money, own a slave or a gun, or both, and so on. That only
accelerated in the nineteenth century with more and more emphasis
on a rugged individualism that had scant regard for those who could
not keep up with the pack. A particularly money-focused American
version of Social Darwinism.
Non-American Western freedom, especially so after the global
trauma of World War Two, has a significantly different take. The
likes of Western Europe, Canada, Australia and others put more
emphasis on “freedom from.” That is to say, freedom from disease
(universal health care), freedom from poverty (robust societal and
economic safety nets) and freedom from ignorance (free or low-cost
There are undoubtedly some shared freedoms between the US and
the rest of the Western world, such as a (supposed) commitment to
international law and democracy. But even the commitment to
democracy, the hallmark system of government when it comes to
individual freedom, is highly questionable when it comes to the US.
Not only in the shape of Donald Trump’s disastrous four years of
attempted authoritarian rule, culminating in the Capitol being
stormed in an attempted insurrection by his deranged, hoodwinked
supporters, but also when it comes to socio-economic justice and
Non-white Americans continue to be last in line for any freedom.
Despite a Civil War, a civil rights movement and any number of
initiatives to supposedly eradicate discrimination, police brutality,
mass incarceration and hatred, “freedom to” means very little when
you don’t have freedom from that list of poisonous injustices?
What difference does it make if you have a Constitutional freedom
of speech, but when you exercise that at say a BLM march or if
Kaepernick takes a knee, your legitimate voice of protest is drowned
out by a cacophony of racist, white-privilege shout-you-downs?
Why, as a non-white American, should you take any comfort in having
the freedom to own a firearm, but all that will do is make it more
likely to be gunned down by law enforcement? (The harrowing
reality that as non-white American, you can still be unlawfully killed
by law enforcement without a firearm).
Having the freedom to vote means nothing if you have been
gerrymandered, disenfranchised or physically turned away when
going to vote. Millions of non-white Americans have endured that
and will continue to do so.
The American interpretation of freedom is then a highly suspect
one. It remains locked into a late-eighteenth century version of it.
A version that was constructed exclusively and explicitly for the
benefit of white Americans above anyone else – a mind-set that
overwhelmingly prevails to this day.
Freedom is only freedom if the rules apply to everyone and not just
some. That’s whether it’s freedom to or freedom from. Too many
predominantly white Americans like to throw their liberty around as
if they and they and they alone in the world have freedom. That
American “freedom to” is though out of date, unfit for purpose and
having festered so long in the political psyche and body-politic of
the US, has become down-right deadly. Be that from the thousands
of gun deaths a year through to systemic racism that results in
continuing police brutality against predominantly African-Americans.
Those Freedom Fries sure come with a particularly bitter and hard
to swallow taste to them.
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