It’s Not About You: Charting freedom’s descent into forgetfulness

Curtis White in Lapham’s Quarterly:

This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly bravely addresses the hotly contested word freedom. It is hotly contested in part because what the word means has never been clear, a fact that has not seemed to lessen its importance for us. It is a word in which we have invested enormous amounts of energy without producing much in the way of illumination. And yet freedom cannot be dismissed simply on semantic grounds—“just another word,” as Kris Kristofferson sang—because what is at its heart may very well answer the question “What does it mean to be human?”

In our own moment, progressive activists resist what they see as the opposite of freedom: slavery. Modern slavery takes the forms of work and debt, of legislation limiting a woman’s authority over her own body, of racist segregation, and of the prison-industrial complex, to name but a few examples. Our world is not so different from the one described by 
, a woman enslaved for fifty years in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, where “lawless domination sits enthroned, pouring bloody outrage and cruelty on all who dare to be free.”

The voice of economic privilege uses the idea of freedom in order to claim the right to deploy property to its own rich advantage. Making matters worse, others on the political right have weaponized freedom to advance a long list of grievances about what they believe has been wrongly taken from them. Some of these grievances are legitimate; neoliberalism has indeed denied many people the work that once gave them economic independence and a sense of self-worth. But that legitimate complaint has gotten tangled with terrible things, especially the perception of those on the right talking freedom that they have been “replaced” by racial minorities, liberated women, and the LGBTQ community. So they set out to “own the libs” and reclaim their lost freedoms through the public display of their resentments (aka rioting), with guns on their hips if they so choose (and they usually do). This is freedom as understood in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “War is peace. Slavery is freedom. Ignorance is strength.”

More here.