Recently a handsome young man stood, armed, next to Cliven Bundy, ready to use his gun to resist any law enforcement attempts to enforce the several judgments against Mr. Bundy for his refusal to pay the required fees for grqzing his cattle on federal property. When interviewed about why he was doing this, the man said, “I am protecting our freedom.”
I am sure that man is a basically decent person, and I know better than to require such a man to be much acquainted with philosophical considerations. But the man used a term, “freedom,” and if you use a word you generally intend it to have a meaning. If you don’t tell me what you mean by a given word, I have to figure it out from the context. When this man used the word “freedom”, he had a specific meaning in mind, and that meaning is fairly obvious. It is also intrinsically inimical to the meaning of the word “freedom” as suggested by the Declaration of Independence. The difference between the two meanings is a perfect illustration of what I see as the corruption of the American ideal that is taking place today.
The enspiriting core of the American ideal is the recognition that every human being has certain rights, and that these rights are indisputable and inviolable. That acknowledgement, that commitment to the intrinsic rights of all human beings, is by its nature the acceptance of my moral obligation to recognize the rights of every other human being . We are free, under such an ideal, not because we have no obligations to anyone, but precisely because we have an obligation to everyone. We are free because we are committed to a community in which each individual recognizes an obligation to each other individual, and, by committing myself to all those others, I receive in return the recognition of my own inalienable rights. Freedom, therefore, is a product of obligation, of my responsibility for every other human being. I am free precisely because I am obliged to all others.
The American ideal of freedom is radically opposed to, is the polar contrary of, the notion that the individual is isolated and without obligation to anyone or anything. That way of thinking, which is a cancer that has pervaded the entire history of Western culture, deserves a different name. It is not freedom. It is rather license. It is what one could call an “atomic” worldview, in which each individual is a self-contained and impenetrable atom, claiming its space by the assertion of its own power. In such a world there is no morality, no obligation to others, and the sole principle of relation to others is power. And, saddest of all, in such a world there is no such thing as moral obligation, and, therefore, no such thing as meaning or value at all.
That is what was so sad about watching those people gather around this sick, bigoted moral cipher, Cliven Bundy. He was dragging them all down to his perverse level. He was giving them only the illusion of meaning. He was inviting them to a world in which it is, as a great man once said, just a war of each human against the other, and the life of a human being was nasty, poor, solitary, brutish and short.
If that were only an isolated incident, just some crazy white man in the desert, It would scarcely warrant comment. What is frightening, because it is so indicative of the moral disease invading American thought and politics, is that people with the ear of the public actually endorsed this madness. A prime example is Sean Hannity, who holds himself out as a prophet of the radical right. He may, individually, be excused because he has rather consistently demonstrated a serious lack of intellect. Someone, however, is allowing him to pour his bile out into the community. Worse, the community is taking it in.
That, above all, is what scares me. Not only is this paradoxically amoral notion of “freedom” being bruited about, but we are listening without recoiling in horror. I fear, not the voice of such insanity, but the coming of the day when we will no longer recognize it as insanity.