"Nationwide, we're seeing a relentless and wide-ranging assault on our fundamental freedoms" reads the opening line of a survey I recently received in the mail from a liberal organization that defends individual rights and freedoms. The accompanying letter began with the even more ominous "They are coming for our fundamental freedoms--and they're playing for keeps.
After I read this, I quickly realized that conservatives say exactly the same thing.
Do we have more or less freedom today than years ago? That's an open question that could be debated endlessly. There was a time when many of us couldn't vote because of our skin color or gender; and some states now have laws designed to make it harder for people to vote. We can now marry someone of any gender identity, but we can't smoke in a public building. We can carry a gun into a supermarket, but we can't carry a bottle of water onto an airplane. You can probably come up with many other examples of laws that grant us more freedom than we used to have, and laws that restrict our freedom more than they used to. How can we come to a conclusion about the overall trajectory of our freedom? Do we try to count all of the instances and compare the number of freedoms gained to the number lost? Do some get weighted more than others? And how can we judge if others are trying to give us freedom or take it away?
There is no objective answer that I can see. But what people across demographics and political beliefs have in common is a feeling that our freedoms are being taken away, and a belief that others are imposing their power and agendas on us. (I find it striking that so many people feel so powerless, and fear having the little power they do have plucked from their grasp. Even the most powerful and influential seem to have this fear.) Where we differ greatly is in which freedoms we believe that we are losing. And what is behind these differences are differences in worldview and ideology. What you believe about who you are and where you fit in the world determines how you feel about the state of your freedom, and which freedoms you fear that you're losing or at risk of losing.
Are we really so driven by ideology? Let's try a little thought experiment to find out. With the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia, there is a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court to be filled. Scalia was considered a very conservative judge, and President Obama is considered fairly liberal. The arguments among Senators as to whether the next justice should be appointed by President Obama or the next President (to be elected in November and take office next January) have fallen almost entirely on ideological (and political party) lines. What's your view on who should appoint the next justice, and what is your reasoning? Now consider this: would your opinion change if the current President were a Republican instead of a Democrat? Be honest. And then consider this: would your opinion change if you believed that the next presidential election would go the opposite way from how you currently believe it will? Be honest. If your opinion changes based on these or other circumstances, then you are probably not making objective decisions based on the law and the good of the nation; you are being driven by ideology.
A bigger ideological question, one that is more encompassing than the issues of which freedoms are being gained or lost, and that underlies the question of whether we're moving towards greater freedom or greater restriction, is this: What is freedom? I will suggest this perspective: It's not the issue of owning a gun, or even the principle of one's feeling of safety or right to self defense. It's not the issue of the right to legally marry, or even the principle of equality and non-discrimination. Freedom means not being driven by ideology. It means not being attached to a worldview or a set of beliefs. It means being able to see what is in front of you, as it is, without imposing ideas or beliefs or opinions on it. Ultimately, it means letting go of--being free from--our identity, which is the ideas about who we are and where we fit in the world. If we are driven by ideology, then we are controlled by our own minds, particularly by the myths, beliefs, and fears of our minds. And if we're controlled by our own minds, how can we possibly be free?