Get Your Free On

Get Your Free On

Not wanting to overdose on the weather, I visited the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum downtown on Saturday. I figured that if the exhibits weren't up to snuff, at least I might be able to get in some quality eavesdropping of rootin'-tootin,' freedom-lovin', family-friendly, xenophobic conversation between attendees. When I mentioned to a friend that I was going there, she was slightly put off that such a museum existed let alone the fact that I was actually going.

Her comment, along with the fact that I presumed that I would encounter throngs of rah-rah, flag-waving, Bush-loving automatons, raised a thorny question: what's up between American liberals and "freedom?" We love art and we visit museums and galleries for that. Plenty of people down with sex flock to the
Museum of Sex. We're cool with being free. Why should a museum enshrining freedom be anathema? Oh, I got it. Art is meant to be taken in by the senses and ruminated upon. A museum is a logical place to do so. Freedom, on the other hand, is active. It must be lived and struggled for. Can idling around a museum for an afternoon, gazing at moth-eaten parchment documenting the basis for our liberty while simultaneously remaining sealed in climate-controlled glass boxes, ever hope to replicate the essence of freedom? Hell no. Like political philosopher and musician (kinda) Kenny Loggins said in a totally unrelated context, "Real freedom is creative, proactive, and will take me into new territories. I am not free if my freedom is predicated on reacting to my past."

Yeah, that's not the problem.

The relationship of American Liberals, I believe, to public celebrations of "freedom" is a complicated one. I, as an openly liberal American, like freedom and think everyone should have more of it gosh darn it. I am willing to speak out against specific grievances curtailing freedom. Yet, when it comes to celebrating the higher-level ideal of freedom on a national level, well I get a little queasy and more than a bit suspect. I can think of at least three reasons for this:
  1. Just as "liberal" has become a dirty word, so too have ones like "freedom" and "patriot." Simply, their associations have been shifted from describing ideals to evoking sides in the Culture Wars. Not good. I'd rather not be free to bomb an abortion clinic. Thanks for thinking of me though.
  2. "Freedom" is a propaganda tool (of course, it has been for a long time) - toss that word around and you've played a beautiful rhetorical gambit. Instantly, what you're arguing for represents freedom and your opponent is advocating a dire, dark world of freelessness. Yuck. Since the Right seems to be firmly in possession of the term "freedom" as a weapon to wield, those on the Left would naturally suspect a political agenda and obfuscation to be housed in such a museum. Spooky. I guess this could be 1a.
  3. Well, this could be 2a. In the current global political situation, "Freedom" has become the rationale for unilaterally aggressive (some, myself included, would say imperialist) American foreign policy. Considering the gut rehab currently taking place in Iraq in the course of their Freedom Operation, one might be leery of an Operation: American Freedom, no?
So, with this in mind, the conundrum is how to not be averse to explicit public displays, symbols and rhetoric about freedom without getting the liberal heebie-jeebies?

* * * * *

The Museum itself wasn't bad. Highly interactive, featuring a number of kiosks with headphones and video touchscreens which allow you to learn about key Supreme Court cases on the limits of freedom and then vote to see how your opinion compares to the justices. Another one about censorship featured a tripped out DJ telling you why people wanted to ban "She Bop." Or there's the one that gives commentary from some more obscure Founding Fathers about the Declaration of Independence. My new favorite Declaration Daddy is John Witherspoon, Signer, President of Princeton and possessor of a kickass Scottish accent. He's the one who said to those opposed to declaring independence that the country "was not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of rotting for the want of it." I'm totally going to be him for Halloween.

While the museum is informative about numerous historic struggles for freedom (e.g., slavery, women's rights, labor, etc.) and gives due attention to come of today's more contentious issues (e.g., gay students' clubs in public schools, public Nazi demonstrations, banned books, etc.), there's something lacking. Two things actually.

The first is the obvious ethnocentrism. Truth in advertising would have it called the American Freedom Museum. Other than pointing out some of the usual freedom-hating suspects (I think Myanmar and North Korea will be featured in the finals of that tournament), there is little given to the notion that other countries and cultures may have unique and equally viable traditions of freedom. Other than one note that Finland has the greatest freedom of the press in the world, the US pretty much came off as the Gold Standard.

The other truly smoothed-over area is anything to do with post-9/11 domestic freedom battlegrounds (gasp!). Once you get past 1789, most stories are told as grassroots movements and through court cases. It's as if once the Bill of Rights was done, it was all about interpretation and expansion of rights. Not surprised that they avoid this, and it's quite problematic. Might we educated freedomologists be interested in discuss the implications of executive orders and Patriot Acts on the present and future of individual liberties? Methinks, yes.

The museum is small and was toured reasonably quickly. Then, I walked my freedom loving to the creepiest store on Earth to watch freedom in effect: American Girl Place.


At 11:57 AM, Anonymous Rev Transit said...

I'm not much of a fan of John Witherspoon, actually. My understanding-- and I still have many questions to get answered about this-- is that his set of values was largely responsible for driving many Presbyterians into other churches. I'd have to research this to be sure of it, but I think it was his head of the theology dep't at Princeton who bragged that not one new idea had been developed there during his tenure. Those may or may not be bad things, but I just don't think of Weatherspoon as very successful.

Wrapping freedom of speech in the American flag is deserved IMO. While there have been huge bumps in the road from time to time, I'd put our 200+ years of freedom of speech up against any other nation's. Ditto our other freedoms, generally. Even today, just a few years after the worst private terrorist attack ever, we've basically held onto our freedoms and large numbers of people have been loud about the infringements on those freedoms that this administration has unnecessarily resorted to.

At 1:36 PM, Blogger evandebacle said...

Hey Rev -

The US, to be sure, has quite a bit to brag about in the freedom department. We've done well as a republic, but since freedom inherently creates fields of conflict between competing interests, I believe that a broader context would have served the museum well. Wasn't bad by any means (could have been a hell of a lot more jingoistic), but there was room for elaboration.

Oh, and I can't speak for his values. I just liked his accent.

At 6:02 AM, Anonymous Shannon said...

I think the Rev doesn't like John Witherspoon because there should only be ONE famous American of Scotish heritage with the initials "J.W."

I will say, Evan, that I find your analysis of why liberals tend to be wary of the word "freedom" to be dead on.

Too, while I realize they don't have enough space to do this, I'd be in Evan's camp on wanting some non-American interpretations of what freedom means. Other countries must have different notions of what "freedom" means, how to implement rights and restrictions pertaining thereto and it would be interesting to explore that, contrasting it with American ideas (I will note that I think we'd come out pretty favorably in most comparisons).

At 6:18 AM, Blogger evandebacle said...

Ah, now I get the Rev's take on Witherspoon. Surely there is more glory in being the Founding Rev of the Republic of Shalene than there is to having been some colonial B-List Signer of the D of I.


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