The Right has an immature notion of Freedom

Highland Park is one more example of a simple truth:
Our inability to enforce sensible rules is destroying our liberty.

Many years ago, when my young body still tolerated harsh environments, I used to go to Burning Man. I happened to be there the first year (don’t ask me when it was) that the organizers laid out streets.

The difference it made was amazing: The year before, you’d leave your tent in daylight, go have a bunch of adventures, and then return in the dark. In the meantime, more tents had been pitched, some of the objects you had taken for landmarks had moved, and finding your way home had turned into an adventure of its own. Every night, the camp was full of lost people tripping over each other’s tent stakes.

But then: streets. Now you had a clear path home, and even an address of sorts. Staying out late and coming back exhausted (or impaired) was a workable plan. You didn’t have to allocate a big chunk of time for stumbling around in the dark.

Experiencing those first streets of Black Rock City taught me an important lesson: Accepting a simple rule — don’t camp in the streets — made us all more free to do the things we actually wanted to do.

Once you understand that idea, you can see it everywhere: Traffic rules, for example, are what makes the road system usable. Even if all the same slabs of concrete stayed in place, it would take forever to drive from New England to Florida, as I do every December, if there were no traffic rules. In theory, getting rid of the rules means I could drive 100 mph and get there much faster. But there’s no way I would do that in reality, for fear that some other guy was using my lane to go 100 mph in the opposite direction.

Without the rules, the whole plan of driving to Florida would be unworkable. I would lose that option, and hence be less free. Because freedom isn’t maximized by having no rules; it’s maximized by having the right rules.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith put it this way in 1969 when he wrote the introduction to the second edition of his 1958 book The Affluent Society:

Even the most stalwart conservative who dares not venture out in the street at night and hesitates on occasion to drink the water or breathe the air must now wonder if keeping public services at a minimum is really a practical formula for expanding his personal liberty.

It turns out that having really low taxes, and being free to burn or toss into the river whatever we want to get rid of, diminishes our freedom to do more important things, like drink and breathe.

The last few years, our political discourse has been dominated by the loud voices of people too immature to understand this simple notion. (Five of them have even made it onto the Supreme Court.) Throughout the pandemic, for example, sensible folks have been searching for public-health rules that would allow us all to do more things safely. Maybe, for example, it could be safe to eat in a restaurant if we knew everybody would be vaccinated, or go to a movie if everybody would be vaccinated and masked.

But no, we couldn’t do that, because those would be RULES, and rules restrict our FREEDOM.

In my case, being in my sixties and married to someone with a few additional risk factors, I had so much FREEDOM I could barely leave the apartment.

This week we got an even clearer example of how the no-rules notion of freedom in fact makes us less free: the Highland Park shooting. A rooftop gunman killed seven during a Fourth of July parade in an upscale suburb along Lake Michigan. Forty-six others were either wounded by gunfire or injured in the ensuing panic.

Different shootings affect people differently, independent of the number killed or injured. This one, I think, is going to stick with me. I suspect it’s going to stick with a lot of people.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to Highland Park, and you probably haven’t either. But you’ve seen it. The movies use Chicago’s North Shore suburbs to symbolize affluent communities so sheltered from the scary aspects of modern life that teens have to seek out adventure for themselves. Ferris Bueller lived in Highland Park; so did Joel Goodsen from Risky Business. That idyllic family life The Good Wife had before her crooked-politician husband went to jail and everything fell apart? It was in Highland Park. The town sits between Lake Forest, where 1980 Best Picture Ordinary People was set, and Winnetka, site of the Home Alone house. (But parts of that movie were shot in Highland Park too.)

During their glory days with the Bulls, basketball legends Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen had Highland Park mansions. Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick was born there. About 30K people live there now, and the 2010 census says the median household income is over $100K.

Here’s what I’m trying to get across: If a mass shooting can happen in Highland Park, it can happen anywhere. It can happen in your town too.

And who hasn’t been to a Fourth of July parade? Or sat in a crowded park waiting for the fireworks to start? The last time you did that, did you think you were taking a chance? Putting your family at risk? Did you plan which way you’d all run if gunfire broke out?

Now you will. We all will. Or maybe we’ll just stop having Fourth of July parades at all. After all, our inability to make sensible rules about guns is leaving us with damn little real freedom to celebrate.

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  • Barb  On July 11, 2022 at 9:32 am

    And although you didn’t mention it, this murderer did not come out of the blue, there were MANY warning signs that he should have NEVER EVER been allowed within 100 feet of a gun of any kind, and yet his father (who needs to be charged with aiding and abetting at the very least) signed the permit so that his clearly troubled teenager could buy THREE weapons of war. But hey, it’s freeDUM, right?

  • mfidelman  On July 11, 2022 at 12:10 pm

    Well put. Perhaps the contrast you’re looking for is “throwing tantrums” vs. “adulting.”

    • Bill Camarda  On July 11, 2022 at 5:26 pm

      For the last quarter century, so much of right-wing politics has been “You can’t make me!”

      That’s what “Let’s Go Brandon” is: a 7-year-old boy who thinks he’s outsmarted his teacher because he isn’t “actually” saying anything bad.

  • Thomas Paine  On July 11, 2022 at 1:38 pm

    The right in this country are a toxic mix of emotional arrested development and nauseating, permeating privilege. Oh, they love rules – for other people. But the moment they’re asked to modify their desires and behaviors by following any, they’re living under Stalin-era Communism.

  • catch2223  On July 12, 2022 at 5:34 am

    Very eloquent, and sadly, so true. It’s too bad that it takes a patriotic, “family fun” event to be the wake-up call. As if other mass shooting victims had less of a tragedy. Typical.

  • janinmi  On July 13, 2022 at 11:07 am

    The right-wingers would likely be horrified at being compared to Aleister Crowley, yet their behavior speaks to his prime rule: “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

    • weeklysift  On July 16, 2022 at 5:30 am

      In some areas. If “as thou wilt” involves controlling your own reproductive cycle, then they support all kinds of law.

  • Kim Cooper  On July 16, 2022 at 6:37 pm

    There was recently a twitter series that someone posted on FB, and it started this way:
    The Republican Message
    > Ethan Grey
    > This is a thread on Republican messaging. The press doesn’t want to have a direct conversation with you about this. So as a former Republican who is not a consistent Democratic voter, I will.
    > Here is the Republican message on everything of importance:
    > 1. They can tell people what to do.
    > 2. You cannot tell them what to do.
    > This often gets mistaken for hypocrisy; there’s an additional layer of complexity to this (later in the thread), but this is the basic formula.
    > You’ve watched the Republican Party champion the idea of “freedom” while you have also watched the same party openly assault various freedoms, like the freedom to vote, freedom to chooses, freedom to marry who you want and so on.
    > If this has been a source of confusion, then your assessments of Republicans mean by “freedom” were likely too generous. Here’s what they mean:
    > 1. The freedom to tell people what to do.
    > 2. Freedom from being told what to do.
    > When Republicans talk about valuing “freedom”, they’re speaking of it in the sense that only people like them should ultimately possess it.
    I think this insight is accurate.
    I also have a question: Is the Supreme Court turning the USA into a Catholic country? Is that their intention?


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