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Nadworny: Freedom from or to?

09/03/09 5:55PM By Rich Nadworny
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(HOST) All of those angry protesters at recent town meetings have commentator Rich Nadworney thinking about what we're really arguing about.

(NADWORNY) This summer one image really grabbed my attention: It was of a health care protester carrying a sign that read "It's time to water the tree of liberty." The slogan paraphrased Thomas Jefferson who wrote "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." And the protester clearly was armed.

And that suggests to me that we're not really arguing about health care reform, or Wall Street regulation, or even global warming. We seem to be arguing, instead, about the meaning of liberty, or freedom. And there are only two sides to this debate. The whole thing seems to boil down to a matter of  To vs. From.

For the protester with the sign, and actually throughout most of American history, we've used the phrase "Freedom To" - as in Freedom to Say What We Like, Freedom to Assemble as We Wish, or Freedom to bear arms.  Freedom To has a very tight relationship with the whole concept of Liberty, the right to act according your own will.

That's how this country started: We didn't want King George telling us what to do, we wanted to decide everything ourselves. Our push West fueled this, creating communities that were short on social structure and long on admiration for gun-toting Cowboys and individualists.

Today's democracies, on the other hand, tend toward the concept of Freedom From, as in Freedom from Poverty, Freedom from Oppression, Freedom from Fear. European democracies, having suffered far worse abuse of power at the hands of royalty, landowners and organized religion than we have, focus their concept of freedom on protection of their citizens from Oligarchs. And today it's hard to decide what we need protection from most: From government or from powerful businesses and institutions?

Franklin Roosevelt struck an interesting balance in his 1940 Four Freedoms speech, when he combined our freedom to speak and worship as we see fit with freedom from want and fear.

As a young country though, we're still enamored of Freedom To. Like all adolescents, we don't want teachers or parents telling us what to do, we want to be free and act as if we're indestructible.

It seems to me, though, that it's time for our country to grow up and mature a little. Freedom To is great and important, but it's not enough. You can only focus on it when you're young and don't have many responsibilities. But we do have responsibilities, as any great nation should. When it comes to health care, financial reform and global warming our responsibilities as a country, seem to far outweigh acting any which way we want. With all the difficult problems we now face, it seems to me that Our Freedom Froms, may be just a little more important than our Freedom Tos.
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