The banality of the American freedom

Anything that's done in the name of 'liberty' and 'freedom' is just a mythic reflection of the privilege of the few.

    The banality of the American freedom
    When we hear about Abraham Lincoln, it's always about freeing the slaves and preserving the union. But there were other changes almost as dramatic, writes Beinhart [Shawn Thew/EPA]

    Paul Ryan wants to destroy Obamacare in the name of "freedom". And the bill to destroy it is called the Restoring Americans' Healthcare Freedom Reconciliation Act.

    Paul Ryan is the Speaker of the House of Representatives, which means that he is the presiding officer of Congress, leader of the majority, and if Donald Trump has a mortal trip over a tweet and Michael Pence utters some of his regular untruths under oath and is impeached for it, Ryan becomes president. He is regarded by Republicans as one of their leading intellectuals.

    Ryan's bill has been - presumably - seven years in preparation. It then gestated for weeks or months in a secret closet.

    As soon as it was taken out into the light it became instantly apparent that what it would really do is take healthcare away from millions of people, make it more expensive for those who most need it, and provide tax cuts for the rich.

    Even better, from Ryan's perspective, his bill mounts attacks on Medicaid and Medicare, public programmes that provide healthcare for at least 35 percent of Americans.

    There is nothing weird about Republicans attacking programmes that help ordinary people, that provide for health, education, science, and the arts, or promoting plans to make the rich richer, give corporations more privileges, and protect the powerful from responsibility. It's what their party does.

    What is weird is that they do it in the name of "freedom".

    The People v America - Part 1 (47:33)

    Fixation on freedom

    They love that word. There's "FreedomWorks", which means lower taxes, less regulations, guns for everyone. "Liberty University", the segregationist, Baptist, backwards college, ranked by Forbes Magazine number 651 out of 660 colleges in the US.

    There are the "Religious Freedom Restoration Acts" in various states - including the one signed into law by Mike Pence when he was governor of Indiana - that give people the right to discriminate against gays and lesbians provided they do it the name of Christ. The most conservative members of Congress call themselves the Freedom Caucus. has a scorecard of how congressmen vote, called The Freedom Index. It's a great place to find out what conservatives want to do away with in the name of freedom.

    It's a war against the most practical things, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, which sets up air traffic corridors, sets safety standards, and employs air traffic controllers, or the Army Corps of Engineers, which has been building and maintaining canals, dams, hydroelectric facilities, navigable waterways, flood control projects and a great deal more since 1779 when they built fortifications on Boston's Bunker Hill.

    INTERACTIVE - The Big Picture: The People v America

    It's a fight for the freedom to create ill-health by polluting the air and poisoning the water.

    It's a fight to let children go hungry.

    It's a battle against modernity, in which they want to prevent women from getting contraception or even information about sex.

    It's a fight for unlimited income and wealth inequality, by ending the minimum wages and cutting taxes for the rich.

    It's even a battle against progress: keep the federal government out of education; prevent community colleges from being tuition free; and no funds for research into science.

    All, and always, in the name of freedom.

    The People v America - Part 2

    The ugly truth

    The roots run deep. Very deep.

    Cries of "freedom", and "liberty", to colour the battles against modernity and progress and for greater equality could be heard even as the nation was being formed.

    Back in the 18th century, Alexander Hamilton, based in the North, wanted a strong central government, investment in infrastructure, a central bank and protectionism so that American industry could develop to compete with Europeans.

    At the turn of the century, Thomas Jefferson, based in the South, presented a vision of "yeoman farmers". Independent fellows with small plots of land who made just enough for themselves and their families and sat around the fireplace in the evening reading from the Great Books and holding sceptical discussions of the Bible.

    He opposed Hamilton, because he said a strong central government would attack the freedoms and liberty of these fine agrarians. Admittedly, Jefferson was a great man, with a fine intellect, who made complex choices.

    The Louisiana Purchase - the acquisition of territory that would become all or part of 13 new states - was as great an expansion of federal power as could be imagined.

    And he favoured building roads and canals. To some degree, we need to look to the Jeffersonians, more than Jefferson himself. Yet, the weird seed is right there, in Monticello, ­his primary plantation.

    The shouts, cries, and hollers of liberty, freedom, and states' rights were so loud, frequent and shrill, there is no doubt that people believed them. Yet, the policies were all for the big plantation owners and the preservation of slavery.


    There were "yeoman farmers" in Virginia, mostly in the land west of the Appalachians. But the constitution of Virginia demanded more than just land ownership to be able to vote.

    It demanded a certain property value that couldn't be reached with cheap western land, but could be with the ownership of three or four slaves. The yeoman were effectively excluded from power.

    The policies, the actual policies, were never for those small independent fellows. They were for big agribusiness or, in other words, slave owners.

    Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves during the course of his life. He said, "I consider a [slave] woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man on the farm."

    Jefferson had a long-term relationship with one of the women he owned, Sally Hemings. She was, in all probability, the illegitimate child of his father-in-law and, therefore, half-sister to his legal white wife.

    Sally had at least six children with Jefferson. He publicly denied the relationship. Respectable scholars dismissed it on the basis that a man of such high character could not have behaved in such a way. Until 1998, when it was proved by DNA analysis.

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    Deep-running weirdness

    Presidents George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe and Andrew Jackson all owned large numbers of slaves. Washington straddled the ideologies of Hamilton and Jefferson. But the others fell largely into the Jefferson column.

    Their language was about "liberty" and "freedom", versus big government and big money. But their actions, the actual policies, were all about maintaining the slave-owning oligarchy.

    The argument then over protectionism - Hamilton's idea, later called The American System - versus free trade, was over developing industry v the South's slave-based agribusiness.

    A national bank with a national currency would have made the federal government stronger. The Southerners were in constant fear that if the nation as a whole grew too strong, it would overcome their particular system. "States' Rights", became their rallying cry, with arguments that anything else was unconstitutional, an infringement on "liberty".

    But at base, that was a defence of the slave-owning economy. Jefferson himself was in favour of roads and canals, but his political heirs moved further and further away from national development.

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    With the exception, of course, of expanding the number of slave states. The Southern states opposed public education. They didn't want a middle class which might compete with the oligarchs for political power.

    When we hear about Abraham Lincoln, it's always about freeing the slaves and preserving the union. But there were other changes almost as dramatic.

    When he came into office, the Southerners left. As a result, Lincoln and the new Republican Party, which replaced the Whigs, was able to put through a host of progressive policies: a national bank, a national currency, land grant colleges, the creation of the Agriculture Department and the building of the transcontinental railway.

    With the Southerners out of the way, Lincoln transformed a bankrupt, agrarian country into a leading industrial power.

    The shouts, cries and hollers, of liberty, freedom and states' rights were so loud, frequent, and shrill, there is no doubt that people believed them. Yet, the policies were all for the big plantation owners and the preservation of slavery.

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    The weirdness is that it remains. Ryan, himself, is not of the South, but the heart of his party is. Their chants and key words come right out of the early 19th century cotton fields.

    Not for the workers, for the owners. "Freedom", "liberty", now for the white males. The mythic heirs of the mythic yeoman farmers.

    Supposedly threatened by the modernity that in the very recent past gave them power and prosperity, instead of the actual policies that actually took it away from them.

    It convinces them to vote to harm themselves. Just as it convinced nearly a million Southern men and boys to fight a war for slavery and for a system that did them more harm than good.

    The roots of weirdness run deep.

    Larry Beinhart is a novelist, best known for Wag the Dog. He's also been a journalist, political consultant, a commercial producer and director.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.



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