If there is a single value that lies at the heart of contemporary American culture, it is freedom. After the horror of September 11, we were told that what was under attack was our American love of liberty. Yet our society is conflicted about what freedom means. In current political controversy, opponents always present themselves as defending the values of freedom. In the abortion debate, one side presents itself as defending a woman’s right to choose””freedom! On the other side of the political spectrum, the National Rifle Association presents itself as preserving the “right to bear arms”””freedom! Defenders of unrestrained capitalism talk about “free markets.” Those who represent the opposite side of the economic spectrum talk about “liberation” and “freedom from economic exploitation.” The Libertarian political party speaks of freedom from all government intervention or restraint, whether in the Market Place or the bedroom or perhaps sharing a little hashish among friends.
These various disagreements reflect just how confused and conflicted our society is about this very notion of freedom. For another common theme in contemporary society is the problem of addiction, and the corresponding need to restrain freedom. Since the nineteen seventies, a common cultural symbol is the Rehabilitation Center. It seems almost impossible to attain real celebrity status unless one has dried out at the Betty Ford Center at least once. The actor Robert Downey Jr. and the baseball player Daryl Strawberry go back over and over. In a recently popular movie, Sandra Bullock plays an alcoholic who is so out of control, she ruins her own sister’s wedding by showing up drunk. The title of the movie, Twenty-Eight Days, refers to the number of days it takes to get sober in such a clinic. And exactly what happens at the clinic? Bullock’s freedoms are denied. She cannot have alcohol or drugs. She is not free to come and go when she wants. She has to live by a strict schedule, more Spartan than a Benedictine monastery.
Our culture’s confusion and conflictedness about freedom lies in the fact that we have turned freedom, the “right to choose,” into a value in itself. Yet there is no such thing as freedom to choose””simple and of itself. Freedom is always the ability to choose something. If you were, without explanation, to command me to””“Choose!” “Make your choice now!”””I could only respond with, “Choose what?”
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