Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Freedom's Just Another Word For... Well, a Bunch of Stuff

Posted By on Wed, Jul 9, 2014 at 8:30 AM

I wasn't going to write any more about the Hobby Lobby debacle, but then Emily Kubis and Kim Green kept me thinking about gender issues all weekend, and, of course, now we have Wheaton College (home of C.S. Lewis's wardrobe!) wanting to not even have to tell the government they're not going to pay for their employees' birth control.

I'm struck by the notion that we have here two competing versions of freedom. A lot of women, myself included, think that freedom, when we get it, will look like us getting treated like everyone else. So, if you offer your employees prescription coverage as part of their compensation package, I won't have to take less compensation for my work, just because of my gender and your objections to the things I need to navigate the medical challenges of said gender. The roots of this version of freedom go back to that old saw, "no one is free until everyone is free."

But there's another kind of freedom in the U.S., with roots just as deep. Mark Twain describes it in Chapter 14 of Life on the Mississippi.

If I have seemed to love my subject, it is no surprising thing, for I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it. The reason is plain: a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth. Kings are but the hampered servants of parliament and people; parliaments sit in chains forged by their constituency; the editor of a newspaper cannot be independent, but must work with one hand tied behind him by party and patrons, and be content to utter only half or two-thirds of his mind; no clergyman is a free man and may speak the whole truth, regardless of his parish's opinions; writers of all kinds are manacled servants of the public. We write frankly and fearlessly, but then we 'modify' before we print. In truth, every man and woman and child has a master, and worries and frets in servitude; but in the day I write of, the Mississippi pilot had none. The captain could stand upon the hurricane deck, in the pomp of a very brief authority, and give him five or six orders while the vessel backed into the stream, and then that skipper's reign was over.

The moment that the boat was under way in the river, she was under the sole and unquestioned control of the pilot. He could do with her exactly as he pleased, run her when and whither he chose, and tie her up to the bank whenever his judgment said that that course was best. His movements were entirely free; he consulted no one, he received commands from nobody, he promptly resented even the merest suggestions. Indeed, the law of the United States forbade him to listen to commands or suggestions, rightly considering that the pilot necessarily knew better how to handle the boat than anybody could tell him. So here was the novelty of a king without a keeper, an absolute monarch who was absolute in sober truth and not by a fiction of words.

In this version, true freedom is when you can tell people what to do and they have to listen to you, but no one can order you around. This 'pilot freedom' is the same kind of religious freedom Hobby Lobby and Wheaton seek — they want control over even their employees' private lives while they want (and seem to be getting) the courts to protect them from the burden of having to follow secular laws they don't like. You think I'm exaggerating. One of Wheaton's objections to even signing a piece of paper stating they won't offer birth control to their employees so that the government can pay for it instead is because, and I quote, they view it as a "permission slip for abortion." Set aside just for a second the nonsense about conflating birth control, which prevents abortions, and abortion. Just dwell on the idea that, here in 2014, an institution of higher learning — a workplace full of adults — thinks it grants and withholds permission for its female employees' non-work-related behavior.

If your version of "religious freedom" is that everyone should be able to practice their religion with minimal interference from others, Wheaton's position is so ridiculous as to almost be nonsensical.

But if we use Twain's definition, it makes sense. Religious freedom for Wheaton is, indeed, the freedom to do what you like without interference from anyone else while, at the same time, you get to interfere in the lives of everyone you have any power over. They can't be free unless "their" women need permission from them to do things.

These two versions of freedom are incompatible. There's no way to make everyone free and equal if freedom comes from having people you get to boss around without yourself being bossed. The former might be a liberal pipe dream, but the latter is a philosophical ponzi scheme; there's only so much room at the top.

But the thing Twain makes clear is that both versions of freedom are truly American ideas of freedom. So there's no way to say "Well, we'll just go with the traditional one" or "We'll just go with the one that's most in line with American ideals." They both are. It's there from the start, in the notion that all men are created equal, but some men could own others.

I don't know how to resolve it, but I think it's time we acknowledge that we're not all using the same definition of freedom, here.

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