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Let Freedom Ring a Social Justice Tone

Conservatives long ago absconded with the word. Now is the time for Democrats to reclaim it.

May 08, 2000|ERIC FONER | Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University, is the author of "The Story of American Freedom" (W.W. Norton, 1999)

Recently, I searched for the word "freedom" on the Web. The results confirmed what I had long suspected: Once the rallying cry of the dispossessed, "freedom" has come to mean free market economics, the right to bear arms and a general hostility to government.

Most Internet sites associated with freedom belong to anti-government libertarians, groups promoting the sanctity of private property and the ideology of free trade, and armed patriot and militia organizations. But extreme views are not confined to organizations like the Militia of Montana. In promoting "The Patriot," its forthcoming Mel Gibson movie about the American Revolution, Sony, that most mainstream of corporations, has established a bulletin board titled "Discuss Freedom." Here one can find comments such as that gun ownership "should take precedence over all other rights." There is also a "Modern American Declaration of Liberty"--modeled on Jefferson's Declaration of 1776--a grab bag of complaints against real and imagined transgressions by federal authorities, including the income tax, regulation, welfare and membership in the United Nations.

Much of the credit or blame for the conservative appropriation of "freedom" belongs to Ronald Reagan, whose speeches and public documents used the word more frequently than any president before or since. Reagan's rhetoric identified this country as a "beacon of liberty and freedom" to the world, while equating this mission with anti-communism abroad and Republican domestic policies at home. When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they called their electoral victory the "freedom revolution."

Freedom has always been central to Americans' sense of themselves as individuals and as a nation. "Every man in the street, white, black, red or yellow," wrote the educator and statesman Ralph Bunche in 1940, "knows that this is 'the land of the free.' " But the meaning of freedom has changed many times in American history.

Before conservatives took possession of the word, it was most closely associated with freedom rides, freedom songs and "freedom now," the insistent cry of the civil rights revolution. To blacks and their white allies, freedom did not mean "getting the government off our backs," but eradicating a host of historic wrongs and achieving political and economic equality, with the help, if necessary, of an activist government.

Nor has the economic dimension of freedom always been identified with an unregulated market. At the turn of this century, labor leaders and Progressive era reformers spoke of "industrial freedom," by which they meant government action to ensure workers a share in economic decision-making and the redress of gross inequalities of wealth and power. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the original "great communicator," used his fireside chats and public addresses to promote his definition of economic freedom--"greater security for the average man." During World War II, Roosevelt identified "freedom from want" as one of the four freedoms for which the Allies were fighting.

Today's understanding of freedom as laissez faire economics and hostility to government, of course, has deep roots in the American experience. But alternative definitions do as well. Freedom has been reimagined many times in our past.

Liberals should take a lesson from conservatives, who understand that appropriating a word like freedom gives them the upper hand in political debate. "No matter what cause you advocate," House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Tex.) has written, "you must sell it in the language of freedom."

But conceding the language of freedom to the right is a tragic mistake. Democrats ought to suggest that the current definition of freedom, which is based on a series of negations--of government, of restraints on individual choice, of the right of a democratic society to demand accountability from powerful economic institutions--does not provide us an adequate language for comprehending the modern world. Perhaps Democrats can take vital American traditions now in eclipse--freedom as economic security, freedom as active participation in democratic governance, freedom as social justice for those long disadvantaged--and reinvigorate them to meet the challenges of the new century.

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