The Man Who Knows Freedom Will Find A Way To Be Free

Posted by stephanie on Jun 26th, 2008
2008
Jun 26

For the past week and a half, I have been exploring the ideas of freedom in Boston and New York. I arrived in Boston a day early to the seminar I attended and was hosted for the evening by Melissa Bates, a 2005 graduate from Vanderbilt. Melissa is involved with a grassroots organization based in Thailand that is part of the pro-democracy movement for Burma. Melissa and I have been in contact through e-mail for several months because of her current work and its relation to my project. Democratic rule in Burma ended in 1962 when the military overthrew the elected government. The government in Burma suppresses nearly all basic rights and commits human rights abuses with impunity. It is my plan to travel to Thailand at the end of September to work with Melissa’s contacts in the region to better understand the current situation in Burma and to explore the relation between democracy and freedom as well as what freedom means to those who are not free politically and to those fighting to free Burma from an oppressive regime.

But to focus again on my time in Boston, the seminar I attended was entitled “Freedom, Tolerance, and Civil Society” and was organized by the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS). To summarize briefly, the IHS is an organization based out of George Mason University that was founded in 1961 as “an institute devoted to research and education in the conviction that greater understanding of human affairs and freedom would foster peace, prosperity, and social harmony” (qtd. from IHS website). Currently, most of the work of IHS focuses on students in order to “support the achievement of a freer society by discovering and facilitating the development of talented, productive students, scholars, and other intellectuals who share an interest in liberty and who demonstrate the potential to help change the current climate of opinion to one more congenial to the principles and practice of freedom.” The IHS approaches the idea of freedom from a distinctly libertarian point of view. A libertarian, as one definition on the website puts it, is one who advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state. While IHS approaches freedom from this one perspective, the organization also attracts students from all around the country and the world, from those who just completed their first year of undergraduate work to those who are pursuing PhDs. I think the real strength of the seminar, and of making me think about freedom in different ways, came from discussion with other students.

The format of the seminar generally involved listening to four lectures a day from faculty representing various academic backgrounds, followed by small group discussions with other students. At the seminar, we heard economic, legal, philosophical, and historical arguments on various topics advocating the general idea of civil liberties and personal freedom. To provide an example of the range of discussion, topics included free speech, the legalization of the sale of kidneys on the free market, education reform, liberties in wartime, individual rights under the Constitution, personal property rights, and occupational freedom. Without going into depth on what I learned about freedom in relation to each topic, I tried to come up with one large theme that I saw prevail throughout the week. What I really took away from the experience was the question of what the limits of freedom should be and who should decide the bounds of it. For example, many regard freedom of speech in America as an absolute right, but there are certain things that we are not legally allowed to say, such as making direct and imminent threats, yelling fire in a crowded theater, and things that are obscene (although determining obscenity is still a tricky issue). However, I think that many people would agree that these restrictions are necessary in a civil society, although it does provide limitations on freedom. With freedom comes responsibility, but should this responsibility be legislated or come through socialization? John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher from the nineteenth century, argued from the “harm principle,” which basically states that mankind can only interfere in personal liberties of others if that person is going to harm others. While this idea of how to limit freedoms seems reasonable, it also comes with its own set of questions that cannot be answered with any definitiveness. For example, how is harm defined and who defines it? While physical harm is easily recognized, emotional harm is an issue, while certainly real, cannot be seen and as easily measured. Another recurring theme of the week for me was the fact that when dealing with ideas of freedom, there are far more questions than answers.

As I mentioned above, many of my greatest insights into freedom came from other students. One person in particular told me a view of freedom that made me think about freedom differently. Her name is Minyang and she is a 2007 graduate from Harvard who currently is working for the National Endowment for Democracy. She has had discussions about freedom a lot with her co-workers at the NED, and she told me of one view of freedom she had been told. Her co-worker had told her that in order to accept that you are living in a free system, you have to accept certain losses. In other words, freedom entails loss. This is a view of freedom I had never really thought of before, but it really resonated with me. When I generally think of freedom, I tend to think of what you gain when you have freedom, such as expanded choices. However, there is the flip side to freedom that is also very real. To take one example of this, with having greater freedom, you also lose some aspects of security. People can make bad choices and lose everything. According to this view of freedom, freedom is very much a trade-off, and people have to accept that there is no way to have everything you want in a free system, and many times you have to accept greater responsibility for your own actions.

Not all my days in Boston were spent listening to lectures or having discussions with fellow participants in the seminar. The city of Boston itself is a great place to study the ideas of freedom because of its intricate role in the initial struggles for freedom that took place to free America from British rule. In order to obtain a historical perspective of freedom, I decided to take a tour of the famous Freedom Trail. The Freedom Trail is a 2.5 mile walking trail through Boston that goes to 16 historically significant sites throughout the city (www.thefreedomtrail.org). Our tour started in the Boston Common, and some of the highlights for me along the trail were getting to see the Old Granary Burying Ground, where revolutionary heroes such as Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, James Otis, and John Hancock are buried; the Old South Meeting House, the place where the idea for the Boston Tea Party was conceived; the site of the Boston Massacre; Faneuil Hall, what many refer to as the “Cradle of Liberty” as it was the site of many speeches by revolutionaries advocating independence from Britain and is still the site of many speeches; and the Old North Church, the location of the famous “One if by land, two if by sea” signal. Walking this historic path really brought to life the history of the founding of America, and the great struggle and sacrifice it entailed, which again harkens back to the idea of freedom entailing loss, and sometimes in the effort to secure freedom, lives are lost.

While I am a huge colonial history buff and always feel a sense of excitement and wonder when re-hearing the stories about the founding of our nation, even with the high ideals and good intentions of our Founding Fathers, the founding of our nation did not entail the same freedoms for everyone. For example, many of our Founding Fathers were also slave owners, and the Constitution itself did nothing to end slavery initially and instead only had the provision that the slave trade should end in 1808. However, that is not to say that everyone was pro-slavery, and in fact, it is well-documented that many colonists despised slavery, and even many slave holders thought the ownership of slaves was repugnant. But it is clear that the ideas of freedom, liberty, and equality were not applied equally to everyone living in America. In order to explore this idea further, I decided to go to the Museum of Afro-American history that is also located in Boston. Race is certainly a very real issue when talking about freedom in America, and the fact that slavery existed for so long in America, and even after the end of slavery, the fact that there were numerous lynchings and that Jim Crow laws were enacted (which did not come to an end until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965) meant that not everyone in America was fully free. Of course, this goes for many other groups in America who were not initially granted equal freedoms (and in some cases are still not), including certain minority groups and women. The current exhibit at the Museum of Afro-American History was entitled “A Gathering Place For Freedom.” This exhibit tells the story of how only a few years after the Revolutionary War, black Bostonians built a meeting house, “a gathering place for worship and for this community of freedom to secure the rights and privileges associated with the new democracy.” The exhibit really tells the stories of “pioneers of emancipation” responsible for launching additional movements to ensure freedom for both free and enslaved African Americans. After touring this exhibit, I began to reflect on how freedom has never been a perfect concept in America, or rather, I should say it has never been enacted perfectly. Ever since the founding of what is considered one of the freest nations in the world, groups have always struggled to be equal, to gain greater freedoms, and to protect the freedoms that we feel we have been guaranteed. Freedom is an incredibly multi-faceted issue even in a country where freedom is often taken for granted by many.

Overall, I had a great time in Boston and had time to reflect on and discuss different aspects of freedom I had not considered before. After spending 8 days in Boston, I hopped on a bus to New York City to continue exploring ideas of freedom in America.

One if by land, two if by sea: On my way to Boston

Posted by stephanie on Jun 11th, 2008
2008
Jun 11

The idea of freedom has been on my mind a lot since February. While my interest in freedom began well before then (in fact, I can trace my interest back to my 5th grade days of dressing up as Paul Revere—tri-cornered hat and all–and learning about the American Revolution), it was not until February that I was given the opportunity to pursue this interest in any meaningful way. Having been awarded the Michael B. Keegan Travel Fellowship, I am experiencing the freedom that financial resources and abundant time have to offer, and I have to admit, it’s a little scary. The world has been opened up to me and I have been given the opportunity to pick any point on the map and go there. Where to start? That has been the hardest part of this project thus far for me. Figuring out where to start. My original idea for this project had me traveling to every continent, visiting close to twenty countries, in order to discover freedom. However, trying to balance my desire to see as much as possible with my countering desire to get a real feel and understanding for the cultures I would be traveling to proved to be a challenge. I could spend the rest of my life traveling around the world trying to discover what freedom means in differing cultures and still not have all of the answers. After much consultation with Stacey, Siobhan, and Erin, past recipients of the Keegan Fellowship, I have decided the latter strategy (traveling to fewer countries but staying longer in each) will probably be the most enlightening in discovering what freedom means, as well as the most feasible considering fuel price increases. In trying to finalize my honed down itinerary for this project, I have also come to the realization that I am not completely free to travel anywhere in the world as easily as I had first imagined. For example, China has been a country I have had in mind for this project from the beginning. However, due to the Olympics and constraints of the current visa situation, I have decided to cut China from my itinerary at this time in order to provide myself with greater flexibility for travel. Also, countries of the Middle East would be fascinating places to journey to for the discovery of freedom, but I do not feel free to travel there because of safety concerns. In the initial application stages for this fellowship, I felt that I could go anywhere and see anything, but this has proved more logistically challenging than I had initially considered. While I have run into a few challenges in my planning process for the next year, I always keep in mind what a close friend told me. She reminded me that for the next year, I am one of the freest people in the world.

I am beginning the domestic phase of my fellowship this Friday (June 13) by attending a weeklong seminar entitled “Freedom, Tolerance, and Civil Society” that will be held in Boston, Massachusetts at Simmons College. This seminar is one of the fourteen seminars that the Institute for Humane Studies (www.ihs.org) will be putting on this summer throughout the United States on topics related to freedom. I choose the Boston location first and foremost for the topic of the seminar, which will largely be based on ideas of individual freedoms and civil liberties, but also because of Boston’s historical significance to our own American conceptions of freedom. After the seminar in Boston, I will be spending three-days in New York City, exploring freedom in the home of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I am looking forward to re-examining and challenging my own ideas of American freedom in two cities that I believe have a lot to offer regarding the topic of freedom.

While still on U.S. soil, I am also trying to read as many books as possible about the topic of freedom in general as well as its relation to specific countries that I plan to travel to in the upcoming year. Be sure to check out my page “Books about freedom” to see what I’ve been reading, and feel free to offer your own suggestions about other books that I should look into. You can e-mail me your recommendations at stephanie.l.madden@gmail .com or feel free to comment on my blog post.