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.