OPINION: What freedom means to the United States

An illustration of an angry man in a USA flag shirt. Two people are behind him wearing face masks.
(Yasmin Elqutami • The Student Life)

For a while, I was trying to figure out what exactly is giving Americans the impression that wearing a mask should be a choice, that banning assault weapons would be an egregious violation of the Constitution and that the police are keeping us safe even when Black, Indigenous and other people of color are subject to unimaginable violence. I was struggling to understand what was driving our nation to have such horrendously privileged and harmful mindsets. 

I recently listened to “Know Your Rights” by The Clash. The song begins, epically, “This is a public service announcement, with guitar, know your rights, all three of them,” mocking the yet-delivered life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness our government has claimed to pledge to us since 1776.

The first verse begins, “You have the right not to be killed, murder is a crime, unless it was done by a policeman or an aristocrat.” That checks out. The third “right” is my favorite: “You have the right to free speech, as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.” The song ominously ends with “Get off the streets, run, get off the streets.”

It’s clear that America’s Achilles’ heel is our false notion of freedom. Composed by wealthy, white, cis men, “freedom” has never really existed in America. In fact, the “freedom” that wealthy, white, cis men have so graciously promised us has completely prevented our country from having true rights, equality and safety.

In the 244 years of our country’s existence, the notion of freedom has become more warped and toxic with each new year. There is a complex duality between rights and freedom in our country that has created an absolute mess of things.

I’m going to try to put this as clearly as The Clash — you do not have the right to infect other people with a deadly virus. In addition, you do not have the right to accuse the government of trying to control your body, with a mask, while actively trying to control womxn’s and trans bodies, or remaining complacent in racist systems. 

Your freedom only exists until it gets in the way of someone else’s freedom. If your freedom is limiting someone else’s ability to pursue life, liberty and happiness, you are not exercising freedom, you are exercising supremacy.

Our country is bleeding and crying from every sector and it is because we have somehow managed to rob the majority of our citizens of their basic human rights, while also giving a handful of malicious citizens the impression they can do whatever they want, no matter the impact on others.

Long standing social inequities and systemic racism within our nation’s health care system have put minorities at a severely greater risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. Black, Latinx and Native American communities across the U.S. are now suffering in-part because of white Americans’ racist, supremacist attitude towards wearing masks. 

When there is a horribly painful and deadly virus sweeping the globe that disproportionately affects minorities, and you choose not to wear a mask because it feels like a violation of your “freedom,” your behaviors are racist.

If you don’t wear a mask and thus infect others with COVID-19, their illness is a result of your moral failing. That is a direct violation of everyone else’s life, liberty and happiness. Your sense of freedom has put on a hood and become supremacy.

If you don’t want your body to be “controlled,” and yet insist that womxn’s and trans bodies be controlled, your freedom has put on a hood and become supremacy.

In direct contrast to this nightmarish, tarnished “freedom” being viciously upheld, none of the real rights we deserve as humans are being provided. This duality is what is making the U.S. an unbearable place to try to survive.

In the U.S. we have mostly negative rights. Negative rights do not require action by the government or private citizens to be upheld. We are supposedly allowed to say whatever we want, believe in whatever religion we want and organize when we want, without enlisting the work of others. The government is happy to champion negative rights because they don’t cost that much.

Because negative rights require (in theory) less work and are (in theory) easier to maintain, they have become the backbone of our country. But what about positive rights?

Everyone supposedly has the right to a lawyer when they are arrested, and everyone should have food, shelter, security and health care provided to them based on their positive rights. But because positive rights demand more work, more empathy and support, they’ve been completely abandoned.

Our country has weak, racist, homophobic and sexist social services. We have not found a way to defund the police because, for 244 years, we have focused solely on negative rights. If our nation demanded that positive rights be delivered upon as much as negative rights, defunding the police would have already happened. An emphasis on positive rights in our country, from the beginning, would have provided funding to social services and forced a proportionate distribution of funds between agencies like the police and mental health rehabilitation based on what the people of America need.

Lack of balance between positive and negative rights is a large contributor to the lack of equality in our country. The overwhelming presence of negative rights only help rich, white, cis men who rule the country. An increase in positive rights would help the people in our country being suppressed gain equality.

Emphasis on negative rights is a major reason why we are one of the only developed nations without a universal health care system. Without positive rights, it makes sense that police, the very people charged with protecting us, are killing Black people at up to six times the rate of white people

There isn’t equal representation in our voting process, and mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex have taken over the economy. Our education system has one of the lowest funding rates (6.2 percent), compared to overall GDP in the world. 

The government is actively dismantling regulations that protect transgender people against health care discrimination, despite 44 percent of transgender people reporting that transgender-inclusive health care is their most significant need. We have the second highest CO2 emissions rate in the world. Clearly, in terms of basic human rights, which are frequently classified as positive rights, we are utterly failing.

We need to completely rethink freedom as a nation and how we can create a society where everyone can truly access life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Freedom will never exist until everyone is assured basic human rights, both negative and positive. Until our country understands more elementary concepts such as empathy, compassion and generosity, there is no freedom.

Georgia Scott PZ ’23 is from San Anselmo, California. Her sister Isabella Scott just got a piece of work selected to be shown in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Learn more through her Instagram @isabellasartofficial.

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