I believe in personal freedom. Most Americans believe in the general idea of freedom, the one they think of as being embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’s Bill of Rights–and so do I. But I believe the Founding Fathers sought freedom not just for a nation, but for each individual within that nation — the kind George Washington spoke of in an address to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, where “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
I come by this belief at least in part through my Cajun ancestry. My forebears were evicted at gunpoint from their original colony in Nova Scotia by the British, and came to these shores determined that no one would ever displace them again. They founded a community in southwest Louisiana that was rich in culture and heritage, hardworking and self-sufficient, deeply spiritual and fiercely independent. In short, quintessentially American.
From the Pilgrims onward, we Americans have been a feisty, strong-willed, nonconformist, rebellious lot, with a sheer cussedness about us that is determined to live our own lives the way we see fit, and tell everyone else in the world to go to hell if they don’t like it — and to fight with our last breath and bullet against anyone who claims a right to tell us otherwise.
It’s this attitude that makes uppity Muslim or pagan or atheist citizens (or agnostics, like me) believe they have a right not to endure preaching or prayer by Christians and Jews in public places. It makes immigrants believe they deserve to hang on to at least some of their ancestral culture even as they strive to assimilate. It’s what gives gay and lesbian citizens the nerve to think that the law should treat them no differently than their “normal” fellow citizens. It built hippie communes in the 1960s and militia and cult compounds today.
And it’s an attitude that Americans tend to want to pass around. It makes Americans fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and work to end slavery in the Sudan and disease-caused suffering in Kenya. And it makes us want to remind our fellow Americans of it when they misguidedly seek to impose restrictions on others that they would never tolerate themselves, on what we can read and watch or what color we can paint our house or whom we can marry.
I believe that we do need some reasonable limits on personal freedom. But above all, I believe in and treasure the right to disagree, and in fighting for it even when it lets the most odious, repugnant views boil to the surface, like racism or homophobia or anti-Semitism or flag-burning. For I know that the skinhead’s or the Nazi’s or the fundamentalist’s freedom to speak and write and campaign is my freedom to do likewise, and that if his freedom is abridged, mine may be next.
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