This month, I return to one of my favourite subjects – America. All my life, I have indeed been watching America, as the refrain goes. And as I write, the Razorlight analogy extends further because there is trouble and also panic in America.
I’ve been here before. On the eve of the 2016 election, I wrote a letter to my old friend, begging her not to fall under the spell of a man who would charm her in order to abuse her. As you know, she didn’t listen and… …well, let’s just say she’s feeling pretty used right now.
Another obsession I seem to have is for words. In particular their use (and abuse) as labels and, as far as I can deduce it, their etymology. One of the most fundamental principles of psychology, albeit one which is still hotly debated, is this: Language determines Thought. Using the very words that people use, I have always contended, it is possible to form a deeper understanding of them.
Let’s begin with that most American of words: Liberty. Like the statue that bears its name, the obsession with the principle is one with strong French connections – but one re-purposed into something uniquely star-spangled. As is frequently the case with the words we analyse, a greater insight can be gained from the words not used and so it appears to be the case here. As the American colonies were crystallising in their rejection of King George and taxation without representation, revolutionary France was discovering her penchant for Liberté – but as part of a tripartite, together with Egalité et Fraternité. Is it telling that America seems to have cherry-picked one over the others?
This seems less clear-cut on second glance. The cradle of the America we know today was Philadelphia, the site at which the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Tri-lingual word-nerds will instantly know that this city’s name was derived from the ancient Greek words phílos (beloved) and adelphós (brother) – hence its identification as ‘The City of Brotherly Love” – and that, just as France was nearing her revolution, the importance of fraternity was valued equally by both peoples.
And then we get to Egalité. The notion of equality in America has always been somewhat problematical – the fact that the declaration includes the phrase “that all men are created equal” seems to neatly encapsulate America’s rather variable approach to a construct that is supposed to be, by definition, a constant.
Whatever their reasons, by 1886, when France chose to bestow a gift on her anti-royalist co-conspirator, its manifestation was of Liberty, not Fraternity or Equality. The location of the statue, at the mouth of the Hudson, adjacent to Ellis Island, the destination for incoming ships carrying fleeing immigrants provides a clear context for the Liberty it extols. It is designed as a beacon to welcome and reassure those who see it that they are now free of the repression that forced them to flee their homeland. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” says the poem inscribed upon her. Liberty may therefore be viewed more as a defining characteristic of the process of becoming and American citizen than of America itself.
As seems to have been the case with Equality and Fraternity, the concept of Liberty was allowed to shift from this specific context to something wider, more self-congratulatory, more self-serving. America’s eventual anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner was originally a fairly obscure poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, compelling his compatriots to sing with gusto that they inhabit “The land of the Free” but even then, such a sentiment was demonstrably illusory, a perversion of the specific principles espoused by the Statue of Liberty. Doubtless, it was a high-intentioned celebration that American citizens were free of the shackles imposed on the feudal subjects of the Old World. What it doesn’t address is that the citizenry at that time only included white people.
This pre-Civil War self-deluding notion of “the Free” may have simply become a historical quirk, an innocent indulgence from a time that knew no better. We may even have come to see it as a harmless, unknown piece of naive jingoism, were it not for the actions of two Presidents, over a century later. The US Navy had been using the song since 1889 but it gained its first Presidential approval from Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Given that its words were taken from a poem called Defence of Fort M’Henry and with its strong themes of conflict and resolute defence, perhaps its sentiments resonated more strongly at a time when America felt uneasy about the unfolding ‘Great War’ in Europe.
It’s certainly feasible that its images of stoicism through embattlement may have sustained America through her eventual involvement in war – and the beginnings of the Depression a decade later. Seemingly uncoincidentally, President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional resolution of March 3rd 1931 to make The Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem of America. At a time of huge economic uncertainty and its attendant tendency for existential re-assessment, there was a clear benefit to reminding Americans, at every opportunity, that they were undeniably “the Free” and “the Brave”.
It’s important to be even-handed at this point. In many ways, pre-Depression America was flourishing and could be slightly forgiven for her blinkered optimism. Already a major military power and the world’s biggest exponent of two of the century’s most defining industries, entertainment and transportation, her riches led her to mount challenges to history’s favourite benchmarks. America was already, the holder of ‘World’s Tallest Building’ – the Chrysler Building’s 1,046 feet would be surpassed within a year by the Empire State Building in a flurry of skyscraper construction in Manhattan. Similarly, the title of ‘World’s Longest Bridge Span’ was held by one American construction after another, with New York’s George Washington Bridge, at 1,067 metres almost doubling the distance of its predecessor, the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit. Plans for even more ambitious projects like the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge were a clear sign of America’s bravery, zeal and intent. Freedom and Bravery: the words seemed to be perfectly apt.
However, Liberty seemed to be in limited supply among America’s black population, officially emancipated by Abraham Lincoln almost seventy years previously. Institutional racism could not be so easily legislated against and over the intervening decades, forced labour and partition remained as prevalent as they had been before the Civil War. And, of course, there were also the lynchings and abuses of justice. Prevailing racial attitudes in the South, together with increasing mechanisation, cheaper transportation and the burgeoning growth of industry in the Northern states had led to The Great Migration – and America’s first real test of her heady aspiration that “all men” should be equal – a test which resulted in racial tensions and rioting in 1919. Not for the last time, the threat to America’s mostly segregated status quo was re-presented as a symptom of the pernicious disease of Communism, by then on the rise in much of Europe, and the racial significance of the unrest was downplayed by the widespread use of name “Red Summer”.
And so, from 1931, it became possible for a whole country to clutch its chest and pledge allegiance to a flag which represented values that were demonstrably inconsistent where differences were only skin deep. It would be another eighteen years before George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four introduced the concept of ‘doublethink’ as a satirical tool of his Totalitarian state but a prototype form of it was already in evidence in “the free world” well before the rise of the great dictators had really begun.
Over the rest of the 20th century, as subsequent American generations came and went, each more rewarded by the fruits of materialism than the last, and with only the concoction of external threat to rally around, the American notion of Liberty seems to have shifted, to mean something else entirely – namely the freedom to gratify the self. In this way, the old notion of American Liberty seems to have become annexed by Libertarianism, the right for the individual to be free in all aspects of life, without recourse or consequence.
The words sound similar and are, of course, related but it is by no means inevitable that the two principles should become so conflated. There is also a word from that same root that describes those who extol the rights of others to be free in all aspects of their lives, without recourse or consequence. That word is ‘Liberals‘ – and it’s a label carries a whole different load of connotations in America today. It’s the reason why we are presented with what appears, to non-Americans, the faintly ridiculous sight of those who value their Liberty decrying with equal passion their vehement disagreement with Liberals, to whom a litany of perceived impositions are attached.
Is that all this boils down to, then? An existential struggle about which ideological group’s right to Liberty (however that may be defined) exceeds the other’s? If X’s right to free speech supercedes Y’s right to be heard? If A’s right to religious expression outranks B’s rights over their own body? If P’s right to love and partnership infringes on Q’s right to their own beliefs?
As valid as they undoubtedly are, the questions are, I venture to suggest, not the sum of the argument. There’s a lot of discussion about rights across this whole debate and very little mention of responsibilities. It reminds me of a teenage conversation I once had with my Grandmother when I was fixated on and certain of my rights – a conversation teenagers are still having today – and I found I was unaware that there even needed to be a relationship between one’s rights and one’s responsibilities. It’s a conversation I was reminded of the first time I saw Spiderman and Peter Parker’s teenage reasoning with his Uncle Ben – a conversation that uses his “powers” as a metaphor for one’s rights and draws a similar relationship with one’s responsibilities. Societally, Western culture seems to have done a generally poor job in underlining this principle, leaving the job solely to caring older relatives to attempt to establish it as a fundamental value. As one generation replaces another, what if that role ceases to be filled?
The correlation with teenagers is, I believe, of some relevance. Occurring roughly a fifth of the way into a human lifetime, it’s a fairly universal expectation across most cultures that such coming-of-age conversations become necessary. Would it be therefore hugely amiss to suggest that America herself, at the tender age of 244, is still in her late adolescence? That the child prodigy who once mocked her slower, more ponderous elders with her youthful brilliance is beginning to understand the limitations of her own mortal capabilities? Like a star student who suffers their first disappointing grade, she must now ask fundamental questions about herself, in order to learn from the experience and face the future with renewed confidence.
‘Liberty’ as she stands, looking out to sea, was always supposed to represent freedom from persecution elsewhere. The principle of Liberty was never about the right to simply do as one pleases – and it certainly wasn’t a cipher for a particular kind of government. Even in a truly equal society, the rights of the individual are not inalienably superior to the rights of one’s fellow citizens and, as any properly-raised teenager should eventually attest, the freedoms of others occasionally have a detrimental impact on the freedoms of the self.
This is not a broadcast on behalf of the Democrats or the Republicans and neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden approve this message. It’s merely an attempt to illustrate how the misuse of language and the absence of objective, critical thought have led to a meta-situation where the ultimate freedom seems to have become the very right to define what freedom is.
Check your history books and see what Orwell has to say on the subject and you’ll find that such a freedom is a symptom of the least free societies in human history.