Freedom and the American Character

I was thinking, for some reason, about the old Cole Porter song Don’t Fence Me In.  It’s not all that good of a song, IMO–but it does express a chafing at restriction that most people would once have agreed was a core aspect of the American character.

Now, however, I’m not so sure.  Seems to me a lot of people–especially but not only on college campuses–are asking to be fenced in, and are looking at hobbles not negatively but with admiration.

Questions for discussion:

–Has individual freedom indeed become a less-important value to Americans (in general) over recent decades?

–If so, what are the drivers of this change?…and what are the implications?

–Was Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor right about human nature?

30 thoughts on “Freedom and the American Character”

  1. “Don’t Fence Me In” was a war time song like “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” and “I’ll be Seeing You”

    They were about coming home.

    The British had them too.

    “White Cliffs of Dover” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square.”

    Vera Lynn was the British singer and she is 100 years old. I have some of her WWII songs on my iPod that I play in the car driving.

  2. “Don’t Fence Me In” has been replaced with “Please Don’t #@(! Me Over, Too Badly” for most .gov dependent and the fearful.

  3. All that matters at this point is do we have enough people who love individual Liberty and are willing to band together to keep those who don’t from fencing us in and slaughtering us when the time is ripe…That is the question that will determine whether we live or die…

  4. Individual liberty demands a large amount of personal responsibility. Personal responsibility is not really attractive, these days. From what I’m reading, the belief is growing that personal security is best obtained within a like-minded collective group. Personal security is far more important than liberty. Sadly, it seems that for most people, they don’t look outside themselves or their own group to exercise freedom or liberty, so they don’t really miss them.

  5. So desertrat are you saying that it’s a bad thing that likeminded people be banding together?

  6. I was thinking, for some reason, about the old Cole Porter song Don’t Fence Me In. It’s not all that good of a song, IMO
    Maybe not, but Ella does a better job than Gene Autry. Definitely not Cole’s best.
    It would appear to me that today there is more looking for security in the collective than there is seeking freedom.

  7. What a jewel of an enigma the Grand inquisitor is. The hubris of deigning to speak for God, and yet to God, who does not rebuke. We are fooled into blaming ourselves for our inherent weakness instead of blaming those who have convinced us that this is all there is to the matter. Dostoyevsky was not an atheist, but a believer of the corrupting influence of religion (as created by man) versus the truth spoken by God Himself. That explains Christ’s silence, it was all written before.
    Alas, most still cling to children’s stories about the serpent in the garden and eating apples instead of the raw carnal truth and it’s procreative results, results that are with us today (pizzagate). It will get much worse because most cannot believe that they don’t the difference between the voice of God and the hiss of satan coming from the very churches they’ve bowed to all their lives.
    And yet, we are created in His image. He is a God of war too. It will come when it is right and there will be a small army who know who is righteous and who is the evil head.

    The majority will be deceived. Question the questioners first before committing to an answer.

  8. Not exactly on topic but energizing nonetheless:
    The English language befriends the grand American expression … it is brawny enough and limber and full enough … on the tough stock of a race who through all change of circumstance was never without the idea of political liberty, which is the animus of all liberty, it has attracted the terms of daintier and gayer and subtler and more elegant tongues. It is the powerful language of resistance … it is the dialect of common sense. It is the speech of the proud and melancholy races and of all who aspire. It is the chosen tongue to express growth faith self-esteem freedom justice equality friendliness amplitude prudence decision and courage. It is the medium that shall well nigh express the inexpressible. (Whitman’s “Preface” to 1855 edition)

    I love the juxtaposition of common sense and aspiration – and the idea that those English speaking will never be without “political liberty.”

  9. Great quotation, Ginny, from a time when Personal Liberty was the marrow and sinew of America and her people, and American English was broadly written and spoken as Whitman described. Folks high and low took pride in correct, if not eloquent expression an it was taught and required in school.

    Hence the intentional destruction of the language- grammar, usage and definitions of words by the anti-cultural marxists. One has only to listen to pop music, or college professors for examples.

  10. “it appears that while the song enjoyed a renaissance in 1944, it was written in 1934 ”

    Oh, I don’t doubt it but it expressed sentiments that were very important during the war,

    “Bought the farm” is another expression that related to the idea of going home and buying a farm. When a guy was killed, he was “buying that farm” that would never happen now.

    I knew guys (I was about 7) who remained life long friends from war time bonding. The “St Crispin’s Day” speech in Henry V expresses it well.

  11. “most people would once have agreed was a core aspect of the American character”: when was that? By the time I was conscious of such things Americans had a reputation as conformists, and the men, in particular, as hen-pecked conformists.

    Over the years I’ve seen little sign that this reputation was unfounded.

  12. I think of the lyric from Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” says it pretty well:

    Did they get you to trade
    Your heroes for ghosts?
    Hot ashes for trees?
    Hot air for a cool breeze?
    Cold comfort for change?
    And did you exchange
    A walk on part in the war
    For a lead role in a cage?

    For a lot of people I think the answer is yes. Many people believe there is safety in conformity. Stay with the herd and take no chances or risks.

  13. By the time I was conscious of such things Americans had a reputation as conformists, and the men, in particular, as hen-pecked conformists.

    American television has been working hard on this for 50 years. Read “Guadalcanal Diary” or “With the Old Breed”, for the truth.

    They are a smaller share of the 18 to 35 population than they were 70 years ago but I still see them every day I work.

  14. Desertrat said “Individual liberty demands a large amount of personal responsibility.”

    Read this idea lots of places, even something similar from Jefferson, and have yet to see anyone explain why.

    Sure, clear over at the anarchist edge you become solely responsible for your well-being and defense (which realistically means common defense with your neighbors, probably including a hired team of professionals), but with the milquetoast liberty championed by the Libertarian Party, or even the more hardcore liberty of the several states and the Articles of Confederation, I can’t see much required personal responsibility.

  15. I first heard the song “Don’t Fence Me In” when I was a little boy. It was in, I think, a Roy Rogers movie. When I heard the line, ” . . . can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences,” I didn’t know what hobbles were, but I pictured barbed-wire fences–not on the range, but in some totalitarian internment camp. Being a child of the Cold War I assumed it was some kind of anti-Communist anthem.

  16. I always thought it meant his family collected the insurance and paid off the mortgage. That’s pronounced IN-shernce, with the emphasis on the first syllable and the others shmushed together.

  17. I remember when “It’s a free country,” was a standard reply to anyone without legitimate authority trying to tell you what to do.

    Haven’t heard anybody saying that lately.

  18. A desire for freedom is in our language and I believe in our DNA – but you can probably tell its endangered by the combination of books extolling this history (less necessary when it is the unspoken but powerful assumption) and the kind of blank look of some of the younger generation at its importance or even, really, what it means.

    We have come a long way toward coddling when citizens consider a distinction (and not always in the negative’s favor) between “negative” and “positive” rights – a contrast Obama used. That he would see “positive” rights as possible (or as a campaign promise) shows thinking either manipulative or sorely out of touch with reality. The government can no more ensure my health than my food supply, my happiness than my family responsibilities.

    It should (and doesn’t under a leader who doesn’t recognize important limitations – or doesn’t want us to) ensure the harmony and order that provides a place where the “negative” freedoms are possible – a nation in which no man is bigger than the law, a nation in which property rights are respected, a nation in which a representative government that is freely elected taxes and builds an infrastructure without corruption and with both honesty and competence; and a government limited, that is governed by those who know they are.

    What struck me about the Democratic questioning of Gorsuch was its arrogance and blindness to freedom – the questioners seemed constantly to think that they were bigger than the law, the law Gorsuch so thoughtfully and humbly wanted to serve. They disparaged or appeared oblivious to the freedom that comes with the tradition of common law, the British tradition, the American tradition.

  19. Ginny….”A desire for freedom is in our language”

    Do you mean that it’s in books written in the English language, or that it’s actually embedded within the structure of the language?

  20. A desire for freedom is in our language and I believe in our DNA

    I think we are descended from ancestors who were willing to make huge changes in their lives to make a new start. It probably is in our DNA in some fashion.

    My own ancestors came from Ireland, mostly, One branch came from England but way back in the late 1600s. Probably religious fugitives.

    The Irish came before the Potato Famine. My mother’s maternal ancestors went to Canada, my father’s to upstate New York. Then my great grandfather moved to Illinois about 1850, when he was a boy of about 15. There is lots of family lore about him.

    An Irish doctor friend of mine explained to me one time why the Irish are not that fond of Americans coming to visit and find their “roots.”

    He said, “They know the cream left.” Those still in Ireland are the descendants of those who were unwilling to uproot their lives and move to the New World. And they know it.

    A lot of Germans left to avoid the Prussian conscription. French to flee the Revolution. Even Citizen Genet stayed when the government that had sent him as ambassador fell.

    Chinese came as workers or indentured in some way but they took a huge chance to get here. The same is true of Japanese.

    We are descended from people who were unhappy where they were and, far more important, willing to go far across the ocean and start over.

    I have wondered if the IQ distribution in American blacks represented a negative selection in that the people defeated in local wars or caught and sold as slaves might have been of lower IQ. I have never seen a study of African IQ distribution but Igbos of Nigeria are reputed to be of quite high intelligence and many are “Quants” in the financial industry in New York.

  21. Well, it is Fischer’s argument in Liberty and Freedom; I have a vague memory of an exchange (and I can’t remember who told the story and even of what nationality he was speaking though it seems to me an Indian speaking to an Englishman) in which an interrogator and authority figure was told, you can’t get me to make an argument for my subjugation in the language of freedom. That is not very convincing, I know, but it has stayed with me. It is Hannan’s thesis in Inventing Freedom as he discusses the language bonds between America and England as well as the shared history of common law. I think these arguments all come from diction, but a case can also be made for the openness of English to words from other cultures. While it requires a relatively clear and ordered syntax for meaning, it can readily expand – accepting and assimilating other languages because of the simplicity and variety its syntax-ordered format takes. A large vocabulary – indeed the largest – leads to precision, clarity, and therefore encourages distinctions. Making those distinctions is important to freedom and thought.

    This semester a student complained about some generalization in a reading – saying that the reader was “filling in the spaces” that weren’t filled in and that was a bad idea. Of course, what they were doing was trying to analyze what we do when we stereotype which is also what we do when we think – the former being sloppy thinking and analysis being thinking that holds itself to a higher level of fact and logic. But I’m worried that too few words and too much of that kind of thinking is going to leave that generation at the mercy of the superficial even as they think they are escaping it.

  22. “we stereotype which is also what we do when we think – the former being sloppy thinking ”

    Maybe after a while but humans use pattern recognition to recognize things. Stereotypes are patterns. After we are familiar with something, it is time to become more particular.

    In decision theory this is called using heuristics.

    a heuristic, is any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals.

    This can become a problem when the decision requires more detail.

    The study of heuristics in human decision-making was developed in the 1970s and 80s by Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman,[5] although the concept was originally introduced by Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon. Simon’s original, primary object of research was problem solving which showed that we operate within what he calls bounded rationality.

    Is it good enough ? There are lots of problems with heuristics but they work for first impressions.

    This is an important topic in medical education.

  23. Mike K

    You put it better – we begin connecting the dots, early on drawing a generalization may be stereotyping but finding more (and better) data, we begin to see that one Old Wife’s Tale is actually supported – and another, that had less data, worse data, or data with at least one different variable, is not. If my students are afraid to connect dots, then they will be ill equipped to make judgments. And that is one of the many bad results of an academic world of double speak. I ask them to look at passages and tell me why it is important to the author’s argument – they need to draw generalizations from limited data. And too often they give me boilerplate instead of actually looking deep into the evidence before them. But then all of us pull back sometimes from engagement with thought – at least I do,

    At the Gorsuch hearings, the Democrats were often looking at the example where the generalization didn’t work so well – then complaining because Gorsuch had applied the law, the generalization, to it. That’s what we get with law and precedents. If we look to an outlier year for climate change (if we begin with either the medieval warming or the little ice age) we are likely not to get the results we would with a much broader and wider look at changes.

    The democrats are more likely to say “there ought to be a law” but those laws are what make others’ lives unpredictable and therefore less productive.

    I don’t want a cradle to grave cocoon (even if I thought it was possible to meet my needs, which countless societies have proven it is not); but I would like the security of knowing that my house is not going to be taken or my business persecuted if I have an unpopular view, I would like to be able to count on cars driving down the proper side of the road and taxes being voted on by my representatives. Of course, I do not want my backyard (deep in, its border is flood plain) regulated by a bureaucracy in Washington (if the local planning commission suggests, I am willing to listen and vote).

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