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The Freedom Club



From around the nation, a cry has arisen among conservatives confronted with stay-at-home orders and mask-requirement ordinances: "Freedom!" Like William Wallace at the end of Braveheart facing tyranny and torture, they imagine themselves shouting "Freedom!" as martyrs to a great cause. I, meanwhile, find myself perpetually considering a different movie quote, from The Princess Bride's Inigo Montoya: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

On some level, there's no way of making the freedom-huggers see the blatant illogic in their case for absolute sovereignty over the region between the bridge of their nose and the tip of their chin, and whether or not the government can tell them to put a lid on it. If, in fact, the conservative case is that you have a constitutionally protected right not to have the government tell you what to wear in public, I'm curious if they similarly believe that I have a constitutionally protected right to walk down the street naked. Once you grant the premise that the government can enact rules forcing you to wear a piece of cloth over a specific part of your anatomy, the only question becomes "which parts, and why?" And it becomes evident that the right-wing logic would be "it's acceptable for the government to force you to cover your genitalia to protect my delicate sensibilities, but it's unacceptable for the government to force me to cover my nose and mouth to protect your life."

I'm particularly curious about how the parents at that fustercluck of a Utah County Commission meeting on July 12 would react if I asserted my God-given freedom to let "the little general" salute while I was, say, standing anywhere in the vicinity of one of their precious angels. We already know from controversies of the past that Utah County schools have no problem insisting that girls cover up their shoulders and midriffs, lest those around them be rendered unable to focus on their studies thanks to the lustful thoughts inspired by so much bare flesh. Heaven knows that mouths are capable of doing much nastier things than shoulders; you'd think the easily scandalized would be relieved to have a socially sanctioned excuse to cover up our sinful sucking parts.

But I suppose it's pointless to draw attention to hypocrisy among those who have immersed themselves in it so deeply that they no longer even see it. That's why Utah Speaker of the House Brad Wilson could somehow say with a straight face—when explaining his opposition to a statewide mask mandate—"In Utah, we prefer to encourage people to do the right thing rather than issuing mandates and demanding compliance," somehow failing to remember the many mandates and compliance demands applied to anyone in this state who wants to purchase or sell alcohol. They don't see it, because to them it's self-evident: Laws restricting your freedom are perfectly fine when they uphold a very specific definition of how I think the world should be.

That's also the way contemporary American conservatives view the idea of freedom of speech in a tumultuous time—and for quite a while before now. Remember when conservatives called country music radio stations in the early 2000s, demanding that they stop playing Dixie Chicks songs after Natalie Maines publicly criticized President George W. Bush? Remember when Colin Kaepernick was effectively blackballed from the NFL for daring to kneel for the national anthem? Surely, that's not the same as the "cancel culture" they clutch their pearls over when progressives criticize writers for racist comments or organize boycotts of Goya products over the company's owner praising Donald Trump. Armed protests against public-health-protecting business closures? Good. Unarmed protests against police violence? Bad. There's not one set of rules. There's what they get to do, and what they decide you get to do.

That's because "freedom" as American conservatives use the word isn't a big tent, a noble principle that protects us all. For them, "freedom" is a club—and I mean that in two senses of the word. First, it's an exclusive organization to which only those of a certain ideological bent are invited; your "freedom" ends where a perceived threat to their ideology begins. Second, it's a truncheon to be leveled against anything they don't like, with claims that their sorts of freedoms are absolute and without the possibility of restriction. "Freedom" becomes something they can swing in front of them as a license to do whatever they want to do, no matter the likely effect on anyone else.

If anyone took more than half a second beyond the shrill bleating of the word "Freedom!," they'd be able to see that not a single American freedom is absolute. Freedom of the press isn't absolute; if you think so, try printing something about a public figure that you know to be false. Freedom of religion isn't absolute; if you think so, try performing a human sacrifice and claiming it's part of your faith. Freedom of speech isn't absolute; fire, crowded theater, etc. We balance individual freedoms and societal consequences all the time. Anyone who isn't an intellectual infant should understand that.

Instead, we get the word "freedom" weaponized as a culture-war political tool. It's a club nobody should want to belong to—and furthermore, it's a club nobody has the right to belong to. Not unless we're going to have a conversation about removing those onerous government rules trying to control who gets to see my junk in public.

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