The meaning of liberty

 statue of liberty

When anyone, knowing I lived on the east coast of America for several years, asks me for tips on what to do in New York, my first answer is always ‘go on the Staten Island ferry’. It’s free, it’s a taste of real New York life, and you get the view everyone wants of the Statue of Liberty without paying silly prices for tourist boats. It also gives you a reason to go down to the very tip of Manhatten Island, where you can get a real feel for the geography and history of the city in Battery Park.

The first time I saw the Statue of Liberty, it got me thinking about the interesting relationship between the USA and France back in those heady days of the late 18th century, when the two countries were both frightening the world by having revolutions against the old world order, and in the century that followed. Both nations ended up with slogans including the word ‘liberty’: the French famously called for ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’, while the American Declaration of Independence announced the right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. It occurred to me that the difference between these two ideals reveal the fundamental contrast between the two cultures, close though they might have felt at the time they gifted each other statues.

I have been accused of being prejudiced against America a few times in my life. It therefore seems important to preface what I am about to say by stressing that any negativity that might come across is very much about the nation’s politics and dominant culture, not its people. I love the land itself, with all the different climates and landscapes it offers, and the opportunities for adventure in the great outdoors; I am fascinated by native American cultures; I read a lot of American literature and listen to a lot of American music; I have dear friends there, and know that all across the US there are good people fighting for what they believe in. But the overriding conclusion I came to after almost five years living in the USA was that I had never felt more a European in my life. And behind that feeling are the words that come as liberty’s bedfellows.

For the French revolutionaries, liberty came first, followed immediately by equality. There is a great wisdom in this, because freedom is limited by inequality; if you have got to the state of Bobby McGee‘s companion where ‘freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose’, you might be psychologically free, but you’re not a sign that your country is succeeding politically. Liberty is dependent upon equality before the law – to be represented fairly in court, to be treated reasonably by the police, to marry your choice of partner, to get medical treatment on the same basis as everyone else – and an economic system that is egalitarian enough for all levels of society to be able to make choices about their lives. The French then followed this with ‘fraternity’. (Sadly, this is a generic male term and there is no gender-neutral or female equivalent, so we’ll just have to go with it and ignore that.) Fraternity, brotherhood, implies a family relationship between members of society. It suggests that not only should all citizens be free and equal, but that they should care for each other.

Lofty ideals, and ones that are never going to be fully realised in any society, but now let’s turn back to the American Declaration of Independence. Life first. Well, surely that’s a given – though Black Lives Matter has reminded us all that never in the history of the United States have black people been given the same right to life as white people. It’s also somewhat hypocritical that a nation that stresses the right to life first is one of the few western nations that still has the death penalty and uses it, whilst the right to termination of pregnancy is such a political hot topic that for many electors removing it overrides almost any other policy a party or candidate might have. Next, liberty. And then ‘the pursuit of happiness’. This is where to me, the basis of American culture falls down. What does it mean to pursue happiness? Well every world religion, belief system and psychological approach has its own answer to what happiness means, but many of them conclude that pursuing happiness as an individual is not actually productive. Happiness tends to come as a by-product from pursuing other things, such as developing character, living a fulfilled life, caring for others, being creative etc. It also comes from living in a society where there is a reasonable level of equality and justice, as this article explains.  The phrase ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ gives me a mental picture of a nation full of individuals running around in their own little zorb-like bubbles trying to make themselves happier, without realising that they can never achieve it without making the world a fairer and better place, and without focussing on the fundamentals of life: friends, family, good food, time in nature, the arts.

And when I lived there, I found that the individualism of the culture was overriding, and deeply unpleasant. I was constantly angered by the way people who seemed quite friendly and reasonable on first meeting quickly revealed that they saw nothing wrong with deep, deep social inequality, and the fact that no politician in any party seemed to be suggesting positive change. As my first winter in Massachusetts approached, I remembered being asked to contribute to an appeal to buy toys for homeless children in Boston so they would get Christmas presents. Massachusetts is the only state in the USA that has a ‘right to shelter’ policy, meaning that nobody should end up literally on the streets (thank heavens, given that the winter temperatures are so cold that you’d be unlikely to survive a night in the open), but emergency accommodation can be several families in one apartment with only a bedroom to themselves, and people still fall through the cracks in the system and end up sleeping under bridges. In other states, there is no right whatever to housing, regardless of your circumstances. So I felt very torn. Yes, it would be lovely to think that a homeless child got a doll or a new coat to make them smile on Christmas morning, but who was tackling the underlying problem? Would the child have enough to eat next week? Was anything being done to make social housing available? And more fundamentally, whose happiness was actually being pursued here – the homeless child, or the donor who was able to enjoy the $500 pile of gifts they had bought for their own kids with a clear conscience now they had given $20 to charity?

Now when I complain about these things in the USA, I am not for a minute forgetting that we have a housing crisis in this country too. What I found shockingly different though was that in the UK, it is easy to find political parties, individuals and organisations that see the problem and shout about how wrong it is. For all the trolling and extremism on social media (and sometimes mainstream media too), that sometimes makes us think we’ve lost the plot as a nation, British people in their millions get angry if the NHS is threatened, they argue about how to make the welfare state better, they get behind campaigns to feed hungry children. The French are the same. We might laugh at them sometimes for all their strikes and protests, but the values behind those protests are sound, and they are similar to our own.

Because when it comes down to it, on this side of the Atlantic, we have realised that liberty means nothing without equality and fraternity.

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