A recent radio broadcast of American folk music was organized around the sentimental theme of "Take a Train." Songs like The Wabash Cannonball, Davy Jones, Gotta Travel On, From a Boxcar Door, The Hobo's Last Ride, and Waitin' for a Train were featured, by The Weavers, Jimmie Rogers, Boxcar Willie, Roy Acuff, and others. Those are great songs, and the mythology of trains in America - probably in most developed parts of the world, in fact - is an irresistible self-indulgence for many of us from time to time.
On this program there were quite a few songs from or about the Thirties, songs about hobos riding the empty cattle cars and even flat cars looking for work, songs by men looking back over those hard times, not with horror or fear, but with nostalgia. The theme was often how free a guy felt, riding the rails.
It seems politics have never been more all-encompassing than they are these days, and the attractiveness of freedom is a standard rhetorical tool for many politicians and commentators.
"My party is based on freedom."
"I'm going to protect your freedom; vote for me."
"The other party wants to take away your religious freedom."
"America is the land of the free."
"Corporations need to be free to compete globally
and keep America the greatest nation in the world."
"All peoples of the world want to be free."
These are typical political lines we hear these days that are sure to arouse cheers.
Some of us find it loathsome that someone who claims to support freedom backs laws that would in fact deny the level or kind of freedom that others - like women, or gays - already have. That has happened often enough that the question has been discussed just how large (and loud) groups could seriously think such legislation could strike a blow for freedom. I have asked myself if it could be that these people in fact want only themselves and other like-minded people to have the "freedom" they want in order to take away the freedom of those who think differently.
"Whose freedom does that party or that individual really support?" I feel forced to ask myself, since they so clearly don't support "freedom for all."
How many different meanings does the word freedom have in common usage today?
"Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves."
"Send us your name and address, and we'll send you -
absolutely free of charge - this marvelous product!"
"When can we meet? I'm free all day tomorrow."
"You gave how much as a tip? Mighty free with your money,
"That soda is sugar-free."
"Sky-diving makes me feel free."
"What's the difference between blank verse and free verse?"
"The United States is a free country."
"The opponents of Assad want the Syrian people to be free."
"In the privacy of your own home, you are free to do as you like."
"I'm a free man [woman], responsible only to myself."
Besides, if we go beyond explicit words, we have to recognize that one can feel free or not-free in many other ways too. For instance, if your family is depending on you to do well in school, you might feel you are not free to just be yourself.
Or if you have little or no money, you might feel trapped in poverty.
When you're sick, you're not free to have fun or eat or drink your usual favorite stuff, or go out.
If your boss doesn't just tell you what to do, but also tells you exactly how do it, you might prefer to be free to do your work your way.
Our sense of feeling free or not-free depends on what we sense others expect of us. Sometimes we expect the same of ourselves and may even appreciate the support of someone else. But we also might resent others presuming they can impose their wishes on us, and we might resent that even when we share the same hopes and dreams.
We may go so far as to imagine that certain other people - parents, spouses, bosses, friends... - that certain others have expectations of us that they don't have, in fact. We may not be the protagonist in their own life-drama as we imagine, but we feel their expectations anyway and do not want to disappoint them. We resent that extra burden they seem to us to have placed on our conscience.
Who has (or may have) expectations of us?
Parents, family, friends
Bosses, authorities of all kinds including coaches, police, ministers ...
The waiter who serves you, the supermarket checker, the bartender...
Most of us can find ourselves from time to time trying to "live up to" the expectations of us that we can only imagine others actually have. Think of buying a subway ticket in New York City... or Paris, or London.
But we'd rather feel free.
5When I hop aboard a Boxcar
And hear that mighty engine start to roar
I miss the freedom that was mine.
One has the impression that a significant number of Americans today feel that their freedom is shrinking from what it once was. What is creating this feeling?
More and more of us are growing older, and we just can not do anymore what we used to be able to do easily ...or at least to imagine ourselves doing it someday if we just felt like it. We are thus not free to do all we might like to do.
More of us these days live in metropolitan areas with large populations, busy highways and streets, lines at the supermarket or the huge Walmart or the Macdonalds or the beer store or the gas station... or the public library. We seem surrounded by people, even crowds, every minute of every day. The houses are closer together than where we lived as children, and the apartment houses are bigger, with more people living in them. So strangers seem to be looking at us, all the time. We can't get free of these observers.
Besides, whether on the streets or in the media or even dealing with voices on the telephone menus, those we are dealing with are not like us - as much as they used to be. They haven't lived in my neighborhood for generations. They have darker skin and accents, talk faster or slower, louder or softer, and even speak different languages... How can we feel at home anymore? You know, at home where you feel free to just be yourself?
To whom, then, would political claims of supporting freedom most passionately appeal? Middle-aged individuals, or older? Folks who have to be painfully careful with their money? White racists? People who are just not ready to take on social responsibilities? All those, and others too?
If we are deeply and persistently emotional about something, we are unusually vulnerable to manipulation by a clever and perhaps cynical person who wants to use our emotions to make us think or act in a particular way. If we are deeply and consistently angry about something, or fearful of something, we can more easily be misled than we might be normally.
So, those of us who resent our apparent loss of privacy, who are uncomfortable at the strangers around us, who are afraid we are losing the strength that in our youth made us feel invulnerable, and who are angry at how everybody seems to want to dictate how we should think or talk or behave - we are susceptible to the manipulation of people or groups whose success depends on our believing that they are like us and understand us and will help us fight back!
If politicians can make us feel they are on our side just by saying how highly they value freedom, then - guess what? - they will tell us that. And we may not be as likely as we would normally be to check to see if a politician's past actions and her or his other professed values indicate that the claims to value freedom are truthful or that these claims are, instead, only dishonest attempts to use our deep-seated passions to lead us by the nose.
When I was growing up, whenever anyone mentioned freedom, a little admonition about responsibility always, always followed: "You know, with freedom comes responsibility." The politicians these days who talk about freedom the most often don't ever seem to mention responsibility at all. Have you noticed that?
...And what does that tell us?