Just What Exactly is Meant by Freedom?
Today I am writing you about the concept of freedom, especially how it’s seen here in the U.S. The point I’ll be making is that there’s a major misconception about what freedom means, and this misconception is at the root of much of the toxic political and cultural strife that is currently seen in the U.S. I’ll frame it by beginning with a story about the famed singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson.
At one time in his life, Kris Kristofferson was in a bad way. He had been a college All-American in rugby, football and track and field, and also was Phi Beta Kappa, which he parlayed into a Rhodes Scholarship and studies at Oxford University.
While at Oxford, he continued with sports—he excelled at boxing and rugby—and also began writing songs, which gained him a manager and a recording contract with an English record company. His manager promoted him as a “Yank at Oxford” to the British public, but the Brits weren’t interested, and his music career went down in flames.
He came from a military family, and under pressure from his father, after his studies at Oxford were over, he joined the U.S. Army, attaining the rank of Captain as he became a helicopter pilot stationed in West Germany.
By the time his tour of duty ended in 1965, he had enough of the military and was ready to resume his music career. His family wasn’t happy with his career decision and chose to disown him because of it, but Kristofferson carried on and moved to Nashville, in pursuit of a career as a singer-songwriter.
It was a battle for him though. He worked odd jobs, struggling to pay the bills, burdened with medical expenses due to his young child being born with a defective esophagus. He was also going through a divorce with his wife. The dream of making it in the music industry burned through him, while the harsh realities of life were tearing at him and making him feel desperate.
He got a job as a janitor at a music studio in Nashville, and there met June Carter Cash, who was music royalty times two—a member of the famed Carter Family and also the wife of the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. Kristofferson asked June Carter if she would give a tape to her husband. June obliged, but nothing came of it.
So Kris Kristofferson, acting out of a sense of despair and feeling he had nothing to lose, and with a willingness to go to prison if need be for his actions, borrowed a helicopter and flew it right onto the front yard of Johnny Cash. He got out of the plane, guitar in hand; Cash, gun in hand, ran out of his house and told Kristofferson he had one minute to get back in the plane and off his property. Kris said, “Mr. Cash, just let me play a song I wrote for you,” and with that he played “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” a song that within a few years Johnny Cash made into a major hit.
Cash was so floored by the song that he immediately asked Kristofferson if he had any other songs. Kris looked at Johnny and then said, “Here’s another one, it begins like this.” And then he started strumming his guitar as he sang:
Busted flat in Baton Rouge,
waitin’ for a train
When I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained
And rode us all the way into New Orleans.
I’s pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana
I’s playin’ soft while Bobby sang the blues
Windshield wipers slappin’ time
I’s holdin’ Bobby’s hand in mine
We sang every song that driver knew…
As Kris Kristofferson continued with the song, Johnny Cash listened in silence and awe, as he realized he was in the presence of a masterful songwriter. After Kristofferson was done, Cash invited him into the house for some beers, and then started making phone calls. Within a few weeks, Kris Kristofferson had a recording contract.
And that song he played for Johnny Cash, while he stood on the lawn next to his helicopter, went on to be covered by many people, most famously Janis Joplin, who put her heart and soul into it as she sang,
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’, it ain’t nothin’ honey, if it ain’t free
And feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues
You know feelin’ good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.
Me and Bobby McGee has been covered by a diverse group of musicians, including Roger Miller, Bill Haley and the Comets, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Gordon Lightfoot, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Olivia Newton-John, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Pink and Melissa Etheridge. It has resonated with the public thanks to its famous line, that “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” for if there’s anything Americans cherish more than anything else, it’s freedom.
Freedom is burned into the American psyche. The state of New Hampshire’s state motto is “Live Free or Die.” The American Revolutionary hero Patrick Henry famously said, in rallying Americans to fight the British, “Give me liberty or give me death.” And Thomas Jefferson burnished freedom into the Declaration of Independence when he penned the phrase “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
We all want to be free. It’s a good feeling to feel unburdened, to feel that unbearable lightness of being. Free of body, mind, heart and soul. And for Americans, freedom is closely equated with democracy.
Thomas Jefferson had a major role in forging that connection between freedom and democracy. As a student of the Enlightenment philosophers, it was their influence that was on Jefferson’s mind when he crafted the immortal words in the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, that people are endowed with certain unalienable rights, which included Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. To Jefferson, and America, freedom was equated with the pursuit of happiness.
After the American Revolution ended, Jefferson served as the American Minister to France from 1785 to 1789, and was there when the French Revolution began. While in France, Jefferson became good friends with the Marquis de Lafayette, who was a French hero of the American Revolution, and while in France, he helped Lafayette write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
To the French, Jefferson’s ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were incomplete, and so the French adopted what they felt was a more complete slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” that later was etched into their Constitution.
The French saw liberty as connected to fraternity—brotherhood, or social cohesion—believing that we are all interconnected, and one person isn’t free unless everyone is free. I would venture to say that the French got the meaning of freedom right, while here in America, it is incomplete. Freedom means what is best for the greatest good.
The early Americans had their opportunity to put that concept into the Constitution, because most of the ideas for democracy came from the Iroquois Nation, who are holders of the world’s oldest democracy. The Iroquois believed in serving the greatest good and for looking at how things would affect the seventh generation, but the framers of the Constitution chose to omit that ideal.
That incomplete knowledge has brought the U.S. to a misguided understanding of what freedom is, and it is that misguided understanding that is creating the current toxic environment in democracy, politics and culture.
Many people feel freedom is less or no government, and every time there is talk of the good things government is capable of, some politicians and segments of the electorate will cry “That’s socialism.” But it isn’t. Instead it is practicing soulcraft, or the art of social cohesion.
When we look out for one another, and look towards what is best for the greatest good, that’s social cohesion. Yes, freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose—Kris Kristofferson was right—but it ain’t mean nothin’ unless you got someone else’s back. Johnny Cash had Kris Kristofferson’s back, and that made all the difference in the life of Kristofferson.
The social democracies of Europe are rated the happiest nations on earth—the Nordic countries are the top rated countries—because of their strong sense of social cohesion, that not only do people look out for one another, but the government ensures a strong safety net. These are democracies, and people are free, but they have a strong sense of being connected to one another and a strong social responsibility to act for the greatest good.
The U.S. has a ways to go to become a social democracy. The most current of the Global Happiness Reports—a report published by the U.N. every year—puts the U.S. as the 18th happiest country on earth. That’s because of the lack of social cohesion and lack of a strong social safety net. In the U.S., where 80 percent of the population live paycheck to paycheck, the level of stress and anxiety over paying the bills and not ending up living on the streets precludes a higher rating on the Global Happiness Report.
How can the U.S., the richest nation in the history of the planet, have 80 percent of their population living paycheck to paycheck? Something’s not right—it’s the definition of freedom in the U.S. that is the problem.
Freedom isn’t about every person for themselves, getting yours before someone else gets it, and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps all by yourself. No, it takes a village to create a society—we’re all in this together, and when one person succeeds, we all succeed. As John F. Kennedy once said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
The English poet John Donne notably wrote in 1624, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
When the U.S. finally adopts that as their mantra, that “no man is an island,” that’s when freedom will be worth the price. That’s not socialism, that’s social cohesionism. At that point, the U.S. will then cease to be the poorest richest nation on the planet and at last take their seat at the table with all the other social democracies. And then freedom will truly be just another word for nothin’ left to lose.