What Americans Don’t Understand About Freedom — That Europeans and Canadians Do
Image Credit: Lindsey Wasson
By now, you might have heard North Dakota is the world’s worst Covid hotspot. The world’s worst, with South Dakota not far behind. Things aren’t just desperate there — they’re bizarre, at least to the rest of the world. Nurses talk about patients in the Covid ICU lashing out at them because…they don’t believe Covid exists…while they’re dying of it. Meanwhile, the governor refuses to make mask-wearing mandatory, because she thinks that masks and lockdowns don’t work. You might think all that would infuriate Dakotans, but quite the opposite is true: they’re firmly behind her, as they are Donald Trump, the President who let Covid spin out of control, and make North Dakota the world’s worst Covid hotspot.
The rest of the world is staggered by all that, because it is staggering. How many twisted levels of illogic are even in there? Too many to count. People in the world’s worst Covid hotspot dying of Covid who don’t believe Covid exists so they won’t fight Covid and back a President and Governor who’ve just let it explode. It’s so awesomely weird that you can’t really find this level of backwardness and folly anywhere else in the world, which is exactly why Dakota is the world’s worst Covid hotspot. But it’s not just North Dakota. Nine of the ten world’s worst Covid hotspots are American states.
And that is because something went badly, badly wrong in America.
In these states, which are mostly red states, Americans have become effectively martyrs for a certain idea of freedom. They are willing to sacrifice anything — and I mean anything — including themselves, their families, their health and wealth, their futures, their towns and cities, and their democracy. But what good is freedom if it’s just the right to…self-destruct?
America became obsessed with free-dumb: the idea of freedom as the removal of all restraint, the right to harm others, the ability to do anything you please, no matter how destructive, toxic, foolish, or inane. Covid’s a jaw-dropping example of it. Think about the example above: it involves at least three levels of free-dumb. The right to “believe” Covid doesn’t exist, the right not to have to wear a mask, the right not to have to lock down. All these effectively add up to the idea that Americans should be free to infect anyone they please with a lethal disease. What on earth?
Where does this amazingly, jaw-droopingly stupid idea of free-dumb come from? Covid’s hardly some kind of anomaly. It’s part of a larger pattern. Americans — in the vast, vast majority — think of freedom in a way that by now the rest of the rich world and much of the poor one regards as dangerously backwards. Freedom is the right not to ever have to cooperate, to invest, to act for the common wealth or common good.
Why is America the only rich society in the world that doesn’t have effectively any public goods? No functioning healthcare, retirement, higher education, and so forth? Because of free-dumb. “I won’t pay for their healthcare, education, retirement!!” Why not? “They’re weak! They’re liabilities and burdens!! They cost me money!!” But wait, don’t you understand that means you won’t have those very same things yourself — because such social institutions are for everyone? “I don’t care! I won’t reward weakness and laziness! Such people need to be punished! And I should be free not to have support the weak!”
So goes the logic of the average American. The idea of free-dumb is something like this. Freedom means a gun, a beer, a Bible, and no rights for women and minorities. But textbooks and medicine and good food and water — those take away your freedom.
What the? How did Americans end up believing this incredible level of self-evident nonsense? How can a gun and a Bible give you freedom, while a book and medicine take it away? What on earth happened to this society to make it actually accept this insanely depressing and foolish kind of backwardsness?
I’ll come to that in a moment. First, you might think I overstate the case. Do I? After all, something like 70% of Americans say they want all the things above. The problem is that they never vote for them. Nope, not even this time around. Democratic voters made Biden rise to power, not Liz Warren or Bernie Sanders, who were the ones championing Americans having basic public goods. Yet again, Americans chose free-dumb. And it’s crucial to note that choice cuts across the left-right divide. Sure, the right only supports free-dumb. But on the centre and the left, free-dumb is dominant, too. Free-dumb so dominates American thinking, society, ideas, culture, life, that Americans have never not chosen it.
To make it clearer just how bizarre and twisted this notion of freedom really is, think about what happens when you cross a border — an imaginary line — into Canada, or take a short flight to Europe. There, freedom has a completely different definition — one that’s diametrically opposed to American free-dumb. Canada and Europe are famous for the world’s most expansive, sophisticated social contracts. Citizens enjoy everything from healthcare to education to retirement to childcare and more.
Why? Americans don’t understand — even the ones who consider themselves intelligent, even the educated ones — just why social democracies like Canada and Europe cherish these things so much that they provide them to everyone, no questions asked. They don’t understand the logic at all, because nobody has ever explained it to them, even attempted to usually, and so free-dumb goes right on having an iron grip over American life, making it as stupid as humanly possible.
The logic of why Canada and Europe provide basics to all goes like — it’s about freedom, but in a much, much deeper, more elegant, thoughtful, sophisticated, and beautiful way than Americans understand. If I am fighting for the basics — bitterly battling everyone else for the food, water, money, medicine, to survive, what does that make of me? I become embittered, hostile, angry, resentful. I grow callous and cruel. I become suspicious and distrustful and isolated and alone. I don’t grow as a person — I shrink and wither into my worst self. The Greeks would have said: I grow weak, morally, intellectually, socially, culturally. And people weak like that are not capable of sustaining a democracy.
What happens, on the other hand, if I do have the basics? Then I’m free. Not just free in the superficial, narrow American way: free to have stuff. I’m free in an existential, social, emotional, cultural, human way. I’m free to cultivate, develop, nurture higher values and virtues. I can be trusting, kind, generous, empathic. I can be thoughtful, critical, reflective. I can be humble and warm and appreciate beauty and truth. I am free to be a genuinely good person. Human goodness has been freed in me.
You might think all that sounds dramatic and overblown, but let me assure you, as someone who’s lived in America, Canada, and Europe — it’s not. Think about how Canadians are renowned for their gentleness and kindness. Or about how Europeans are known for their thoughtfulness and expansiveness and decency and closeness as societies. These things I’m speaking of aren’t abstractions, and they’re not my opinion. They are lived human realities that happen in these societies every single day.
Now think of how the world regards Americans, by contrast. It thinks of them, mostly, as idiots. As cruel, abusive, selfish, exploitative. As narcissists obsessed with the superficial aspects themselves. As violent dummies — people more likely to have a a gun than a book. As bigoted and superstitious — people who think they can pray the gay and the Covid away. I know that sounds harsh, if you’re American.
But is it untrue?
Go ahead and take a hard look at Americans’ behaviour during Covid. It’s been, in a word, shocking and abysmal. Sure, “not all Americans” as the saying goes. But America, as a society, hasn’t exactly done itself proud. Quite the opposite. As a society, Americans acted just the way the world imagined them to be: selfishly, ignorantly, violently, cruelly. Like spoiled, overgrown children throwing the world’s biggest tantrum. How else did America end up with the world’s worst Covid numbers? Precisely because people wouldn’t cooperate with lockdowns and masks, or demand them.
Covid showed that social norms and values of basic decency, kindness, thoughtfulness, care, concern, consideration don’t exist in America. You might think I’m just name-calling — but I’m trying to actually point out a deeper truth.
Norms of basic decency and humanity and gentleness and empathy and care and so on don’t exist in America precisely because Americans aren’t free to be and do those things.
Do you see my point? It’s not about insults — it’s an analysis of freedom. Americans have built a society focused on a certain backwards notion of freedom, free-dumb, the hyper-individualist belief in one’s own right to do anything one pleases, no matter how foolish, destructive, or harmful. But that has cost Americans a truly free society.
Why are Americans so violent, cruel, ignorant, destructive, thoughtless, selfish, careless? Because Americans are not free to be the kinds of people Europeans and Canadians are. Europeans and Canadians are free to be thoughtful, kind, gentle, wise, loving, concerned, considerate people because they enjoy the basics of life. Therefore, they are not consumed with the desperate battle for survival.
But American do not enjoy the basics. For them, life is a constant, perpetual battle for self-preservation and survival. Not just for the poor, but for more or less everyone now, because America is effectively a poor society, made of one giant underclass. Yes, really — 80% of Americans live hand-to-mouth, 75% struggle to pay the bills, 70% can’t raise a few hundred dollars for an emergency, and that’s because they don’t have it — the average American now dies in $62,000 of debt, which means he’s been trying to survive, but hasn’t. He or she hasn’t earned or saved or owned anything his or her his whole life long. Just having the basics has proven impossible — it has left the average American in debt that they die in.
What do we expect to happen to people that don’t have the basics? Exactly what happened to Americans. They grow angry and afraid, unable to think critically or carefully. They can’t care for anyone else, because life is a bitter battle just for self-preservation. Enmity and suspicion and hostility become social norms, not kindness and gentleness and empathy. Cruelty and aggression become a way of life, not cooperation and warmth.
In short, we’d expect people to become violent, stupid, selfish, as they grow poor — not because they are such things, but because that is what poverty does and is. Intellectual poverty is ignorance and superstition. Social poverty is mistrust and hostility. Cultural poverty is cruelty and aggression. Americans are poor in all these ways now, and when the world shakes its head at them, and condemn them, saying, “My God! Has the world ever seen such backwards, stupid people?” what it, in turn, doesn’t understand is that this is what a society becoming poor is. America becoming a place of stunning cruelty and stupidity and callousness and selfishness, so much so that mass death swept it, and more or less, it shrugged. That’s what poverty really is.
Let me put that another way. Europeans and Canadians are wealthy in a profound, an existential and human way — they are wealthy in happiness, trust, meaning, purpose, care, kindness, consideration, decency. But Americans are poor in all those things. That is why Americans cannot really express those values or virtues very much. What made America poor in those things, though, those basic human values — while Europe and Canada grew rich in them?
Freedom — the real thing — versus free-dumb. Now let’s connect the dots. The European and Canadian idea was that giving everyone the basics would free them. Not just to have medicine and money and so on — but to be intelligent, kind, loving, decent human beings.
The American idea, meanwhile — descended from slavery — was just the opposite: only the strong should survive, and the weak should perish. Therefore, nobody deserved anything at all — even the basics — because human life had no inherent or intrinsic worth. Only the strong deserved such things — and they were the ones who could dominate and exploit and control everyone else.
This was a Nietzschean view of power and society — the ones who rose to the top should be the ubermensch: those only concerned with their own “will-to-power,” that is, with making their own selfish desires manifest, who could subjugate as many others as possible, and make servants or slaves of them. But what happens to a society trying to be Nietzschean ubermen? Everyone soon enough begins trying to exploit and abuse everyone else — while depriving them of the basics. You can see how such a place ends up like America: renowned for cruelty, aggression, hostility, thoughtlessness, violence, not the human values and virtues of kindness and care and concern and so on.
Americans don’t understand any of this, really. They get that Europeans and Canadians have basics that they don’t, but mostly, they swallow the stupid, stupid American logic that that comes at the price of freedom, and Europeans and Canadians have less “choices” and so forth. Americans have no idea whatsoever that European. and Canadian society is built on the existential-humanist understanding that came from Camus and Sartre and de Beauvoir and many others that giving everyone the basics frees them to be fully and wholly human.
Americans, probably, have no idea what that phrase even means. So let me put it concisely. Anyone can be foolish, destructive, selfish, greedy, hostile, cruel. To be fully human, though, is to cultivate the higher values of empathy, grace, truth, beauty love. When I have to struggle for food, money, medicine, what room do I have to cultivate those things? I curdle inside, instead, and wither. It’s only when I have the basics that I can really engage with the higher struggle of being human. How do I love? Care? Know? Emote? Empathize? Understand? Share? Grow?
These two notions of freedom couldn’t be more different. Freedom in America, free-dumb, is about not having to ever engage with the struggle of being human — just go out and be as selfish as you please. Carry a gun to Starbucks. Don’t wear a mask. Don’t let anyone have healthcare, including yourself. The vicious cycle goes on. Freedom in Canada and Europe, though, is totally opposite to this: it’s about having the basics, so you can engage with the higher struggles, the struggles for love, self-definition, truth, beauty, purpose — and therefore reach a much, much higher plateau as a human being.
Of happiness, of meaning, of grace and fulfillment. That is why those societies are far, far richer than America in all these things.
I don’t know if America will ever really change. What I do know is this. I’ve never felt more alive than when I was in Canada and Europe — precisely because I wasn’t surrounded by idiots that thought guns, pecs, boobs, and religion mattered more than love, truth, beauty, grace, death, time, dust, and goodness. I was freest there, to grow, to develop, mature, to love, care, know, understand, think — because they are the places that human beings built for being human.
Most Americans, sadly, may never have that experience — and will be all the poorer for never knowing what real freedom is.
How did things get so twisted?