When the children were at that delicate cusp between eighth grade and high school we had a conversation about freedom. There was not anything particularly new or innovative about my ideas. In fact what I told them was as old as grandpa.
I explained that as they entered high school and then college they would be wanting a considerable amount of freedom. They would have the chance to drive a car and go on a date. They would have the chance to be out of the house without Mom and Dad looking over their shoulder. They would have the choice to do well in school, get a job, earn some money, plan a future and have a good bit of fun. In fact, with a roof over their head and no bills to pay, they had the prospect of enjoying some of the most free and happy years of their lives.
All this freedom was barreling down upon them and my job as father was to prepare them for the adventure of freedom. Just as their body was changing, their mind, their outlook, their spirit was also changing. It would be natural for them to question things, challenge authority and find out for themselves. Because of this, my parenting and that of their mother would also be changing. No longer were we there to give them orders and expect obedience. Instead we would be engaging them in the discussion, inviting their co-operation and pointing the way if they chose to take it. The whole point of the high school years is to prepare for the total freedom of adult life, and I aimed to assist them in that undertaking. Together we would take some risks, but we would also take some responsibility.
For the key to the whole adventure was responsibility. Personal responsibility is the flip side of the freedom coin, I explained. “The more you step up to the plate and take responsibility the more freedom you will be entitled to and the more you will enjoy that freedom.” I explained that, as parents, we were the monitors of the freedom/responsibility relationship. “We will observe how responsible you are and that will determine how much freedom you receive.” They seemed to get it.
The homely illustration from family life applies also to national life. The stars and stripes are a kind of symbol of the freedom and responsibility balance. The stars, if you like, representing the aspiration to noble freedom. The sensible stripes, the bars of discipline and responsibility we bear.
We call the Fourth of July “Independence Day” for we not only celebrate independence from the colonial power, but we celebrate that particular hallmark of the American people—an independent, inventive, entrepreneurial, hard working, positive and pro-active attitude. It is in our red, white and blue bloodstream. Our independent spirit is marked by a love of personal freedom. “Don’t tread on me!” we cry as we happily do our own thing, worship the way we want, build the lives we dream and go on being as eccentric, unpredictable and ornery as can be.
The problem in the country today is that we desperately need the eighth grade lecture from the paterfamilias. Like spoiled teenagers we have grabbed about as much freedom as any human family can possibly take while forgetting responsibility with as much alacrity. We may complain about the nanny state, but for far too long we have been crybabies in need of a nanny. More than that, we are in need of a wet-nurse to suckle. When a people abdicate responsibility they also sacrifice their freedom. You cannot be mollycoddled and have freedom. The embrace of nanny is a prison and the provision of nanny pulls the child into an addictive dependency.
My own children commented on some of their classmates’ lack of freedom. “You wouldn’t believe it Dad. Their parents put GPS sensors on their cars to track them. They have this spy software on the computers to check if they are watching porn. If they do not make straight A’s and come in by eleven they get grounded!” We observed that the parents and the teenagers were not very comfortable with either freedom or responsibility and surmised that the parents had probably been raised under a similarly draconian regime and probably go through their work day living under an overbearing system and schedule. Therefore, not only in the realm of government, but in every aspect of life Americans seem content to submit, kowtow and accept the yoke of authoritarian control. They are happy to be tread upon.
And why? Because the responsibility demanded by freedom has become too onerous. The personal virtue demanded by the high philosophical standards of the American founding fathers has become tiresome. Everything—even religion—has become entertainment, and we are evermore driven to the easy solution, the sweet sentiment and the instant fix. We want someone to do it for us so it is easier to become a cipher. Easier to fall in with the pack of lemmings and become a drudge and a drone, and when that happens no tyrant needs to descend with armed police to take a people’s freedoms for they have already yielded them and submitted. The armed police are only used as a mopping up operation for those one or two recalcitrant citizens who still refuse to be tread upon.
On this Fourth of July therefore, let us celebrate our independence with the mature acceptance of both freedom and responsibility. Let us aspire to the star of freedom while accepting the stripes of responsibility so that we have a country to be proud of and a heritage to hand on to our children.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.