As waves of Arab protesters keep taking to the streets in countries across the Middle East, and as panels of Egyptian experts begin revisiting their country’s constitution in the wake of their country’s 18-day revolution, I want to take the infamous FDR line and give it a new ring: “The only thing we have to fear is . . . freedom itself.”
At first blush, this may seem foolish. After all, what aspect of the human condition could be more universal than the need to be free, and the desire to have the space to shape one’s own life and determine one’s own path in the world? And yet, while it’s unquestionable that freedom is the fundamental condition for any real growth, freedom from oppression means little if it is not accompanied by the freedom to fully be ourselves – and not just the freedom to select what type of jeans to wear, or even which politician to vote for. It’s a deeper level of self-actualization that we all seek in that word – and it’s something we in America, two centuries into our own experiment in liberty, are still struggling to support.
To see this tension played out in the life of a single individual, look no further than the legendary U.S. Supreme Court justice – and FDR appointee – Hugo Lafayette Black. It was Black who became known as the Court’s most absolutist defender of individual freedoms. And it was Black who warned us, back in 1961, that “too many men are being driven to become government fearing and time-serving because the Government is being permitted to strike out at those who are fearless enough to think as they please and say what they think. The choice is clear to me,” Black wrote. “If we are to pass on that great heritage of freedom, we must return to the original language of the Bill of Rights. We must not be afraid to be free.”
Reading these words, it seems incongruous that the Black of 1961 could, in 1969, also write these lines: “Change has been said to be truly the law of life, but sometimes the old and tried and true are worth holding. Uncontrolled and uncontrollable liberty,” he asserted, “is an enemy to domestic peace.”
What had happened in the span of those eight tumultuous years? Had the social unrest of the 1960s caused Black to lose his abiding faith in the constitutional principles of freedom and democracy?
But he had certainly lost faith in the ability of the nation’s citizens – and particularly its young people – to exercise that freedom productively. In short, the octogenarian Justice whose career had been in the service of expanding freedom, and who had been watching the ways that freedom was being applied in the streets outside his office window – angrily, messily, passionately, violently – had started to doubt whether a truly robust application of free-speech rights was in the best interests of safety, order, and the future of the republic. “Anything can happen here,” he told a friend, just weeks before his death – on Constitution Day, September 17, 1971.
History has of course shown us that, despite Black’s fears, the republic still stands. And yet Black’s inability to fully maintain his own commitment to freedom in the face of his own personal fears is instructive to all of us – particularly our world’s newest fellow experimenters in democracy. As with all things worthwhile, rough days lie ahead.
For better or worse, America has committed itself to an unprecedented experiment in freedom:
- an experiment premised on the principle that more speech is better
- that more information will produce better judgments
- that more knowledge will make more self-realized persons
- that more associations and beliefs will make us more open-minded
- that more press freedom will benefit society
- that more robust expression of all sorts will make us a freer people
- and that the more we allow for all of this the better our chances are to discover truth, beauty, freedom, and something about ourselves as well.
That, at any rate, is the operative principle; call it a collective hunch? On that principle – a core First Amendment principle – we have banked everything.
Freedom also has its costs. That is precisely why we fear it. And the freedoms we have long honored – and that Egypt, Tunisia and other countries are now themselves seeking to embrace – is no different. When liberals or libertarians applaud it, they can all too easily ignore the risks – indeed, the dangers – posed by unchecked expression. By the same token, when conservatives or conformists rally against it, they can ignore the fact that unchecked demands for security lead all too often to tyranny.
This is not an argument for a “happy medium.” Rather, it is to say that those who love freedom or value security must be mindful of what they wish for. As the great educator John Dewey once warned, “The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions which have given a victory to external authority. . . The battlefield is also accordingly here – within ourselves and our institutions.”
Sam Chaltain is a DC-based writer and educator. His newest book, We Must Not Be Afraid to Be Free: Stories of Free Expression in America, was released by Oxford University Press this month.