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I’m going to say something sacrilegious in American mythology: Our prevailing national conceptualization of “liberty” is archaic, false, and pernicious. A truer notion of liberty, one that means more freedom to do more things and enjoy more opportunities to explore more experiences and realizations and enjoyments and connections, is wonderful and sublime, but our prevailing notion of liberty, which came from a historically specific experience relevant to a specific historical context and currently increasingly anachronistic and out of sync with our increasingly subtle and sophisticated understanding of reality, is not that and does not serve that. Instead, it provides cover for predation while being rooted in a false narrative of reality.

We are not, most fundamentally, individuals; we are most fundamentally expressions of a larger social whole, interdependent rather than independent. The languages we speak and think in, the values and beliefs we hold, the religions we adhere to, the concepts and technologies we utilize, the institutions through which we operate, are all the product of our collective existence over time, somewhat uniquely combined but only extremely marginally modified within each of us in our slight individuation of that larger whole. It is very similar to our biology, which is genetically far more similar to than different from other mammals in general, let alone other human beings.

Not only our minds, but our very existences are an expression of our interdependence. Forget the norm for a moment, a norm in which each depends to a very high degree on others for every aspect of their survival (food, shelter, etc.) and everything beyond survival (entertainments, comforts, etc.); let’s consider the extreme instead. The most rugged and self-sufficient survivalist, at the very limit of self-reliance, one who goes off naked into the wilderness with nothing but their own resources on which to depend, still survives by virtue of human interdependence, because the skills they utilize to do so are skills they learned from other human beings. There is no escape from the fact of our interdependence; it is the fundamental fact of our existence.

An ideology that downplays that, that at best grudgingly acknowledges it while emphasizing a counter-narrative that is marginal in comparison to it, is not a wise ideology, is not an ideology that is navigating the subtle and complex nuances of our shared existence deftly and wisely, is not an ideology to which we should subscribe.

And American “liberty” has always been steeped in the toxin of exploitation. Our Founding Fathers wrote eloquently about their love of liberty while owning other human beings, because their conception of liberty was too narrow and too self-serving. We should not be embracing the same conception today. It is not hard to see that those who most ostentatiously do so are also those who are most willing to continue the legacy of oppression and exploitation and injustice that we have long indulged in and suffered from.

The brilliant antebellum Southern statesman and philosopher John C. Calhoun summed it up most eloquently in his insistence that the abolition of slavery would be an infringement on the liberty of slave owners by depriving them of their property. His quintessentially American notion of liberty was one that easily adapted to his desire to deprive others of theirs, as it continues to today.

Noting this is not advocacy for some Leviathan to which we must submit as willing slaves. This binary notion is just one more of the tools that American “liberty idolatry” has relied on to perpetuate itself. In fact, the alternative to this ideology is not our enslavement, but rather our greater liberation. If anything, the American authoritarian-tainted notion of liberty is not devoted enough to true liberty, the liberty of the spirit, the liberty to thrive, the liberty to use our collective genius and its artifacts to our collective benefit without presumption that doing so is preempted by a narrower and less enlightened notion of what serves our liberty.

Our liberty means nothing except as the expression of a larger social whole of which we are a part. There is nothing liberating about being left devoid of the legacies of our interdependence, unable to speak or think in language or use ideas produced by others over the course of human history, and so we should not treat that interdependence as a threat to our liberty; we should treat it is the foundation of our liberty. Nor is it any less absurd to treat the subtle and sophisticated social institutions that have evolved over time to facilitate our prosperity and well-being as being inherently antagonistic to our liberty; they are tools that can be used more or less beneficially and justly, but are tools nonetheless, tools indispensable to the ever greater realization of our truer liberty to prosper and thrive and live lives with a greater range of opportunities and enjoyments available to us.

Similarly, there is nothing liberating about continuing to rationalize the exploitation of some by others by virtue of a distribution of opportunities created by the legacies of historical injustices. We should seek to transcend such follies, not embrace and perpetuate them. And, ironically, it is through the continuing refinement and utilization of the very same institutions (governments, modern economies, etc.) that formed through and in service to such injustices that we can do so, because that is the quintessential nature of human history.

It’s time to stop being slaves to our own ideologies, our own rousing marshal marches, our own jingoistic symbols and emotionally manipulative mythologies. It’s time to embrace liberty in a higher form, liberation from such shackles and from the temptation to shackle others, the freedom to be wise and kind and imaginative and cooperative, and to create institutions which facilitate our humanity. THAT is the liberty we should aspire to.

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