FDR's Four Freedoms - Then and Now


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During his January 6th, 1941 State of the Union address, Franklin D. Roosevelt laid out four fundamental freedoms that should be enjoyed "everywhere in the world": Freedom of speech and expression, Freedom of every person to worship in his own way, Freedom from want; and Freedom from fear. It is interesting to contrast these notions given in a speech as America was watching the world become increasingly engulfed in a world war that would draw in the U.S. by years end with the current "war on terror."

I was inspired to look at the Four Freedoms in a modern context after a weekend visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum. Norman Rockwell painted illustrations of the four freedoms that became part of the most successful War Bonds drive in U.S. history.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world.

Freedom of speech and expression is probably the most recognized of the four today. Yet, many people will not stand up for the rights of others to say what they please. Consider the whimper of protest around the Supreme Court's decision in Morse v. Frederick (a.k.a. "Bong Hits 4 Jesus".) The court decided that since the banner, displayed at a school sponsored event could be interpreted as promoting drug use, that the school could restrict such speech.

Also consider the White House policy that blocks protestors from being at events attended by the president. It instructs that a designated protest area be established out of view of the event and the motorcade route. We've witnessed countless examples of this especially including the crack down in NYC during the Republican convention.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way--everywhere in the world.

This freedom is perhaps the most misunderstood in contemporary society. Liberals cite any entanglement between Church and State as a violation of the establishment clause. But that is not what the establishment clause means. The establishment clause does not bar public religious expression, it bars the government from establishing an official state religion. Mandatory school prayer, particularly if it is scripted, could be argued to be a violation of the establishment clause. A nativity scene erected on government property really isn't.

The third is freedom from want--which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

This is really an argument for free trade and is likely tied to FDR's efforts to open up trade with other nations -- like his use of the lend-lease program to pry open Britain's colonial monopoly (arguably what really got the U.S. out of the depression.) Free trade has definitely improved our standard of living: we can buy many of our basic necessities for cheaper than we can make them.

I think a more liberal interpretation of "freedom from want", which Rockwell portrayed using a Thanksgiving dinner, suggests having basic necessities met. People should neither starve nor be sick simply because of poverty. We do some to help with each of those conditions amongst the poor in this country, but certainly not enough. There are working poor, for example, who get quickly shut out of the assistance programs.

The fourth is freedom from fear--which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor--anywhere in the world.

Boy have times changed. Instead of reducing armaments, the U.S. mass-produces them and gives them away as "aid" to other countries. Instead of resisting aggression between countries, thanks to the Bush Doctrine, we now perpetrate it. Eisenhower was right to caution against feeding the beast he called the Military Industrial Complex. There's a great saying that I think is metaphorically appropriate when it comes to the military's role in Bush's diplomacy: "When your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail."

But, let's take the concept of fear in a different direction. Consider this full quote, also from FDR:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Today, we deal with fear using a color-coded system and duct tape. Instead of inspirational speeches asking us to overcome our fear, we are kept in a perpetual state of fear through terror warnings about gut feelings.

We waged war -- real terror -- on another nation because we feared they might have weapons they could use on us. Even if Iraq had WMDs, is that a rational response? There are many countries with WMDs in this world. Are we going to attack all of them?

I don't have the answer as to how we return to a time where we believed in the four freedoms, but I feel as though we are moving away from them rather than toward them.

Speech is only respected as free if it is wholesome, patriotic, or something we agree with.

We only tolerate private religious expression, and we prefer it be Christian. Don't believe me, ask a Muslim their opinion.

Freedom from want has become "money is good, greed is good." Charity because I get a tax break is not the same thing as empathy.

Freedom from fear is nowhere to be seen. Our politicians foster it in the U.S. and abroad. In Iraq, we've done little to establish these freedoms. Some might say that there was little of them before the invasion, but I would argue that they are no closer now and nearly a million of them have died for it.

I think the biggest difference between the Four Freedom's and the current efforts by the Bush Administration to spread democracy is the uneducated, soundbite notion that democracy equals freedom. You cannot make someone value the freedoms that make American democracy work. Freedom does not exist because of democracy. Democracy exists because of freedom. People have sacrificed freedoms in past democracies only to watch their government give way to totalitarianism. Napoleon was elected. Hitler was elected. The Patriot Act was passed buy a scared, democratic government. If we do not work diligently to restore a value of freedom in society, our democracy will run out of fuel and fail.

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety


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