In Wisconsin, a man wears an assault rifle around his chest during protests at the State Capitol building, and over his face is a stars-and-stripes kerchief. In Las Vegas, a black Jeep rolls down the Strip as part of a quarantine protest caravan. American flags stab out from its windows and rise from its rear frame. In Sacramento, a woman holds a sign that reads “I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery,” the words painted over a star-spangled cardboard banner.
Look through the images and video footage of the anti-quarantine protests in the U.S. and you will see, again and again, images just like this — Old Glory, in various forms, waving, draping, or adorning.
What does the American flag have to do with promoting less safety during a pandemic? Why do so many of those assembled to urge state governments to reopen non-essential businesses feel the need to bring flags with them, as though ignoring public health advice during a pandemic is a quintessentially American act?
Dismissing the protests as the actions of idiots, loonies, or conspiracy theorists risks missing something ideologically important going on here.
Political gatherings communicate through visual language.The symbols and imagery people carry with them deliberately evoke the larger values being asserted or defended — the ones that lie behind a specific issue.
The omnipresence of the flag is a clue, one that’s telling us we’re seeing in these protests the latest instance of something that has too often hampered progressive change in the U.S: a zealous commitment to deeply problematic understanding of liberty.
Noses without beginnings
There are competing political ideas about what human freedom means. More narrow versions are concerned with expanding the sphere of activities that can take place without risk of coercion, credible threats of force used to control what we can and cannot do. Those seeking to uphold this sense of freedom are therefore particularly concerned about the extent that government plays a role in our lives.
More expansive ideas about human freedom, on the other hand, are concerned with what we have the means to actually achieve, not simply what we are allowed to try. What limits freedom in this more expansive sense is not just prohibitions (legal, cultural, etc.) but also deprivation (material, financial, political). A destitute person in a country allowing many personal freedoms would not be particularly free.
The word liberty captures that narrower sense of freedom far better than it does the more expansive one. And it’s liberty that has been foundational to so much of American identity, woven through everything from its origin story of casting off British tyranny, to its Pledge of Allegiance, to its Second Amendment and militia culture.
It’s customary for those on the political right, particularly in the U.S., to be more concerned with ensuring governments uphold narrow liberty than expansive freedom (the latter would imply progressive taxation and wealth redistribution). But for sizeable segments of the contemporary American right, things have taken an ugly turn, with liberty understood through a lens of self-regarding paranoid extremism or fundamentalism.
A unique feature of this mindset is how unwilling it is to accept that the extent of one’s personal liberties sometimes has to be revised to prevent them from having destructive effects on others in society. What it does instead is greet any attempt to circumscribe people’s liberties — even justifiable attempts — with rigid suspicion or hostility. There is an American saying: “Your liberty to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” Under this extremist mindset, however, there’s doubt about whether other people’s noses ever begin.
This is what we are seeing on full display in the quarantine protests. Even the very real possibility that prematurely ending stay-at-home orders will lead to the further spread of a disease — that it would cost a lot of other people their lives — is an insufficient condition for those gathered to agree to temporarily limit their freedoms.
This overvigilant alarmism about infringements on liberty has long made progressive change in America a halting, frustrating challenge. Like a poorly calibrated, overly sensitive security system, there is just so much that can set off a defensive reaction: from firearm regulation to climate action to universal healthcare to stay-at-home orders.
And once that defensive reaction goes off — once that too-sensitive security system trips — it’s difficult to shut down. Evidence that some liberties are socially harmful gets dismissed by convenient myths, facile counterarguments, and anti-science denialism, an exercise in wilful gullibility. Tellingly, the anti-lockdown protestors seem to have taken a page or two from the climate denier playbook.
This mindset also makes people susceptible to manipulation. (It’s worth mentioning here that gun lobbyists and front groups for the ultra wealthy have been helping to organize the protests.)
There are obvious reasons that elites would want to prevent a government from, say, regulating their industries or raising taxes on them. They (or their allies at free-market think tanks, at Fox News, or in the Republican party) can all too easily cast regulation and taxation as infringements on liberty from a nanny socialist state. It’s like tossing a stone too close to that overly sensitive alarm. Part of the Republican scaremongering about the Green New Deal last year involved just this kind of strategy: a large bloc of Americans rejected the best chance their country has of tackling the climate crisis because they were led to believe it would take away their freedom to eat hamburgers.
Liberty and/or death
It’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned about liberty, and in the time of COVID there have been warnings about how authoritarian governments might take advantage of it. But that isn’t what’s happening in the U.S.
What’s sad is that, to a degree, this alarmism about liberty makes sense, just in a way it never should have had to.
The erosion of the U.S. welfare state and the denial of economic rights has forced so many Americans to eke out a living through whatever opportunities capitalism presents them then and there, to have so much of their well-being dependent on how the market currently values them. Those are brutal conditions if a government isn’t willing to provide a generous safety net in a crisis like a pandemic. A more decent society, one concerned with advancing a richer sense of freedom over an impoverished sense of liberty, would not have left people believing they had to make the choice between staying safe and facing hardship.
Canada has had its own anti-lockdown protests. They’re smaller, but similar. People carry signs expressing the same paranoia about losing freedoms, the same conspiratorial thinking about what’s going on. It’s a reminder that we are not as insulated from this type of mindset as we might hope.