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This week, a special post-Fourth of July edition to think about the complications and contradictions of that funny little word “free.”

“Free,” first off, means a couple of different things. As Wendy Brown points out in her 2003 article Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy, “in economic thought, liberalism [ . . . ] refers to a maximization of free trade and competition achieved by minimum interference from political institutions. In the history of political thought, while individual liberty remains a touchstone, liberalism signifies an order in which the state exists to secure the freedom of individuals on a formally egalitarian basis.This, she notes, “may lean more in the direction of maximizing liberty (its politically ‘conservative’ tilt) or in maximizing equality (its politically ‘liberal’ tilt)” (s. 6).

When we talk about things being “free” in contemporary American political discourse, then, we mean both individual freedoms and the free market. This has some important consequences when, as David Savran notes in his Taking it Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture (sadly, out of print, but one of my favorite books of all time and I’m totally going to inflict portions of it on my students next semester), “the old-style American liberalisms, variously associated (reading from Left to Right) with trade unionism, reformism, and competitive individualism, tend to value freedom above all other qualities” (p. 270).

So, on one hand, the American instantiation of liberalism places the highest value on freedom, but on the other, “free” means two different things, and this leads to some interesting conflations. Savran actually enacts this—perhaps unintentionally—when he goes on to say that“taking the ‘free’ individual subject as the fundamental social unit, it has long been associated with the principle of laissez-faire and the ‘free’ market” (p. 270).

That is, the individual is imagined to be free in the same way that the market is free: both are understood to be the product of nonintervention.On one hand, this means that, like proponents of laissez-faire argue about the market, this position holds that the fewer laws constraining individuals from doing whatever they choose, the better.On the other hand, the relationship also runs the other way, with people assumed to be acting freely unless they are constrained by a law.

Here’s where things get interesting, because what this does is relocate problems and solutions to individuals. As Brown argues in Regulating Aversion (which has apparently become my go-to book lately), framing freedom as only the absence of a law telling you what to do works to “reframe inequality or domination as personal prejudice or enmity” (p. 142).

Under this logic, that is, only when someone is racist does race matter. Otherwise, we’re all the same and it’s that bad person’s fault for noticing. The same argument gets made about sexism or homophobia or whatever it may be, that inequality is personal prejudice, and the absence of personal prejudice is equality since we’re all the same under the law.

(Unless you mix your cocaine with baking soda. Then you are 18 [formerly 100] times more dangerous to society than someone who doesn’t—and your blackness has nothing to do with that determination, we swear.)

The trouble with equating freedom and lack of legal coercion is that “the reduction of freedom to rights, and of equality to equal standing before the law, eliminates from view many sources of subordination, marginalization, and inequality that organize liberal democratic societies and fashion their subjects” (Brown 2006 p. 17-18).

In the process of“formulating freedom as choice and reducing the political to policy and law,” that is,“liberalism lets loose, in a depoliticized underworld, a sea of social powers nearly as coercive as law and certainly as effective in producing subjectivated subjects” (Brown 2006 p. 197).

Let’s think about an example: “the contrast between the nearly compulsory baring of skin by American teenage girls and compulsory veiling in a few Islamic societies is drawn routinely as absolute lack of choice, indeed tyranny, ‘over there’ and absolute freedom of choice (representatively redoubled by near-nakedness) ‘over here’” (Brown 2006 p. 188-9)

What is interesting about this is that there’s always someone ready to get offended by somebody forcing women to cover up, but forcing them to uncover is equally objectionable. Or, rather it should be; it’s typically not.

Feminists recognized the demand to bare oneself as objectionable when it came to the hypersexualization of (white) women, but unfortunately many of them have missed the bandwagon on the hypocrisy of denying Muslim women the right to wear what they want if what they want happens to be the hijab.

Instead, the conversation has been dominated by a right-wing-flavored framing of the god-given “right” to wear less being denied to Muslim women.

As Brown goes on to say,

This is not to deny difference between the two dress codes and the costs of defying them, but rather to note the means and effects of converting these differences into hierarchized opposites. If successful American women are not free to veil, are not free to dress like men or boys, are not free to wear whatever they choose on any occasion without severe economic or social consequences, then what sleight of hand recasts their condition as freedom and individuality contrasted with hypostasized tyranny and lack of agency? What makes choices ‘freer’ when they are constrained by secular and market organizations of femininity and fashion rather than by state or religious law? (189)

If freedom is only juridical, only measured as the lack of a law prescribing your dress code, then people in the West are free. However, as this example shows, law isn’t the only thing that constrains action—things like social norms are really powerful, and indeed far more powerful than laws to the extent that we don’t even know they exist.

This is probably not surprising to many (or even most) of my readers, but what’s interesting is how much it is grounded in “free” meaning two totally contradictory things: individual liberty and the lack of constraint on the market get conflated into lack of constraint on individuals, and then we have, mistakenly, tended to call it a day and consider freedom achieved.

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