Ooh, Freedom! Ooh, Liberty!

The Grateful Dead song, Liberty was a great favorite in the last years before Jerry's death. The chorus of

Ooo, freedom, ooo, liberty
Ooo, leave me alone
To find my own way home!

is an anthem for those of us who identified with Bobby Weir's idea of misfit power.

It always reminded me of Thoreau's little dictum,

If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.

So I get a little confused when conservatives seem to think they are all about liberty and that liberals are not. When most of my Deadhead friends are liberals, and a more cantankerous group of freedom lovers you will never find left of a tea party.

But whenever I hear folks talk about freedom - as in all I want is freedom - I want to ask (and sometimes do), what freedom are you talking about? Freedom to say what you want? Or freedom to shit in the river?

Freedom is a very large concept that can cover every sort of behavior, so to say that you value freedom above all else isn't very meaningful.

Both liberals and conservatives use the words freedom and liberty as semiotic references to sets of cultural values, some of which mean similar things - freedom to speak your mind, freedom to worship or not - and others that seem similar - freedom to marry whom you please, freedom to live or work where you choose - but which actually hold within them restrictions on freedom. Same sex marriage? Gated communities? Union shops?

Everyone acknowledges, at some point, that there must be restrictions on freedom. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre is a famous example. But we also try to restrain folks from shitting in the river and all the many extrapolations of that concept.

And then there's the idea that perhaps freedom is sometimes a little scary. Do we prefer knowing there are restrictions to our own freedom? Or are we just happy that there are restrictions on the freedom of others?

There is no hard and fast concept of freedom that will work in all cultures all the time. Freedom is one of those things that we argue about, one of those things that we come together to decide upon, and one of those things that, once a decision on limitation is made, some of us will always choose to ignore.

Still, the concept of freedom is very likely the iconic concept behind the country that calls itself the United States. Conservatives and liberals alike, when we're done glaring at each other, could all likely join in on that chorus:

Ooo, freedom, ooo, liberty
Ooo, leave me alone
To find my own way home!