There is progress to be made with freedom

Published 9:45 am Friday, June 27, 2014

Things I Tell My Wife by Matt Knutson

“Sometimes I forget that there was a time where America wasn’t considered ‘The Land of the Free’,” I told Sera as we discussed the upcoming holiday.

Her own country celebrated 54 years of independence from France on Thursday, and her passion and love for her country reminded me of how fortunate we are in America to be celebrating 238 years of freedom in a week.

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In our conversation, we quickly deduced the definition of freedom for her country was different than how I’d define freedom here in America. After some brief research, I discovered a world map created by Freedom House, a well-regarded research institute. They’ve taken every country in the world and placed it in one of three categories: free, partly free and not free. My wife’s country fell into the “partly free” category.

Interestingly, 45 percent of the world’s countries qualified as “free,” including America. Twenty-five percent were considered “not free.” I was encouraged by that percentage until I realized that the “free” countries represented 2.82 billion people and the “not free” countries represented 2.46 billion. While the low percentage of countries listed as not free is great, the difference between the number of people free and not free is almost the same. This is concerning.

Another item of concern is what the celebration of freedom has become on the Fourth of July. Freedom in America has grown far beyond the celebration our ancestors partook in following British rule, and our celebrations reflect how much our country has changed since 1776. Our freedom deserves recognition, but our celebrations have become superficial. I suppose this should be expected, as our culture has done the same with the other holidays we celebrate.

How do we celebrate our freedom? Hot dogs. Apple pie. Beer. Fireworks. We’ll celebrate our country’s stereotypes instead of caring about where we are now and where we’re heading politically. Just as some Christians falsely focus their attention on a rabbit every Easter, Americans focus on shooting fireworks to see something beautiful explode in the sky. It’s a welcome distraction to many, allowing an easy distraction from the complexities of freedom and our obligation to pursue it.

There are countries in the world where basic political rights are missing and civil liberties aren’t recognized. We should celebrate the right to vote and our freedom of speech on Independence Day instead of pulling out the grill for the annual barbecue. Perhaps many people are doing both simultaneously, but it’s been a long time since anyone has talked to me about the freedoms of our country in anything more than vague generalities.

An admittedly old survey from the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that in 2006 only one in four Americans could name more than one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. There are five: speech, press, religion, petition, and assembly. I’d confidently guess that statistic hasn’t risen. Only 40 percent of Americans can name our three branches of government: legislative, executive and judicial.

We can’t keep celebrating our freedom while living in ignorance. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories.”

If the people of a nation aren’t knowledgeable in how its government functions, you cannot expect the government to function properly.

The Albert Lea Tribune published a column by Al Arends on Tuesday discussing how our elected leaders are taking away our freedoms. Political viewpoints aside, if we aren’t aware of our freedoms and how our government works, it can become easy for citizens to lose power and take for granted the freedom we have.

As an optimist, I don’t think our country is headed toward the “partly free” category on Freedom House’s map. Frankly, I think the people of that mindset don’t have a clear worldview of what “partly free” means in regard to how other nations experience freedom. I do appreciate their concern for our country’s future, and I wish more people took the time to participate in the political process that determines the path we are on as a country.

We’ve been pursuing freedom in its best possible form for nearly 238 years, and people on all sides of the political spectrum have agreed that there is still progress to be made. Next Friday, let’s celebrate our freedom by learning about what that really means. We have all summer to enjoy time with family and friends and the excitement that comes with fireworks.


Rochester resident Matt Knutson is the communications and events director for United Way of Olmsted County.