I almost made it through Independence Day without hearing Lee Greenwood. Alas, I asked too much of myself and this great land.
When I heard it on Tuesday evening, under protest, I marveled at the spectacular corniness of the lyrics. Of particular note is the refrain insisting that the best part about being American is that, come what may, at least Americans have Freedom.
This song was written at the tail end of the Cold War and relied heavily, as did all unsophisticated appeals to patriotism, on the Communist boogeyman. People who lived through that era remember well the tales of political prisons, bread lines, state-controlled everything, and generalized gray malaise that awaited the Free World if Communism were to emerge victorious from the battle of ideologies.
There is no point in rehashing all of that here. What is important and uncontroversial is that the Cold War is over. Communism is Over, despite the handful of mental stragglers who insist that China's lip-service version counts. Other than North Korea, which is too crazy and pitiful to serve as a boogeyman that threatens the Way of Life of the Free World, it is difficult to find examples today of people who are not Free in the sense that Lee Greenwood and Americans during the Cold War used that term.
There are only two threats to the Freedoms of Americans now: ourselves, and our economic system.
To the extent that Americans are not free to say or live as they please today, it is because groups of people who have been oppressed continue to be oppressed by a political majority that insists on imposing its beliefs and cultural attitudes on everyone. To the extent that our ability to do what we please with our lives is limited, it is because we are all too busy trying to scrape together enough money to make ends meet to do anything else.
Implicit in the Cold War Freedom narrative was the ability of a person who worked to earn enough to support a family and perhaps even enjoy a few things in life. Now that we have replaced that notion with "Get a second job" and "Spend your free time serving people in the Sharing Economy," the idea that we are Free because we can wave Bibles around and hoard guns and go online and say awful, stupid, unhinged things is only fooling the easily fooled at this point. An honest appraisal of their own lives by anyone who spent Tuesday belting out Lee Greenwood's chorus would conclude that we are all as free as we can afford to be, and no more. Big Brother isn't the reason you're not free to do what you want with your life; capitalism is.
That is not to say, "Tear down capitalism! Anarchy! Full Communism or fuck off!" It is to say that we owe it to ourselves to be realistic about what, if anything, makes us feel less Free. What are the limitations of your life? What makes it so that you can't say what you want to say, live where and how you want to live, and be happy as you define it? There's a very good chance that the answers to those questions sound the same for most of us: you need a paycheck, and you're tied to a job you probably hate. And because of forces entirely beyond your control, it's very likely impossible for you to quit, move, live as you please, and still somehow pay your ever increasing cost of living.
If "Freedom" means saying whatever we want on the internet and buying a lot of stuff, we have Freedom. But take a look at the unemployment numbers, your stagnant earnings, and the job opportunities around you and Freedom in a more mature, meaningful sense may not feel like the right word anymore.