Renew the Four Freedoms

img_7090On January 6, 1941, on the eve of the most disastrous conflict of the 20th century, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered an address to a joint session of Congress. In his address, he stressed the need for American self-determination at home and international engagement abroad. Yet, this speech is less remembered for what the President described but for what he called for. It was in this address that FDR laid out his vision of freedom for both Americans and citizens of the world. He called these proscriptions “The Four Freedoms,” and he outlined them towards the end of his speech. Roosevelt declared:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

In my estimation, this is the most succinct and powerful statement of freedom ever uttered by an American President, and its vision for the world embodies my own ideals. Roosevelt’s idea of freedom was complex yet understandable, attentive to the heritage of our nation as well as its future.

The first two, freedom of speech and freedom of worship, are the foundational liberties enshrined in our Bill of Rights. Philosophically, they are “negative liberties,” meaning that they are freedoms that are protected from government intrusion or degradation. I have always been a champion of free speech and expression. The freedom to think, write, publish, and speak exist beyond an American sense of rights. They are human rights that under-gird every other right or liberty we can claim as citizens. It is our task, in triumphant as well as troubled times, to defend these rights from any threat or limitation.

The second set expand the nature of freedom, from mere rights granted to us in spite of government to rights guaranteed by government. As such, they are called “positive liberties.” “Freedom from want” ensures that a society takes care of its citizens who are without the means for a better life, from food, shelter, and clothing to basic medical and social services. Roosevelt’s inclusion of this freedom came from his experience of being President during the Great Depression, when millions were unemployed, living in shacks, and barely had enough to eat. He believed in a world where those with less would never suffer the iniquities that had plagued his fellow citizens. Thus, as economist Karl Polanyi noted, when a person’s economic position is stable, their overall personal liberty increases. Put another way by another president, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

The last was “freedom from fear,” meaning that a society protects not only its own but those who can’t protect themselves. In this freedom, Franklin Roosevelt established a liberal, internationalist order that has kept the world largely peaceful for over 70 years. An international political order, with the United States at its center, should supply the military and diplomatic resources necessary to stave off conflicts and to ameliorate others from starting. Every president since FDR has kept this promise. In doing so, they have kept a foreign conflict from hitting our shores, with the exception of the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Even so, 9/11 rededicated the United States and its allies to the same principles that Roosevelt outlined in 1941; a world without the leadership of the most powerful nation on earth will be less free, less prosperous, and less peaceful. We haven’t always gotten it right; we’ve made mistakes and blunders that have set our goals back. But FDR’s principle stands. A world without fear is a world worth fighting for.

It is in this tradition that I begin a new campaign, a campaign to reaffirm Roosevelt’s principles for a new generation of Americans. I call this project “Renew the Four Freedoms.” With the election of a President very much the opposite of FDR, we need a movement that will place these ideals at the forefront of our national dialogue. These aren’t partisan values, but are American values. These are the values that Lincoln believed to resonate in “every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land.” I hope that you will join me in the fight for these freedoms. Use the hashtag #renewthefour when discussing these values on social media. Talk about them with your friends and loved ones, on your own podcast or radio show, and on television. Start conversations about what we must do in the coming years. America needs a vision that will unite us, more now than ever before. This is that vision.



On Colin Kaepernick and Patriotism



“What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” by Dread Scott. Courtesy of Dread Scott.

In 1989, this installation, created by artist Dread Scott, was displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. As Scott’s website describes:

The installation is comprised of: a photomontage (the montage consists of pictures of South Korean students burning US flags holding signs saying ‘Yankee go home son of bitch’ and flag draped coffins in a troop transport; text printed on the photomontage reads “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?”), books (originally with blank pages) on a shelf, ink pens, a 3’x5′ American flag on the ground and an active audience. The audience was encouraged to write responses to the question “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” As they did so, they had the opportunity to stand on the flag as they wrote their response. When this work has been displayed, thousands of people filled hundreds of pages with responses. Many many of those stood on the flag as they added their comments to the work.

The installation’s main goal was to critique the often sycophantic and narcissistic displays of so called “patriotism” in our society. President George H.W. Bush condemned the exhibit and the US Congress even moved to make displays like this illegal. Protesting Congress’s action, artists burned the flag on the steps of the Capitol, which led to a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court that defended their right to burn the flag as “protected speech.”

I bring this up because of the recent controversy concerning the actions of pro Football player Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem, as a protest against the continued violence against minorities in this country. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said.

The backlash was predictable and typically myopic. People burned his jersey, called for his firing, and publicly railed against his actions, yet did not actually acknowledge or understand why, as a person of color, he might do this. But that’s the specific circumstances of this incident; I wish to speak of its larger implications.

In my estimation, Kaepernick’s protest is just as legally defensible and morally consistent as “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” His action was exactly what people of privilege and tradition fear: showing them what’s wrong with our society and making them deal with it.

We have violence in our cities, continued high unemployment within minority communities, homelessness, and the chronic mistreatment of our past and present service members who need vital healthcare and social services. And yet this is what dominates the news.

We have a society that obsesses over meaningless objects of idolatry, like the flag or lapel pins, but ignores and actively undermines alternative acts of patriotism.

Kaepernick’s act was that of patriotism, just as much as any person who stood proudly during the anthem and sang their hearts out. Who is to say what is and is not patriotic? If patriotism is nothing more than blind deference to symbols and slogans, than we are no better than the fascists the democratic world defeated nearly 70 years ago.

Patriotism is not a showy display of hero or symbol worship; it is embodying the idea of what your nation believes in. In the U.S., our cornerstone ideal is liberty. When Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem, when Dread Scott created their art with the flag on the floor, and when a young kid refuses to say the pledge of alliegence because of the divisive and unconstitutional phrase of “One Nation Under God,” they are all reaffirming the true nature of our Republic, which is that of freedom.

Freedom to think, freedom to act, freedom to worship or not to worship. These ideals mean far more than some piece of cloth, a metal pin, or some national song. These symbols mean absolutely nothing if the ideals upon which they stand for cannot be lived out.

Therefore, until every homeless person is fed, clothed, and sheltered. Until every child can achieve a good education and live in communities that are safe. Until every act of patriotism, both traditional and unorthodox, is honored. And until every veteran and active service member is cared for with dignity and respect, shut the fuck up about national anthems, pledges, lapel pins, and flags.

Symbols do not deserve unadulterated respect; only people do.