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Free and/or Equal? The battle cries of the boring

We had barely finished listening to Toby Keith before he reminded us, “Freedom don’t come free,” at the car repair shop. Then my son noticed an aging “Freedom Isn’t Free” bumper sticker on a Subaru that cut us off on Market Street. He said, “Bumper stickers get me. It’s like somebody wants to start a conversation with you, but doesn’t really want you to say anything.”

“Better get used to ‘em,” I said. Apparently, the 2016 presidential campaign started right about April Fool’s Day. Why does ‘freedom’ make it to so many bumper stickers and ‘equality’ to so few?”

My son scoffed. “Freedom isn’t free, but it’s exciting. Makes great slogans. Who doesn’t want to go to battle to liberate the oppressed? To free slaves everywhere?”

“Speaking of slaves, April 15 was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death,” I said.

“Lincoln was assassinated on Tax Day!”

“It wasn’t Tax Day then,” I sighed.

“My friends are pretty ticked off about taxes. They barely make enough to pay taxes, and their taxes went through the roof. At least our NC state taxes.”

“We elected a governor and legislature that practically promised to cut taxes on corporations and balance the budget on our backs. What did your friends expect?”

“That politicians lie?” He laughed.

“Only until they feel free to do what they want,” I chuckled.

“Freedom again!” my son said. “I guess William Wallace didn’t shout ‘equality!’ at the end of Braveheart.”      

Our conversation helped me understand that freedom is visceral. It is a battle cry of victory. For most of us, I bet the centers of our brain that light up when we see the word “freedom!” are the same places that light up when we see everything we want from cupcakes to cocaine. We don’t think, “With great freedom comes great responsibility.” Instead, we feel unencumbered; we feel free to unleash the beast; we feel free to do want we want.

Whether you’re an aging hedonistic hippie saying, “Do what you want, it’s all good,” or a narcissistic capitalist, saying, “I built this,” the word “freedom” tends to shred the social contract. Or at least render it irrelevant. It’s all about me. And I’m free: “I do what I want!”     

Nothing wrong with that as a starting place. Freedom itself may be our most fundamental desire—the big want. Even Zen monks seek “liberation.”

I asked another question: “Why is equality so hard to grasp?”

“Dad!” my son schooled me. “It’s got twice as many syllables. Bad for slogans. Do the math! Equality is math. It’s hard, kind of abstract, and worst of all, boring.”     

Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Later Lincoln affirmed that we are a nation, “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And last year Pope Francis tweeted, “Inequality is the root of all social evil.”

Another perspective holds that inequality is natural, desirable and “the root of civilized society.” This view is particularly popular for individuals that see natural hierarchies, in which some are necessarily and naturally subservient to others. We may not admit that we kinda-sorta agree with this view more than with equality propaganda of Jefferson, Lincoln and Pope Francis. We don’t have to; our social, political and market actions show that inequality rules.

Equality is much more taxing than freedom. Freedom may ring, while equality only whispers: “This doesn’t seem fair. This may not be just.” Equality forces us to consider relationships. It asks questions and does not easily lend itself to bumper-sticker slogans and battle cries. It’s boring.

We can feel as free as a bird in flight, at least for a fleeting second. Equality? We have to really think. And who wants to do that?  And with the NBA playoffs upon us, do we really want to watch the balanced and boring Spurs repeat? Or watch Stephen Curry get free, dominate and drop 50?

We want freedom and equality. But what measure of each?

“Dad, stop trying to figure it out,” my son interrupted. “No one else has. Not Lincoln, Jefferson, Pope Francis. Not even Robert Reich. Let’s get coffee. Refills are free.”

I pulled into the coffee shop. I didn’t even want coffee. But I was tired of thinking and the pleasure centers of my brain lit up when I heard the word “free!”

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