Commonwealth Journal

July 5, 2012

Reflections on Freedom


Commonwealth Journal

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We like to talk a lot about freedom, especially on the Fourth of July. We’re not always so good at practicing it.
This big, heavy notion of “freedom” is about more than waving flags, setting off fireworks and singing patriotic songs. It’s about having the bravery to sacrifice some of your own peace of mind in order that anyone and everyone may have the right to chase their own ideas of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” whether or not you find their ideas about these things wholesome or offensive.
There’s probably no more recognizable Fourth of July figure than founding father Benjamin Franklin. He’s the one who gave us the quote, “Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither.”
Hard to argue with Ben Franklin on Independence Day. I sure wouldn’t — I think he’s absolutely right.
More than anything, I’m glad that Somerset voters embraced this same truism last Tuesday. The “wet/dry” debate ultimately came down to a simple dichotomy of thought: Whether or not you most value freedom of choice and behavior, or you most value whatever protection is granted to home and family by not introducing a potential catalyst for harm into the environment.
Somerset voters chose the always risky path, the road less traveled — the path of freedom. It’s less traveled especially in this day and age, when cities enact smoking bans, when New York limits the size of soft drinks, when the president wants to dictate how you obtain health insurance. We happily toss away our freedoms in exchange for authoritative-sounding claims and comforting promises, made by politicians and activists and any other charlatan who comes down the path promising a little bit of added security, if only we’d give up this or that (or better yet, force the other guy to give up something — and there’s always an “other guy”). The stereotypical American indulgence has turned into a mentality of asceticism.
So despite all the warnings that more access to alcohol would lead to more drunk driving accidents — despite the signs bearing emotionally manipulative images of fresh-faced children and begging voters to place their safety first and foremost — voters chose something scary indeed. They chose freedom. 
They chose to allow Somerset citizens to buy beer in town, or to abstain from doing so, at their discretion. They chose to allow stores to opt to sell alcohol, or not. They chose to grant individual liberties, not restrict them.
In other words, they chose to honor the spirit of America, the spirit we proudly proclaim this Fourth of July — the spirit of increased freedom.
I owe an apology to David Weddle and Progress Somerset, because deep down, I doubted the effectiveness of their strategy. Weddle’s desire was to keep the argument on an intellectual level, to present facts and solid arguments about the benefits of alcohol sales, and let the public decide. Above all else, the aim was to keep the debate civil.
I believed that to beat a bully, one needs to be a bigger bully — and make no mistake, the “dry” side has historically been a “bully” in this debate. This year, I don’t think that was the case — the anti-alcohol contingent ran a campaign similar in tone and restraint to Progress Somerset’s — but in the past, stunts like lining the highway with wrecked cars designed to scare voters and threats to socially “out” or chastise “wet” voters have terrified people who supported alcohol sales into not speaking up. 
We saw it with our economic development agencies, all of which took a neutral stance on the alcohol issue despite it being their charge to promote jobs and the flow of money in the area. 
Yes, the agencies that should have been pushing the issue the most were staying out of it, because it was too controversial, too divisive. It’s hard to believe on the face of it, but it was true. And it’s because the mentality of fear that existed from past botched efforts to repeal prohibition in Pulaski County remained heavy on the psyche of so many in this community. Security trumps liberty yet again.
Yet bullying took a back seat this year (on both sides of the aisle, for the most part), and reason won the day. I didn’t necessarily expect it to happen that way, but it did. Chalk up another win for the fuel that powered the Age of Enlightenment, the cultural movement to embrace reason and free thought that inspired our nation’s forefathers to create this grand experiment in the first place.
I do believe that alcohol sales will positively impact the community’s economy — I think we’re already seeing it, with increased interest in opening new businesses, like the story reported last Thursday about attorney Scott Foster’s desire to seek a liquor store license — but even if not a single new restaurant opens, I’ll be okay with that. 
For me, that wasn’t really the point, you see. I viewed this as a debate about the free exercise of choice: that is, having a new bar or liquor store is not as important as having the right to open to a new bar or liquor store. It’s a matter of patriotic principle as much as practicality. We are all better off when we are all freer. 
I don’t want to come across as cold or heartless. I do understand why so many on the “dry” side felt compelled to limit the risk they perceived to those they held dear, no doubt many of them shaken from past encounters with drunk driving tragedies or alcohol addiction. When a matter touches your heart, it is very often overwhelming.
But above all else, I think it’s important to hold true to the great idea, “Love your neighbor.” And if anyone would seek to use the law of the land to restrict my lifestyle choices rather than open them up ... well, that ain’t love. Not as I see it. Love is granting me the respect to live day-to-day in whatever way I choose, so long as I allow you to do the same. It’s a simple concept in theory — and the basis of American thought that formed our country over 200 years ago — but quite difficult to master. We are only human, after all.
Yet master it we must, for freedom isn’t free. The cost is our comfort: We must be willing to take that giant step into the wild blue unknown in order to reach our full potential.
I suspect that in a few years, we’ll look back on this time in our town’s history and wonder what all the fuss was about. Now, however, it’s easy to see why change can be so intimidating ... and why it’s crucial to let go of the past in order to grow.
It was the way of the founding fathers. It’s the American way. And now, it’s Somerset’s way as well.
Happy Fourth of July Holiday, everyone.