Cultural Insight: What is Freedom?

American Flag over a small dam in Fishtown, Leland, Michigan, USA.

We have had a lot of discussions in our house since moving to the United States about freedom.  Freedom is of course one of the founding values of the United States, and something that is vaunted and touted as a unique characteristic.  But is it really?

Debating and discussing the answer to that question has become common place now.  I decided to write about it in this week’s blog, thanks to a geography homework assignment my daughter had on Tuesday.

In that assignment, her class was assigned to watch a video on diversity in the United States.  As my husband was traveling, I was sitting in my daughter’s room with her, while she was working on her homework – a companionable evening with her working on her iPad and I was cutting up her old fleece pajamas for a quilt.

Then, folk style music started playing from her iPad and a voice said “America at Its Best”.   Then it talks about people coming to the United States, from countries like Japan, France, Canada, Iran, and India.   “They come to America in search of freedom…. and opportunity.”  At that point, my daughter stops the video and says, “What?  Do those countries not have freedom?  Canada?  France?  …”

I’m not sure if it got worse from there or not.  I guess it depends on a point of view.  A definite high point was different voices in other languages around the world speaking their languages.  The Danish kid that said “It’s expensive for me to go to school” gave us a case of the giggles and caused us to wonder if anyone in the editing team understood a Scandinavian language.  It was especially a sore point for me after two years of the US back to school list, which usually runs up at least $500 in all the supplies that are just part of Swedish school.  We also wished we spoke Taiwanese and Spanish, so that we could see what was said there.

The low point for me was the discussion on diversity.  First, diversity was referred to as a box of crayons.  Ok, not so bad.  The low point was “Zoos have many animals.”  Although I quite enjoy the culture book I Am the Monkey by Jörg Wittwer, linking human diversity in the United States to different animals in the zoo was just a bit too cringe-worthy.

For my daughter, however, the great indignity in it for her was the implication that the United States is the epitome of freedom.  

She has heard time and time again from her classmates at school how happy she must be to be in the US now instead of Sweden, because she’s free.

It doesn’t feel so free for her, however.  In Sweden, two years before we moved, she was leaving school on her own each day.  Some days, she would take the bus to her various activities, then take the bus home.  Other days, she would walk or take the bus home, fix a snack, and play.  Other days, she might go home with a friend, go to the local horse club to pet some horses, or the local bakery for a cinnamon roll.  She had her own bank card and a phone, with which she was required to let us know where she was going and who she was with.  Basically, she had a lot of personal freedom to move.

She also didn’t have much in the way of structured activities.  In her last year before moving, there was usually three pages of homework, given out on Monday and due on Friday.  With full attention and focus, it could be completed in less than a half of an hour.  So she also had a lot of freedom of time.  The school day was shorter.  The homework was minimal.  Activities were close to home, only a short walk or bus ride away.

When we moved to the US, it felt like prison for her.  Beyond the frustration of living behind a gate and waiting for it to open and close, anywhere she went, a parent (usually me) would need to drive her.  The only place considered walking distance is the neighbourhood pool, which none of the other kids around us are allowed to walk to.  

Her time also isn’t her own in the same way.  It was worse last year, the first year after our move as the academic mismatch between US and Swedish schools made her workload more than her classmates, but even now that she is caught up, most evenings are 1-3 hours of homework.  Added to longer school days, longer time in the car in between both school and activities, there just isn’t much time left “to just be a kid”, as she often laments.

So, her frustration in being asked if she is thrilled by her new freedom is certainly understandable.

We also talk about the impacts at a higher society level of freedom and what it is (or isn’t) from our perspective after living in Sweden.

It doesn’t feel very free to us to constantly be vigilant for the risk of shootings.  While Sweden isn’t completely gun-free, one at least knew the areas to avoid to reduce risks of being caught in gang cross-fire.  We certainly never thought about concealed weapons, the risk of automatic weapons being brought to places like schools, and were suspicious of anyone with overcoats or clothes that conceal a weapon.

Medically, I don’t feel very free either.  If I had a small ache or pain in Sweden, I could go to a physical therapist for less than $10 and receive exercises to work with it.  If it were something that needed a doctor’s attention, I would be referred to a doctor.  That visit would be less than $30 and I would usually have it within a week.  Specialists could take more time, unless I went the private insurance route (then it was usually next day and less than $100 for all appointments with a specific complaint).  At times I might question a diagnosis, and then I would need to go the other route from how I started, but in general, this only happened twice in almost 20 years of living there, that I didn’t trust a diagnosis and pursued another path.  

In the US, there is the prohibitive cost of everything.  Even with insurance, it is a lot of time spent making sure things are covered.  Filing and re-filing, and filing again, while receiving lots of nasty notices.  The result… I don’t visit a doctor unless I really need it.  My husband still hasn’t gone because the hassle isn’t worth him losing working time.  And every doctor I talk to is frustrated too.  Is this really freedom?

I look at a whole country of people who mean well, but are pushed to their limits in all kinds of ways, especially time and economics.  Some people are fortunate to have one of the two, very few (mainly retirees) have both, and way too many have neither.  When you are desperate for every minute, desperate for every dollar, how does that equate to freedom for you, and for your family?  Is this really freedom?

When I was my daughter’s age, I was a hard-core economic conservative.  I loved Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, and believed in strong capitalist principles.  While I’m not sure there is a better system, I certainly am disillusioned in the results and spend a lot of time thinking, what is freedom, really?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.