I took this picture of the Freedom Tower, the new building under construction at One World Trade Center, from the Hudson River Park in Tribeca. The symbolism of the young girl is clear. The tower was built with her and her freedom in mind, or at least that's how most Americans have justified nearly everything that's happened since 2001.
I left the US shortly after 2001 and returned a decade later to a country very different from the one I had left. Most Americans I speak to love freedom almost as much as they love Jesus and big macs. Their freedom is awe-inspiringly, flag-wavingly great and they are teeming with pride to live under its protection. In what other Western nation can you not get through a single conversation, TV advertisement or political speech without reference to being the "Greatest Country In The World"? Indeed, freedom for "all" is an irony you can't escape this election year cycle. In real terms, however, most Americans are not nearly as free as their fist-pumping pride would suggest. Pointing out that Freedom Tower is a sadly inaccurate name is certainly not a common sentiment on July 4th ... but it should be.
Americans love talking about freedom, especially on Independence Day, a holiday that always gets me thinking about compiling an anthropology of freedom. From the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, what does it mean for humans to be free? Logically, one presumes that freedom is a binary state. You're either free or your not. In practice, it's more like a sliding scale of power, agency and permission. Americans are likely to be less free today than they once were. In fact, out of all the places I've lived, America is getting it the most wrong. Where it falters the most is that my country insists that it has a monopoly on being free, yet we've all but stopped fighting for the liberties that matter. Labor violations are appalling, consumer rights are dismal, and civil rights have been stripped to bare minimums by the Patriot Act and corporate lobbying.
Let's be serious: freedom is not our best commodity and certainly not our best export. We would do much better to celebrate independent thought this Independence Day, because America is in dire need of an intellectual revolution.