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The paradox of American freedom

“The idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing.” —Sebastian Junger

Author Sebastian Junger at a book signing during the Palm Beach Book Festival in 2017 in Palm Beach, Florida.
Mychal Watts/Getty Images

America is uniquely obsessed with “freedom.” You can see it in our politics. You can hear it in our discourse. But we’re also, strangely, a country full of fortunate people who are constantly fretting about their lack of freedom.

Why is that?

There isn’t a single answer to a question like this, or even a good one, but a recent book by Sebastian Junger called Freedom searches for one anyway.

The book orbits around a long walk Junger and a few friends took several years ago. They hiked hundreds of miles of East Coast railroad lines, carrying everything they needed on their backs and sleeping wherever they could. Everyone involved had experienced combat (Junger’s a longtime war reporter who embedded with an infantry unit in Afghanistan while shooting the documentaries Restrepo and Korengal), and they were all looking for ways to process that trauma. Junger later documented the trip in a 2014 film, The Last Patrol.

Junger’s book weaves the account of the hike with various stories from history — everything from labor strikes to women’s resistance movements to bloody battles with Apache raiders — and in the end, it all comes back to a meditation on human freedom and all the ways we seek and defend it, especially in a country as divided and unequal as America.

I reached out to Junger for this week’s episode of Vox Conversations to talk about what he learned out there on the railroad lines. Like the book, we cover a lot of ground — the meaning of personal freedom, what we owe other people, and why these things are bound up with each other. We also talk about becoming parents, and how that experience changed the way we thought about freedom and responsibility in our own lives.

Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

I know your goal in this book and elsewhere isn’t to weight conservative notions of freedom against liberal notions of freedom. I understand, as a writer, why you want to avoid that. But I do think we can address this in a nonpolitical way. I think there’s a really crucial tension that we have to touch. The tension is this paradoxical relationship between freedom and obligation.

You write: “For most of human history, freedom had to be at least suffered for if not died for. That raised its value to something almost sacred. In modern democracies, however, an ethos of public sacrifice is rarely needed because freedom and survival are more or less guaranteed.” Shortly after that, you say, “The idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing.” Why did you think it was so important to make that point?

Sebastian Junger

Because I feel like there’s a strange idea in American society right now, and I think it’s because we’re not under any direct threat, and because we’re not under a direct outside threat, it’s possible to imagine our own government as a threat.

There’s this idea that’s sort of arisen, that you can live your life without ever being told in any way what you can and can’t do. It’s complete nonsense. Humans have never lived like that. Even people that think that, they, like good little doobies, drive on the right-hand side of the road, and they know they can’t drive on the left-hand side of the road. At a red light, they stop, because they know if they don’t, they might kill somebody. If they don’t care about that, they might kill themselves. If they don’t do that, they might get a ticket. Everyone is very carefully obeying all these rules, but some people think that the government actually doesn’t have a right to regulate and to enforce and to create strategies that benefit the greater good.

The great thing about a democracy is if you think that the government is overreaching — and the government’s great at overreaching ... I mean, it’s not like it doesn’t do that. I get it. — But if you think that that’s the case, you have recourse. You can go to the courts or you can vote the bastards out. You can go to the polling booth.

But the one thing you can’t do in a democracy is use violence to change an outcome. As soon as you use violence to change that outcome, you’re actually creating the opposite of a democracy. You are on the road to fascism.

The one exception that I actually think I might want to insist on is that there is a history in this country of protest movements that have sometimes turned violent. These movements, they’re groups of people insisting on their basic rights. The labor movement of 100 years ago, the civil rights movement, these protests sometimes were violent, but sometimes it takes violence to get the attention of an immoral government that’s not interested in acting in a free and fair way.

Sean Illing

I guess I’ve always thought of freedom as an activity, not a condition. There’s a tendency, especially in our culture, to think of freedom as “freedom from.” To be free is to not be tyrannized by some outside power, and that’s fine, but it’s incomplete. You can be free of tyranny, but if you’re destitute, if you’re abandoned, if you don’t have agency because your most immediate needs aren’t being met, you’re not free in any meaningful sense. I say all that because it’s why I think we’re obliged to care about the condition of other people if we believe in freedom as a universal right.

Ok, that’s the end of my rant, I promise.

Sebastian Junger

No, you’re absolutely right. I didn’t go into these contemporary issues in America in my book, because the issue of freedom, it doesn’t change that much over the ages. I was trying to write a book about what allows humans to maintain their autonomy in the face of a more powerful group. Throughout history, very disempowered and often very mobile groups were able to evade or outfight larger dominant groups that wanted to oppress them. The extraordinary thing about humans, unlike any other mammal, is that a smaller individual or a smaller group can actually outfight a larger one. I wanted to understand how that worked. How do we maintain our autonomy in the face of a more powerful group?

Sometimes that more powerful group is your own government. The labor movement 100 years ago, there were totally disenfranchised foreign workers working in the textile mills in Massachusetts, and they faced down the National Guard and the corporations and the government, and they got the laws changed.

One of the ways they did that was incorporating women into their ranks. Once you put women on the front line of a protest, the cops often do not dare use mass violence. They’re way more willing to do that against men. As one frustrated policeman said in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, he said, “One good cop can handle 10 men. But it takes 10 cops to handle one woman.” That changed the tactical dynamic on the streets that allowed those protests to succeed.

But let me just add to that: What I was saying about freedom from an enemy or freedom from oppression within your own society, those are the classic conservative and liberal concerns. Conservatives are concerned with an outside threat, and liberals, they’re much less worried about outsiders. In fact, they’re often quite open to them culturally. What they’re worried about is internal unfairness. If you take those two concerns and you marry them together in one society, you have a society that can both protect itself and run a fairly equitable system. Either one by itself wouldn’t work very well.

There’s actually a lot of data. There’s a wonderful book, I’m looking at it right now on my bookshelf, Our Political Nature, by Avi Tuschman. Maybe you know it. He collects all the studies that show that our political predilections are partly hereditary. About 50 percent of the variance of our political opinion comes from our genetics, it’s inherited. That to me means that a basically conservative or liberal viewpoint had to have been adaptive in our evolutionary past. When they’re in roughly equal measure within a society, you’re at this sort of sweet spot where you can defend yourself and you’re running a society that’s fair and therefore stable.

Sean Illing

This theme of the importance of groups, of community, of solidarity, was at the heart of your last book, Tribe, which was about combat soldiers and the transition back to “normal” life. Soldiers come home and that intensity is gone, the sense of immediate and overwhelming purpose is gone. Even the title of your documentary about the hike, The Last Patrol, gestures at this longing to recapture the emotional intensity of war. Was that something that was clear to you from the outset, or did this part of it become clear once you were out there on the road?

Sebastian Junger

No, I knew how it would work out there. I mean, listen, the interesting thing about having to find water is that it creates the proper value for water. If you can just get water by turning on a faucet, it doesn’t have any value. If you have to go looking for it, suddenly water has value. Suddenly being warm has value, being safe has value.

I know that the only way to survive and function effectively in a raw environment like that, particularly the semi-industrial one that we were in, which had all kinds of social threats as well, it was to be in a small group that was quite loyal to itself, and where people were willing to do very hard things to make sure everyone was okay.

Since I wrote Tribe, I had this thought: “How do you define ‘tribe’?” It’s one of those elusive words, like freedom. You try to define it, and then it sort of squirts to the side and you’re like, “No, that’s not it either.” You can’t quite pin it down. And I was like, “This is ‘tribe.’ I will make sure that whatever happens to you will happen to me too. We’re going through this together.”

This small group that I walked with along the railroad lines, that’s very much how we were. At one point we had a 110-degree heat index, and one guy really started falling out. We were all carrying 50, 60 pounds on our back, even 70 sometimes if we were loaded up with food. We had to get where we were going. One of us said to the guy who was falling out, “Listen, man, I’ll take your pack.” He put 60 pounds on top of 60 pounds, and strapped it on and walked that way until the guy who was having trouble felt a little better and took his pack back. That’s “what happens to you, happens to me.” We’re in this together.

What I would say about Tribe, in the third chapter, I talk about soldiers because that’s the most immediate current topic that the public is familiar with. But actually, in the beginning of the book, I’m talking about how community works, and why the tribal community has always been so appealing.

Along the American frontier, there are many, many cases of young people, young Americans, absconding to the Natives. Running off to join the Natives. As Benjamin Franklin himself lamented, there were no examples of Native peoples going in the other direction. This is a white Christian society that thinks it’s superior, but people were sort of voting with their feet, as it were, and all of the migration was towards the tribal. You didn’t have the church breathing down your neck, you weren’t behind the plow 12 hours a day plowing up some rocky field. You didn’t have these awful sexual and social mores of colonial society.

Interestingly, all the way on the other side of the world, the Great Wall of China has always been thought of as having been built to keep out that sort of barbarian horde, the nomads on the steppe that invaded mainland China, invaded the Chinese empire and didn’t destroy everything. Obviously that was an element, but what many historians now think is that the wall was also there to keep people, impoverished Chinese farmers, from fleeing to nomadic society.

Nomadic society is always more equitable, more egalitarian than sedentary, agricultural society, where you can accumulate wealth and pass it on through generations. The beginnings of class structure start with agriculture. What the early Chinese were trying to do is keep their own people from absconding to the native peoples across the wall as well.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.