The Four Freedoms- or why one freedom isn't near enough
What does it mean to be free? Why do we sometimes take it for granted, even giving it up in some cases to those who would exploit us? In January of 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave an address to the nation that addressed what freedom is and why it is important. On that day he faced a world increasingly at war, with Japan in control of much of the Pacific and Hitler in control of much of Europe. Fascism and authoritarianism were threatening to snuff out democracy everywhere. The United States, by benefit of two large oceans, was isolated and considering what to do about these cataclysmic wars on the horizon.
FDR is one of the most underappreciated presidents, and much of his New Deal that led the nation from out of the depression has faced attack for decades. On that day, he and Winston Churchill loomed as the most stalwart defenders of freedom in its darkest hours, and the Four Freedoms speech illuminated and inspired a nation that by the end of the year would be at war on two fronts.
Two of the four freedoms, freedom of speech and worship, are enshrined in the US constitution. We may take them for granted, but throughout history people have been persecuted because of their beliefs. Those who worry about woke censorship today still have freedom of speech, but not everybody has to like what they say. Hateful rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and racist epithets are still protected, but actively discouraged in many spaces because they rarely add anything useful or productive to the conversation. While we all have freedom of speech, none of us has a right to force our opinions on others.
As for religion, since the US has been a majority Christian nation for all of its existence, Christian theology has crept into many corners of society, and those who are Jewish, Muslim, or Atheist have good reason to wonder if they are truly welcome to worship or not worship as they please. Religion has changed a lot in the last century. In many cases, your denomination or lack of one doesn't factor into employment, dating, or everyday life. It is private, which is as it should be. Those who feel they must wear their religion loudly and proudly are welcome to do so, but they limit their own freedoms in the process.
What made Roosevelt's speech more profound was his inclusion of the other two freedoms, which are NOT enshrined in the constitution. Freedom from want is what a lot of his New Deal was about, in an age with bread lines and rampant unemployment. When you don't know where your next meal is coming from or where you can sleep at night, that makes freedom of speech and religion meaningless. This is the test of a humane civilization- is there some sort of safety net that assures everybody of a basic living standard? And no, that doesn't necessarily mean steak and lobster for everybody, but instead a reasonable diet and a decent chance to be healthy and happy. Because if there isn't freedom from want, we are all slaves to our hungers and fears, and easy pickings for anybody who want to exploit us.
The final freedom, freedom from fear, is one we still haven't figured out. Sure, Hitler is gone, but we aren't any less fearful these days. Climate change, mass shootings, nuclear weapons, pandemics, and all sorts of disasters loom over us and politicians exaggerate all of them to scare us into voting for them. Fear can be very productive in producing results, but they also divide us and ruin both physical and mental health. Our fears serve us well in pointing out danger ahead, but they enslave us if we give them too much attention. At some point we need to balance our fears with our hopes and dreams. Prepare for the bad, but work harder towards the good. And remember that our lizard brains are trained to overreact to dangers, causing a negativity bias. Much of what we fear will never happen and clinging to those fears keeps us from realizing out potential. Keeping those fears in check is our best hope for the fourth freedom.
Two years after the speech, after the US had joined in the war effort, Norman Rockwell painted depictions of the four freedoms (seen above) that were published in the Saturday Evening Post. Those paintings were later immortalized on US postage stamps. And in 2012, 71 years after the speech, a park and monument to the Four Freedoms was dedicated in New York City on Roosevelt Island. With the idea of democracy and freedom still up for debate and never guaranteed, it's good to improve the conversation of what freedom is and why we still need it.
Here is some of the text from the actual 1941 speech.
"In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech, and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium.
It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.
That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb. "