Freedom is ________.
It’s the essential American ideal. We just can’t agree on what it means. Our correspondent hits the road in search of answers.
January 31, 2019
It’s the essential American ideal. We just can’t agree on what it means. Our correspondent hits the road in search of answers.
One night a few years ago, Libby Hunter went to dinner near her home in Michigan. Hunter spent her career as a middle school choir director and music teacher, and after retiring had become active in local politics. Fourteen times at Ann Arbor City Council meetings she’s broken into song. My favorite is her “Ode to the Police Courts Building.”
But on this evening, Hunter just wanted some dinner. She walked into the restaurant only to find that the music was too loud, so she chose a seat outside instead.
The music inside wasn’t weirdly loud or complain-to-the-manager loud. It was loud in precisely the way she’d come to expect of public spaces. Cafés, bars, shopping centers, grocery stores, doctor’s offices — all had increasingly filled themselves with elevator music, Top 40, and the like in her lifetime. Without anyone’s permission, inane background music had become a de facto aural wallpaper for everyone. It wasn’t just the intrusion of unwanted music that irked her. It was the thoughts it edged out.
Hunter spotted an acquaintance eating outside, a fellow musician. Like her, the imposition of someone else’s musical choices had driven him to an outdoor table. They got to talking, and he told her about Pipedown, a campaign for “freedom from piped music.” The founder is a British author named Nigel Rodgers, who started the movement in 1992. “And I objected on the grounds of liberty,” he has said. “We shouldn’t have to have this mind control.” For Hunter, a frustration that had been simmering indistinctly suddenly came into focus. By the end of the night, she was a dyed-in-the-wool anti-background-music-in-public-places freedom fighter.
Hunter went on to co-found Quiet Ann Arbor, the first chapter of Pipedown to form in the U.S. Since then, she has developed a network of fellow quiet enthusiasts, a kind of shushing army. An app on her phone measures the decibel levels at commercial establishments. She has a running list of the good ones. When she enters a place that’s playing music, she asks the merchants to turn it off. Usually they decline, but that’s not my point. None of this is my point.
There’s a number I’ve managed to carry around for the past 14 years, one I’ve long suspected of saying something significant about our country. Twenty-two. That’s how many times then-President George W. Bush, at the height of his oratorical powers, mentioned freedom during a roughly 45-minute speech to the Naval Academy in 2005. Allowing for applause breaks, that’s about one freedom every two minutes. Imagine sitting next to the guy on a cross-country flight. He’d drop the f-bomb 165 times before you landed.
I submit we all live on that flight. During the Bush years, this rhetorical tic greased our path into the Iraq quagmire, of course, but it also helped shoehorn the country into its massive mortgage crisis: Bush’s “ownership society” nudged millions of citizens into bad loans on the premise of “more freedom and more control over your own life.” Before that, he launched the USA Freedom Corps in 2002, followed by the so-called Freedom Agenda, his tectonic foreign-policy shift away from “[s]ixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East.”
Republicans owned the idea in their way, but Obama deployed it with his own intonation, announcing his candidacy with a wish to “usher in a new birth of freedom on this earth.” And it’s not just politicians, of course. Eager to shed its establishment vibe, corporate America long ago co-opted the personal-freedom language of the ’60s. The CEO of Dreyer’s has equated ice cream with freedom, and skin-care professionals have linked freedom with the removal of unsightly neck bands. The Scientologists put out the magazine Freedom, and the Valley Forge Freedom played hockey. You may “learn to beat the IRS” at Freedom Law School or live in any of more than a dozen places in the U.S. called Freedom. If you had the money, you could buy a Freedom yacht. If you were more in a Slurpee mood, you could go to 7-Eleven, “where freedom’s waiting for you.”
Then came Donald Trump, and in those first months of his campaign, freedom’s regular, salmon-like return to the national discourse appeared to have halted. His was the province of petty grievances and personal boasts, not chest-thumping invocations of freedom or, for that matter, higher ideals of any sort. The right-leaning liberty community debated whether he even cared. But then an interesting shift happened. As the country became more familiar with his reflexive disdain for political correctness and almost compulsive flouting of social norms, a dawning realization seemed to take hold. It’s not that he cared or didn’t care about freedom. He was freedom.
For those attuned to such frequencies, Trump’s torrent of unfiltered id was a bold new expression of liberty. Rather than advocating for freedom, he incarnated it, unbound by cultural mores, institutional tradition, or even law. For a political class in the thrall of freedom, he was the inevitable next step.
The backdrop for Trump’s embodiment of freedom is a landscape of diminishing liberty for large swaths of the country. Economic freedom eludes more and more of the population. The prison-industrial complex amounts to a scale of freedom-stealing unprecedented in history. Someone’s civil liberties are denied in some new and awful way each day. Without much squinting, #MeToo can be seen very much as a freedom fight. Even the freedom to trust that the government will adhere to its own laws — asylum protocol, say — has withered.
But often, the freedom banner waves most prominently over other causes entirely. These causes don’t, on their surface anyway, suggest the sort of disenfranchisement and oppression that initially got this country and its central conceit up and running.
Freedom is used for limiting abortion access (“freedom for the unborn”), opposing gun control (America’s first freedom, per the NRA), rallying around Supreme Court nominees (the correct ones will protect our religious liberties), and assailing immigration (immigrants equal stolen jobs equal less economic freedom). Advocates for net neutrality mobilized supporters around a vision of freedom, and so did opponents.
George Carlin once noted that our country was founded by slaveholders who longed for freedom. Where did that bizarre schism deposit us? And what does this vague abstraction mean to actual people?
A few years ago on a hot July morning in Las Vegas, I took an escalator to Planet Hollywood’s carpeted second-floor conference area. There, above the ceaseless chiming, a sea of freedom opened up before me. For the next four days, an annual gathering called FreedomFest would take place here, the “world’s largest gathering of free minds.” Imagine an even whiter Woodstock featuring not Jimi Hendrix and Richie Havens but Glenn Beck, John Stossel, and Peter Thiel, plus an odd mix of novelists, pot advocates, rare-coin collectors, Langston Hughes enthusiasts, powdered-wig Constitutionalists, and Paul Krugman, all bonding and learning, and sometimes hugging, and once or twice grooving to “Go Your Own Way” and “Free Fallin’.”
Right away, I fell into conversation with a muscular young man in a black suit I’ll call Ben. He had ruddy cheeks and erect, Army-ish posture. In his hands was a silvery metal called rhenium. Ben worked for a rare and strategic metals company, one of more than a hundred businesses that had paid for booths here.
“It’s not a financial asset like gold or silver,” he said when I asked about the connection between rhenium and freedom. I gather my face looked blank. He lowered his voice: “No reporting requirement.”
The freedom not to pay tax, in other words. There’s more to it — getting into metal means getting away from the dollar, which also appeals to the freedom crowd — but that was the gist. In that interpretation of the law, something potent lurked. “Most citizens are so ingrained in the ‘matrix,’ they think they’re still free,” read a line from the company’s marketing literature. Ben, for his part, exuded the giddy intensity of someone about to liberate his fellow man.
For the attendees of FreedomFest, freedom is neither cable news buzzword nor faux-inspirational flourish. It’s a full-time lifestyle into which pretenders merely wade. In Ben’s case, the seeds of his passion for niche financial subversion and liberty as a whole proved to be just that — seeds, the helicoptering kind that would twirl down from his parents’ maple tree in suburban Maryland. Some of those seeds started landing in the neighbor’s yard.
“They said it was ‘soiling the property,’ ” he recalled, his rosy cheeks burning with remembered vexation. “Soiling the property. It was a tree!”
Things proceeded to get ugly between the two homes. Bitter words were exchanged, and then out came the leaf blowers. Back and forth they’d blast the pods across their private DMZ. Eventually, the neighbors moved away. Ben’s father spoke of a simpler time, when people were granted more latitude, when freedom was the de facto state — for whom I cannot say.
“They probably thought they were fighting for their freedom to have a seedpod-free lawn,” I said gamely, but freedom didn’t seem to be a philosophical topic for Ben.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said and looked off into the distance.
For a grand idea ostensibly rooted in a profound human experience, Ben and his fellow FreedomFesters seemed fixated on its inverse. How are we not free? What impedes our freedom? Over the next few days, I would watch the president of the Foundation for Economic Education deliver a rousing assault on the “compulsory insanity” of economic equality. I met attendees who used freedom to explain why climate change isn’t real and why the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling is an affront to liberty rather than an extension of it. I heard ex-Congressman Allen West caution against African Americans using skin color as “a crutch” and declare himself the embodiment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.
The longer I stayed, the more I longed to understand what freedom even means — not at the familiar culture-wars level where it’s generally invoked, but at a few thousand existential feet above. Freedom’s a remarkably squishy concept to be promoted by our government, the same dry souls, after all, who gave us the 1040-EZ form.
Then I stumbled upon a debonair man in a bow tie giving a talk in one of the conference rooms.
His name was Jeffrey Tucker, and I learned later he’s a luminary in the liberty movement. Picture Donald Sutherland in his younger and more regal days. He was instantly charming — he pronounced “theater” as “thee-uh-tuh,” summed up his fellow libertarians as people who are annoying at Thanksgiving — and palpably exhausted with the freedom movement’s “fixation on government.” More important, he said, is “the broader experience of freedom.”
Tucker has an electric mind; one minute he was talking about how the U.S. court system is a conspiracy against poor black people, the next, Mahler. Every few minutes, someone tiptoed up to gush about his work on cryptocurrencies, or de Tocqueville, or his call to legalize drunk driving. He disarmed them with something witty and self-deprecating, then got back to granting my request, which was to lay out a vision of what freedom is. “What I saw in Brazil,” he replied plainly.
He’d been in São Paulo lecturing on intellectual property (“which I don’t believe in”) and one night wound up in a bar with a view of the whole city, 12 million people. “As far as my eyes could see, there were lights and buildings and civilization burgeoning — an awesome amount of human knowledge, energy, innovation, creative capacity right in front of me. I began to turn, and it was true over here, and over there, and in every single direction, and I thought, That’s it! This world will never be governed. It cannot be governed. It was beautiful.… And I think that’s the purpose of freedom, to get ever closer to true and beautiful things.”
“Deep like the grandest canyon / Wild like an untamed stallion,” sang Kid Rock in “Born Free.” Chevrolet heard this and thought: special-edition freedom truck.
The 2016 Chevrolet Silverado 3500HD, designed in conjunction with the singer, is a synergistic bonanza of vaguely freedom-ish accouterments, including but not limited to “leather-appointed seats featuring metallic-appearing inserts patterned after acid-wash jeans,” per the marketing copy. “This truck is all about celebrating the people who build it and the freedom it enables,” Rock said in that same press release. Anyway, I had promised my friend Mac a ride to his then-home in Ashland and wanted very much to rent a Silverado. I couldn’t find one, so I took the family Prius.
My first stop was just over the Bay Bridge. Oakland was wet and spring-y, and Mac was waiting in front of the apartment building where he’d been staying. I’ve known him eight years. He’s long and lithe, like a whippet up on its hind legs. We hugged and were off. Oakland gave way to Berkeley, Berkeley to Solano County, and then there were cows and clouds and a dry riverbed and rows of nut trees and turkeys strutting near a paintball range. Mac lowered his window and executed a turkey call.
As with every road trip I’ve ever been on, I wondered if we were doing it right — were we having the quintessential American experience that supposedly happens whenever you get out on a Western highway, or were we just driving to Oregon?
“If we’d only ever ridden on horses, then maybe this would be liberating?” Mac said.
This struck me as a good time to tell him about Marathon Petroleum. In a flurry of YouTube enthusiasm before this trip, I’d come across a commercial for a gas station that I watched more times than I care to admit. The spot’s vibe is that of an American flag mating with a bald eagle. A serviceman home from duty throws off his pack and sweeps his gal up in his arms. A motorcycle roars down a country road. A grinning teen dangles her hand from a car window. At one point, a young woman actually writes freedom in the air with a sparkler. A dude whose shades reflect Marathon’s red, white, and blue solemnly takes in all this majesty.
Meanwhile, over jangly classic-rock guitar, a voice belts out a song called “Full Tank of Freedom,” written specifically for this commercial. “So get a full tank of freedom / Drive the American road / And with a full tank of freedom / Find your own highway, we’ll take you wherever you go.”
As creative director at a Cleveland ad agency called Wyse, Lane Strauss oversaw the spot for Marathon, which comprises 5,600 independently owned gas stations across 17 states. About 15 years ago, Wyse was tasked with devising a campaign that would get at the essence of Marathon gas. After much consumer research, his team concluded that the essence was you-know-what. They began marshaling that familiar freedom vibe: windows down, music blaring, nothing mattering but the highway.
As I saw it, Strauss was an Oz-like figure, pulling the cranks and levers that reinforce that classic American narrative, which in turn buttresses all the invasions and political campaigns in need of cultural reinforcement. Hell, it buttresses people’s faith in weird metals. Which is all to say, I phoned Strauss expecting him to be some dark combination of Donald Rumsfeld and Don Draper, loading me up with patriotism and Sterling Cooper mind games.
But Strauss’s personal experiences with freedom bore little resemblance to the freedom I saw in his commercial. Once, in the process of adopting his daughter in Bogotá, he found himself confronted with the afternoon siesta. He was struck by it — for all our interest in freedom, he said, Americans would never voluntarily free themselves from work like this. Now, reflecting on it with me on the phone, he realized he himself had fallen victim to this mindset: He didn’t think he’d taken a vacation day all year. “The other day, I caught myself thinking in terms of having to use my vacation days, rather than wanting to go on vacation,” he said.
The banality of how freedom gets manufactured felt telling — a friendly adman gets a job, the job is to hawk gas, the pattern of casually enshrining this idea continues apace. Hum “Full Tank of Freedom” enough and you start wondering if commercials like these sell us a desire for freedom as much as anything. From there you start to wonder whose aims are serviced by that aspiration. And then you keep driving because your friend needs to get to Ashland.
On we went, Mac and I, here a dry riverbed, there a field of upside-down pools. My blather about freedom was not entirely academic to him. Nine days earlier, he’d forged a powerful new relationship with liberation himself, having two confining breasts, vestiges of a confining gender, removed by a Bay Area doctor. The first seven-plus years of our friendship, Mac lived as a woman. He lived three-plus decades as a woman and got married as a woman and, at last, accepted that the woman part was erroneous. What followed was a grueling period of preparation and then a fairly rugged surgery — as we drove, a tight fabric binder around his chest all but squeezed the life out of him — and the coming months would most likely be tough, too. A few miles outside Sacramento, he was smiling so broadly I had to ask what the hell was going on.
“I’m happy!” he said.
“Say more about that.”
“It was just so awful, and now it’s not. I’m more me now. I’m — yeah, I feel free.”
In the 1850s, the frontiersman poet Joaquin Miller came to Yreka. There, 18 remote miles below the Oregon border, a “tide of people poured up and down, and across from other streets, as strong as in a town of the East.” The Gold Rush story was in many ways a freedom story. The lure of instant wealth was the dream of liberation from poverty, and the ultimate disappointment for most miners was freedom’s shimmering mirage.
It’s about a century and a half later when Mac and I pull off the freeway to cruise old Highway 99. Once, this was the Golden State Highway; it carried travelers and farmworkers from Mexico clear to Canada. At the height of the timber boom that followed the Gold Rush, the region produced a phenomenal amount of lumber. Now it’s a decommissioned afterthought to I-5, which opened in 1968. Industry left years ago. With its old barbershop and clock store and once-grand 19th-century hotel where Rutherford B. Hayes slept, West Miner Street in Yreka is a museum of its former self.
It was a chilly afternoon when we wandered into a divey beige bar. Inside, the music blasted and a middle-aged bartender passed pints to large, tired-looking men in Carhartts. I ordered a beer and started chatting with the guy beside me at the bar. His name is Cody Moser. He’s 32 and he’s lived in Yreka all his life. His mom waited tables and tended bar, and works in a machine factory now. His dad works at a mill in nearby Weed. Moser does auto body and painting, and has no plans to leave, but he won’t be introducing any new Mosers to the world anytime soon. “I love kids, but I’m not bringing one into this,” he said.
Once upon a time, Yreka was a lively, happy place, he said. Then the environmentalists down south decimated the timber industry, and the town all but dropped dead.
“There used to be a community — there were chili cook-offs, cruise nights, sidewalk sales. It’s all gone. Jobs are gone. Town’s dried up,” he said. “There’s nothing to do now but get in trouble. I’ve watched so many of my brother’s friends die or go to jail. Drugs, crime. There’s nothing here anymore.”
There’s no shortage of American towns that find themselves in similar straits. But few attach themselves to a narrative like the one circulating here.
“We have no say-so here because we don’t have the numbers they have in the big cities,” Moser continued. “They take our water, they limit our guns, they kill our industry, and there’s nothing we can do. Except, you know.”
Yreka isn’t just a struggling old boomtown. It’s the would-be capital of the State of Jefferson, what was meant to become an independent state — and one day will, if you believe the signs hung outside every other business. The State of Jefferson movement contends that the state’s population centers tilt the balance of power unfairly toward the cities. The sentiment dates back more than three-quarters of a century. As Jefferson people will tell you, citizens here actually began to secede in the winter of 1941, throwing up roadblocks on the highway and even electing their own governor (albeit in the middle of the night, after some drinking). Then Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The cause was suspended for national unity, but it never went away, and recent years have seen a resurgence.
We talked awhile longer, then I left him to his beer. The secession argument had not moved Mac, who dropped some state-budget science on me as we pressed on to Ashland. But Moser knew the unlikelihood of a successful secession as much as anyone. Whether it came to pass, freedom elevated Yreka’s economic distress to something larger. Their struggle isn’t just jobs and laws, but the very ideal this country was founded on. Freedom is what’s been taken, and freedom is what they have left.
Somewhere around where the Klamath River juts off to the east, a pair of testicles cut in front of Mac and me.
If the State of Jefferson is pre-revolution America, “truck nuts” are the triumphalist aftermath. You’ve seen them: two fake gonads dangling defiantly from trailer hitches and bumpers around the country. They first came on the scene in the 1990s; legislation was introduced to ban them, and articles were published in defense of them. A South Carolina man was pulled over for sporting an item “flesh-colored, anatomically correct, approximately the size of a softball, and in clear view of the public,” according to the officer’s report.
Invoking the nation’s agricultural past in a Washington Post interview, the founder of Your Nutz asked, “Did all the little donkeys and sheep walk around with their panties on so children wouldn’t see their bodies?” According to my research, they didn’t. But his larger point dovetailed with that of truck nuts as a whole: In the name of liberty, it is a duty and an honor to flout civility.
After depositing Mac in Ashland, I turned around and headed southeast, through Shasta-Trinity National Forest, past Shasta Lake, through gray Redding. Two precious audio hours I devoted to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which I hadn’t read since adolescence. The book glosses differently these days. There can be no better encapsulation of white men’s freedom than hearing about yet another rain-soaked, insane-looking drifter who nonetheless gets picked up every time he sticks out his thumb. Sal Paradise was just leaving Chicago when I arrived in Chico.
I’d come to meet a 62-year-old woman named Hildy Langewis. Langewis’s freedom story began with a ferret. It was the 1970s; she was living in Tampa, Florida; the ferret was a beloved pet. But then life brought her to California, and she learned that her pet was forbidden there. “Just another ridiculous regulation that has no basis in fact,” she said.
Upon arriving on the West Coast, she became a ferret freedom fighter. She headed a rescue program that she’d run for the next 17 years, transporting more than a thousand illegal ferrets out of state to spare them the fates promised by Fish and Game. Her program would drive them to ferret shelters in Reno, Las Vegas, and Medford, Oregon. Sometimes they were flown to Phoenix. Along the way, a lesson took hold. “It introduced me to the way the government isn’t working for the people in California,” she said.
These days, her pursuit of freedom takes a more purified form. Langewis is one of the organizers of the Chico gun show. Her job is a mix of logistics and ideology. I paid my $8 (children get in free) at the Chico Masonic Center and walked into a sprawl of display cases and folding tables.
Toward the center, standing behind one of the tables, was Langewis. In addition to helping organize the show, she was there as the proprietor of Jefferson Outfitters, which sells hoodies and patches and key chains at the intersection of secession and the NRA. “Celebrate Liberty!” is its motto. Arranged near her was a collection of hats doing just that, ostensibly focused on the Second Amendment but with broader overtones: Don’t tread on my freedom and Freedom isn’t free and Free men don’t need permission.
Langewis and I had spoken on the phone a couple of times; in person, she was reserved and reluctant. I decided to chat first with one of her co-organizers, a bearded 60-something man named Blair Snyder. Immediately, perhaps thinking I’d come to discuss it, he brought up the Parkland shooting, just a month earlier — 17 students and staff members killed at the Florida high school. I told him I assumed this had left a cloud over today’s gathering.
“Actually, it’s usually, sad to say, good for business whenever there’s a mass shooting,” Snyder said. He shrugged.
“Or when Obama said they were going to ban all guns,” he added after some reflection.
I’d vowed not to get sucked into any arguments here, but the mass-shooting comment undid me momentarily.
“Obama never said that,” I replied.
“Oh yes, he did.”
For the next two minutes, we took turns citing our preferred news sources. We were having, of course, a meta-conversation about another freedom entirely — our freedom to filter reality so easily these days. As we talked, a vendor sitting nearby mentioned an article claiming that Australia has just as many knife deaths as we have gun deaths. It was then that a guy selling rifles near him learned there was a journalist in the room.
“Get a rope,” he called out. It was a Trumpian kill-the-media joke, the kind spoken without a smile. His name is Matt Glass and he lives in Chico. After laying out his hatred of journalists, he told me an article about freedom is overdue, on account of the unfair gas taxes he pays.
“Where does it stop?” he asked. “That’s why we’re here. It’s about freedom.”
I turned back to Langewis, who explained how she ended up here.
It had been an ordinary day in Hayward, and she’d just gotten home from work. That’s when she noticed her cats acting strangely — looking up at the ceiling anxiously, looking at her, pacing. Then a floorboard overhead creaked. Someone was in the house.
Terrified, she dialed 911 and ran outside, only to be told that she was beyond Hayward’s city limits. This meant it would take longer for the sheriff’s deputy to get there. She had just run to her neighbor’s place when she heard her front door open. She never saw the intruder, only heard him run away. That night her boyfriend came by. “If you’re going to live alone, you need one of these,” he said and handed her a revolver.
Gun ownership was a revelation — another realm of government overreach. She was astonished to hear how long she had to wait to buy one, what kinds were prohibited, and so on.
But if regulation sparked the flame, fear has been the fuel. Sitting beside a pile of Second Amendment hats, she opened up about her growing unease. “I worry about my safety all the time,” she said. “I avoid the mall. I avoid downtown. I’ve seen the transients that hang out in the parking lots and corner people demanding money. I’m getting older. My boyfriend has an artificial leg. He can’t run or fight. He could be easily pushed over. My right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness is being threatened.”
I spent another hour drifting around the tables, nodding as I was told to buy my assault rifle while I still can, nodding as someone else told me there’s no such thing as an assault rifle — the government invented that term. Are all these people scared of transients? Did they have a gateway ferret in their lives? What kinds of booths would they have sat at 50 years ago, before the Second Amendment became the cause it did? I drove back to San Francisco mostly in silence, no Kerouac, no writing freedom in the air with a sparkler.
Jim Lucas was recently talking to me about the state of freeness for a black man in America. He spoke with the baffled gravitas of someone who’s seen a lifetime of slow progress followed lately by prominent reminders of all that thwarts that progress. Renewed voter disenfranchisement efforts in Southern black communities. The steady drip of videos showing police violence.
“I feel every day — this is what every black man in America feels — somewhat terrorized. I have to be careful daily, daily. Do I feel free? Mostly. But at the same time, I’m still concerned every time I’m out in public. How free is that?”
Lucas first became acquainted with the subject growing up on a farm in segregation-era Louisiana. In 1963, a movement to register black voters took shape in Lucas’s town.
“Back then, they could call your loans if you registered. Fire you from your job, too. Our farm had a mortgage. My dad had a job in town, as most farmers do, at a store that sold clothes and shoes. He was the only black salesperson in town. He called my four brothers and six sisters and me into the family room for a meeting. I’ve never seen my mom so afraid in all my life. But we decided yeah, he was going to register to vote.”
The next day, Lucas’s father put on one of his finest suits and made the trip into town. Lucas and one of his brothers joined him — they wanted to be there for it. I asked how he remembered feeling.
“Were you scared? Proud? Excited?”
“All of that. We always felt all of that then.”
Lucas went on to graduate from high school and college, then got hired by the Department of Agriculture. He eventually became a manager within his agency and by the mid-’70s had been transferred to the national office in Washington, D.C.
“The USDA was known as ‘the last plantation’ at the time,” he said. “I was fighting there for my own promotion and other black folks’.” Lucas wasn’t a lawyer, but he became an expert on civil rights law. Anyone having a problem, they’d come to him.
All the while, Lucas had another life as well. He is — and I hadn’t even known this was a thing — a successful Martin Luther King Jr. impersonator.
Lucas doesn’t like that word; he says he channels King. Whatever the term, I can attest to a startling transformation.
“And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice,” Lucas intoned solemnly during the performance I saw. His voice was strong and quavering at once, a combination that might be jarring if it wasn’t so profoundly familiar. For ten moving and slightly surreal minutes, he was a one-man civil rights cover band, pivoting seamlessly from “I Have a Dream” to “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
In the 1980s, when Lucas was still working in D.C., he participated in the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington and wondered why no actor was there to perform King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He began to spend evenings and weekends in a library researching King material, reading as much as he could, watching all available footage, listening to vinyl records of King’s speeches. “Eventually, I knew everything he did, and why, and when, and with whom,” he said.
It all began to take the shape of a campaign: Lucas felt urgently that a holiday commemorating King had to be celebrated. For three years, he’d go to any church and any meeting open to the public and ask for a few minutes to speak. Every time, he’d make an impassioned argument for the holiday, urging people to contact their representatives about it. At the end of each talk, he’d conclude with an excerpt from “I Have a Dream.” His ability to summon King’s essence struck people.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first celebrated as a federal holiday in 1986. Having at that point become a self-made King expert, Lucas developed a one-man show about him, attended acting school, got a booking agency, and began to perform. Word got out. At first, he was getting booked every January and then every February for Black History Month. Gradually, he was performing more frequently, sometimes multiple times a day. Over the past 30-some years, Lucas has stood on hundreds of stages around the world, including at FreedomFest, where I first saw him. Occasionally, he’s hired to put on a longer show. Often enough, his job is simply to reprise King’s greatest hits.
A person looking for evidence of freedom’s march could certainly find it in Lucas’s life, could find it in American history more broadly. Slavery ended, women got the vote, children stopped having to plow the fields all the damn time. But if the moral universe has bent gradually toward justice, it has also bent in a dozen other directions.
Lucas’s stage career speaks to a desire to see King himself, alive again, conferring a bespoke sermon from another era upon this one. It’s a little confounding, that dynamic. I cried throughout the performance I saw. But I also caught echoes of America’s broader and often unsettled relationship with civil rights: King is celebrated, but his message is contained. His more radical words are seldom heard. I doubt all the audience members clapping beside me would attend a Black Lives Matter event with the same enthusiasm. No holiday honors those currently advancing his work.
“Freedom is a thing you have to keep earning and practicing,” Mac told me some months after he got his surgery. He sounded a little downcast. “My liberation from the vestiges of female socialization — I still contend with those every day. The other day, one of my roommates was cleaning the house, and I got this super-nervous feeling. I felt like I was supposed to be doing the cleaning, like he was doing something that’s not his job. It doesn’t matter that I never intellectually believed that women are supposed to be the cleaners.” How free Mac had felt on our drive, that broad smile, gobbling at the turkeys. But there is external freedom and there is internal freedom. It’s not always a straight line from one to the other.
I first met Michael Scott Moore in my early 20s, soon after moving to the West Coast. He was a fellow writer, and we joined some mutual acquaintances in a little Bay Area writing circle. Michael was surfer-handsome and soft-spoken, with a droll kind of reserve. I didn’t know many Californians and took him to be emblematic, though in fact, he was as much German as he was Golden State. Eventually, life nudged us in different directions.
More than a dozen years later, Michael came back into my life, at first in a blurry video. In early 2012, he had traveled to Somalia to research a book on piracy. He had done significant preparation to ensure the reporting could happen safely, but one day, driving with his armed guard on a dusty road outside Galkayo, his car was stopped by a flatbed truck with an anti-aircraft gun attached to the back. Roughly a dozen men got off the truck, began firing guns into the air, and jerked him out of the car, breaking his wrist and his glasses in the process. They threw him into an SUV and sped away.
Michael was held hostage for 977 days in a series of hidden locations around the country. Shackled about the ankles, deprived of diversion, bound to an uncertain fate, Michael nevertheless found that he still possessed a kind of moral freedom. In his book about the ordeal, The Desert and the Sea, he writes of the day he decided to forgive his guards. Periodically, he had to recommit to that forgiveness, but he did it, and it likely saved his life and theirs. Without that forgiveness, he says he would’ve surely tried to grab one of the guards’ Kalashnikovs.
In September 2014, Michael’s release was finally negotiated. Recently I asked how his views on freedom had shifted. He said he was familiar, of course, with the version of freedom that “belongs to America’s idea of itself,” causing “copywriters and politicians and all kinds of hucksters to blink the word in neon and sell Americans a bill of goods.”
“But there’s an inward and an outward freedom,” he continued. “I learned that for good in Somalia. Sometimes the outward freedoms, for consumerism and sex or whatever might tempt you, are not good for inward freedoms, including freedom of the heart.”
What Michael was getting at, I suppose, is spiritual freedom. I’m not sure what else to call it, nor am I sure how such a personal version of it scales up to the big, official story America tells about its search for religious freedom — the Mayflower and the First Amendment on up through Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores.
It was that variety of confusion that got me here in the first place. How did this intimate and often delicate human experience gather the power to justify wars and elect presidents and enshrine guns and market trucks with leather-appointed seats featuring metallic-appearing inserts patterned after acid-wash jeans? I know a successful man with an enviable career that lets him set his own hours and travel the world. He told me the freest he ever felt was nearly four decades ago, at his very first job, inside the dark, liberating anonymity of a Chuck E. Cheese costume. How do you go from that to our big, sprawling capital-F Freedom?
The freedom-industrial complex is enough to make you tune out eventually, and for a long time I did. I chuckled at its kitsch, rolled my eyes at its hypocrisies — the trick of saying “freedom” when something more insidious was meant. But ignoring an idea only gives that idea a pass. I started to wonder: What’s up with the American psyche that it still comes running at this strange siren? At some point in my wondering, I came to know a woman who’d been on both sides of the freedom equation. Karrie Garcia had been intensely unfree, and now she beckons others toward freedom herself.
As a girl, Garcia was the precocious daughter of a Bay Area pastor. Her mother was beautiful, her father tall and handsome. Outwardly, they were a perfect family. Inside was another story. Garcia’s mother suffered from a crippling eating disorder that governed and eventually eroded their lives — “we lived in bondage,” Garcia says. In eighth grade, she was drinking regularly. In ninth, she was using meth. Not long after graduation, she and her boyfriend were sleeping under a bridge.
The decade that followed was a dark swirl of recovery efforts, familial implosion, and a failed marriage. At 27, she found herself with nothing, living alone in a San Diego studio apartment. One day, she got into her car and drove to a stop sign in her neighborhood. She had memorized her local bus’s schedule, estimated its velocity when it passed. Bawling, she prepared to pull out into the intersection. Then a voice spoke to her.
I see everything you’ve done, and I love you. If you turn this car around, I promise it won’t always be like this.
It was a bright morning in Orange County when Garcia told me this. We were sitting in a small office behind a large church, Starbucks iced tea within reach. Garcia is 44 now. She’s married with three kids. When she reached for her tea, I could see the tattoo on her forearm: FREEDOM.
What happened at that intersection was Jesus’s acceptance, she said. She turned the car around, drove home, and for the next two years, saw a counselor twice a week. In that time, a new kind of freedom set in — freedom to be her imperfect self, freedom to retire the performance of perfection she felt was expected.
In freedom, by extension, she has found a whole new life.
In two days, Garcia would board a plane for the first stop of a nine- month speaking tour around the country. As Garcia began telling people about the liberation she’d found, it became clear she was striking a chord. It was friends and family first, then bigger groups. Those groups now fill auditoriums, “a community of once-broken, now-liberated women committed to bringing the truth and love of Jesus Christ to all women.” Their events suggest a mix of therapy, church, and Tony Robbins.
“What would it look like if we started being really honest about what was going on?” she asks in a promotional video. Judging by the crowd of women swaying and cheering and throwing their arms into the air, it would look ecstatic.
In that video, Garcia refers to “every demographic … every race/color/religion” being welcome. I pressed her on this — one person’s liberty has a habit of stepping on another’s, after all. Would my gay friends be welcome? She insisted that her decision to surrender to Jesus meant abdicating to a higher power the job of judging others.
I don’t know what it means to surrender to a higher power. But her diagnosis that we are all broken — I’d come to the conclusion this is the realm where freedom operates, too. We are broken from Yreka to Chico to Orange County. For both better and worse, freedom strikes us as the fix. And from there you get your Freedom Laser Therapy and your House Freedom Caucus and, eventually, a president who might plausibly name his tailor the secretary of defense just to show he can.
On my darker days, I fear this coarse vision might prevail. But maybe the comforting truth is that no vision will prevail. Maybe our disagreement over freedom’s meaning will save us. For every dangerous and autocratic version, there will also be freedom in fighting that vision, in forgiveness, in overcoming, in finding truer versions of ourselves, in slipping into a rodent costume just when we need it.