No single definition of freedom

By David Grima | Apr 23, 2021

I have been reading Maine journalist Colin Woodard’s book “American Character,” which he finished in 2015 and published the following year.

It has almost destroyed any residual optimism that might have remained with me since the general political harrowing of recent years.

Many of us have been troubled by a sense of vague unease with something in our national politics lately, but have had a hard time putting a finger on it in detail.

One likely answer is set forth in the book’s subtitle, “The Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good,” as the author tracks the violent argument between these two big ideas, starting before the Revolution through the middle of 2015.

Woodard is famous for having detected the separate existence of almost a dozen different “nations” within the U.S., by which he means to describe geographic/political regions that are quite different from mere states, places where people’s ideas are based upon the widely differing histories of the settlers who landed there, beginning 400 years ago.

Among the others, he describes two main types of American political nations that have made the most profound impression on me.

First are the Northern descendants of community-minded English settlers, who fled England to seek a better way of pursuing the common good than was possible for them at home. They created the New England method of collective self-government best understood in the unbroken tradition of our annual town meetings.

Second are the Southern descendants of English country gentlemen, Royalists who fought for the Divine Right of Kings alongside Charles I in the English Civil War (1642-1652) and were defeated by the Parliamentary forces of Oliver Cromwell.

The political legacy of these ex-patriate English gentlemen, the sons of defeated aristocrats who fled to the U.S. and created the culture of the Southern planters and their large pre-U.S. Civil War slaveholdings, is the strong belief that only a wealthy elite are entitled by natural right to enjoy the benefits of civilized society. Individual liberty was, of course, limited to themselves. Still is, to a great extent.

Woodard’s central idea, that these very different political tendencies are still entirely active in the U.S. to this day, is what has upset me more than anything, because when applied to what political history, I can remember the fit seems almost undeniable.

Many descendants (both biological and cultural) of those once-upon-a-time Southern planters go about today under the banner of corporate or personal libertarianism, demanding their own private freedom in as many ways as they can think of, which basically means liberty from taxation with little interest in any sort of commonwealth, so that they can keep their wealth for their own private purposes.

Think of the last President Shrub’s drive to privatize all kinds of public operations, including the billions paid to private companies to handle things in Iraq, as an example of directing public money to private pockets.

What is shocking is the extent to which these spiritual descendants of English country gentlemen have persuaded the descendants of poor European immigrants to sign on to their elite vision, and to fight for it even if winning would be against their own political interests, as we saw in Washington Jan. 6.

Descendants of the Yankee founders of New England still believe in spending part of their collected wealth so that all society might have a chance to flourish, regardless of how much or how little wealth individuals are able to inherit due to accidents of birth.

The most recent portion of our turbulent political history, the Trumpleton era, is of course not discussed on account of the book being finished near the end of Obama’s presidency. But we might be able to imagine how the author would have described that time and its obvious place in this ongoing pattern, had the writing taken him a few years longer.

Nevertheless, between these two polar extremes of political opinion about how the country should best be governed, and for whom it ought to be governed, we have bounced back and forth for four centuries, often in bloodshed, with no end yet in sight.

At the very least it illustrates that there is no single definition of freedom.

* * * * *

Whenever I have reason to write about the Farnsworth museum, I try to mention that people who live in Rockland are entitled to free admission.

The benefactor who left money to create the museum in the late 1940s, the famously reclusive Lucy Farnsworth, specified the free Rockland admission policy in her will, and I believe it has the force of law.

How about that as a Yankee example of using wealth toward the common good, when the museum could perhaps have become an elitist institution?

So it is interesting to read that the new kid in town, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art on Winter Street, has now made arrangements for free membership to Rockland residents.

I read that First National Bank has made a grant available to cover the cost of CMCA museum membership to Rockland residents who want it. Another example of community mindedness?

* * * * *

Recent news items tell us that Maine’s hospitality industry seems to expect a good summer in 2021, which has great importance for our darling city.

The other day, I heard another snippet of anecdotal information about the forthcoming season. A local DJ has reported he is getting a lot of bookings to work at weddings in and around Knox County, for the coming season.

Last year, what happened to a lot of bookings like this is that they began to be canceled, and the graph was definitely moving in a downwards direction. This time 12 months ago I heard about a Rockland restaurant that just lost its first booking for a wedding party that was scheduled for that June, for example. ‘Twas only the start.

Even so, when we read that the hospitality industry anticipates a better summer this year, it can be difficult to know how best to interpret that statement.

For example, are they putting on a show of optimism in hopes that a positive attitude will attract visitors to an area that was starved for the tourist trade last summer? Even given the vagueness attached to most efforts to understand what makes human beings tick, this could still be thought of as a rational tactic.

Or are the numbers of actual bookings for hotels and restaurants starting to show that this optimism is grounded in reality? Our DJ’s comment seems to suggest it could be so.

It is a fact, however, that some employers in the hospitality industry are having a tough time filling their workforce needs at present.

Some think it’s because unemployment benefits are too high to make work economically worthwhile, while others suspect a basic fear of death and disease is scaring off many workers. If it is indeed the fear of death that is gripping workers, then perhaps the rising vaccination rate will have some impact on this situation in the near future.

I just cannot be sure, although anyone can see the first part of the Maine vaccination program was aimed at people who were already long past retirement age, and has only more recently caught up with the working-age population. Maybe this will help when more workers are treated?

Time to change our license plates to read “Vaccinationland”? After all, they put “Vacationland” on the plates hoping to attract tourists during the Great Depression.

One large local employer in another industry, boat construction, recently gave an interview to the Marketplace show on National Public Radio that also refers to the labor situation.

The president of Back Cove Yachts in the Rockland industrial park told the radio news host that several factors have been affecting supply chains in his industry at the moment, namely the recent wintry freeze in Texas, where certain necessary chemicals are made, the jamming of international trade following the blockage of the Suez Canal by a vast stuck freighter, and also the overall problem of hiring a large enough workforce right now to meet production demands.

At a recent forum for downtown businesses, one store owner said sales since December have been back at pre-COVID levels. This does suggest that demand exists in the economy, but the inability of employers to hire enough workers over the long term could once more be the crucial factor.

After all, we should remember that Maine was already suffering from a long-term labor shortage, even before COVID-19 struck us last year and made a hard situation harder.

So, after COVID-19 is defeated, will we just go back to an ordinary labor shortage again?

* * * * *

The Maine Legislature is holding a public hearing this week on a bill aimed at preventing legislators from “legislating while intoxicated.”

Could it mean that Augusta is riddled with soused senators and reeling representatives? What if they’re all too drunk to make up their minds on this bill?

I think we should be told.

David Grima is a former editor with Courier Publications. He can be reached at davidgrima@ymail.com.

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