American culture Franklin’s Four Franchised Freedoms. by Thomas Davis
Sunday, January 6th marks the 72nd anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State of the Union Address that outlined the Four Freedoms.
On the brink of World War II becoming a global conflict, FDR announced the Four Freedoms that he believed were being threatened all over the world by three totalitarian regimes.
Within that context and from the shining beacon of freedom above the fruited plain, President Roosevelt had announced to the world that certain inalienable rights had been bestowed universally upon humanity and the nation on the hill above the fruited plain would crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea, valiantly protecting those freedoms. He set the bar high.
He issued a call to recognize a world that was founded upon four essential human freedoms. These became known as The Four Freedoms, a four legged legacy of rights inherent in us all.
The first is freedom of speech and expression.
The second is freedom of worship.
The third is freedom from want.
The forth is freedom from fear.
On that date, FDR proclaimed:
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…Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.
According to the Marist FDR Library Franklin Roosevelt had just been elected for a third term in 1940 to lead the world against “an unprecedented danger, instability, and uncertainty.”
The rules of engagement were dramatically different than in 2013. War was not fought against bands of marauding, masquerading guerrillas. Domestic terrorism and mass shootings were unheard of, at least in the United States. The mission of war was clearly defined. Sovereign nations had not been invaded on tenuous claims of weapons of mass destruction. No, it was the clear and present danger of the marching militias of Hitler and Mussolini who inspired this red line proclamation in the steady sand of human rights.
At the time of Roosevelt’s address to Congress most of Europe had been taken by the Nazis. Although many Americans believed that the United States should stay out of the war, FDR understood Britain’s need for American support and attempted to convince the American people of the gravity of the situation.
Roosevelt outlined the Four Freedoms as the founding vision that would provide a mission for America’s entry into the War. This in turn would serve as a reminder to a war-wearied people the reason they were fighting for freedom.
In his address he bellowed in King’s English “Certainly this is no time for any of us to stop thinking about the social and economic problems which are the root cause of the social revolution which is today a supreme factor in the world”.
His speech reminded us that we have a right to equality of opportunity for our children and everyone else; a right to employment; a right to security; an end to special privilege for the few; and a right the preservation of civil liberties for all. Interestingly, he stated that our economic and political systems are dependent upon “the degree to which they fulfill these expectations”.
He specifically named elements of our social economy that needed improvement. These included the need to bring more citizens under the coverage of pensions and unemployment insurance. He also declared that we need to expand opportunities for adequate medical care.
He said “We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it…I have called for personal sacrifice. I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call”.
As we all know now, America entered the War and along with the Allied Forces and subsequently defeated the Axis powers that included Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. Following the War, the world’s developed countries, led by the United States entered a prolonged period of economic expansion into the 1970s.
Since the mid-1970s, however, conditions have changed – despite, not because – of these Four Freedoms. Two of these freedoms fall under the First Amendment.
Freedom of speech has suffered. During the past year, nationwide Occupy Wall Street groups, in most cases, peacefully protested various social inequalities perpetrated by the excesses of capitalism. But to the dismay of many sympathizing Americans, they have been forcibly dispersed by police, often violently. There have now been several lawsuits filed claiming that the constitutional rights to free speech and assembly have been violated.
Related to freedom of assembly is the issue of labor unions. We have witnessed an epidemic of union busting over the past year as well, notably in Wisconsin and Ohio where collective bargaining rights have been attacked. Just last month, the Michigan legislature approved right to work legislation, banning the requirement that nonunion employees pay unions for negotiating contracts and other services.
Freedom of worship almost seems mythical at times in 21st century America. Hate crimes have become commonplace, exemplified in a range of ways. A 2007 survey by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) concluded that 15% of Americans hold antisemitic views. In a July 2010 letter to commentator Glenn Beck, Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham H. Foxman responded to remarks by Beck saying “the deicide charge is one of the oldest pillars of anti-Semitism and has led to tragic consequences for the Jewish people.” In August 2012 there was a vicious massacre of six worshipers at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee white supremacist named Wade M. Page believing they were Muslim.
You might recall the debate in 2010 over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. “It’s a house of worship, but we are at war with al-Qaida,” said ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee Peter King. This is far from freedom of worship and clearly violates the separation of church and state as outlined in the First Amendment.
Freedom from want can take an unlimited number of forms. For every reasonable human want there is a corresponding relief, or freedom from it.
One that comes to my mind is the want for food and nutrition among children. According to Feed America, 16.7 million children lived in food insecure households in 2011. A major source of food and nutrition for families and children living in poverty is the Supplemental Food and Nutrition Program (SNAP) better known as food stamps. Yet, members of the 112th Congress, the same institutional body as the 77th Congress addressed by Roosevelt, would reduce spending in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, by $16 billion over 10 years. An institutional body with no institutional memory…
Our freedom from fear has become a bit tattered at times as well. In the wake of mass shootings, many at American schools, we have bred a culture of fear. In the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting will we see a surge in home schooling for fear of sending our children to school? As First Grade Teacher Kaitlin Roig said in that heart wrenching moment: “If they started crying, I would take their face and tell them, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I wanted that to be the last thing they heard, not the gunfire in the hall.” She went on to tell them “You’re going to have Christmas and Hanukkah. I tried to be positive. If they started crying I would take their face and say it’s going to be OK”.
This is unacceptable in 21st century America.
Among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, the Nordic countries, Canada, and other peer nations we fall short of the Roosevelt ideal in other areas as well. We have the greatest inequality of incomes, the lowest social mobility, the highest expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP, next to the lowest score for student performance in math, the highest homicide rate, the largest prison population and the highest carbon dioxide emissions consumption per capita.
These outcomes are the deliberate results public policy. However, beginning with FDR’s New Deal based on the Four Freedoms, public policy began to change and favor the middle class. Just before the Great Depression, the top 1 percent of Americans received a quarter of total income. But thanks to Roosevelt’s polices, by the mid-1970s, the share of the richest 1 percent of households had dropped to 9 percent. Shortly thereafter, this began to reverse course. An upward redistribution of income and wealth began in the 1980s right up to the Great Recession when the richest 1 percent had again reached 24 percent of all income.
James Gustave Speth says it well:
In recent decades we failed to build consistently on the foundations laid by the New Deal, by Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and his Second Bill of Rights, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead, we unleashed a virulent, fast-growing strain of corporate-consumerist capitalism. Such an economy begs for restraint and guidance in the public interest—control that can only be provided by government.
In 2013 we still have it within our grasp to get back on track and attain a direction based firmly on the Four Freedoms with a concerted effort by a bipartisan Congress, the White House, and most of all, a united American people who believe in themselves. The recent bipartisan Biden-McConnell agreement reached in the Senate and supported by the House of Representatives to avoid the fiscal cliff is proof that we can work together. We can make 2013 a year when we again reverse course toward a more equitable society.