What Freedom Means












[For Memorial Day, I am re-posting a piece that originally ran on Veteran’s Day 2011.  Please remember those who have fallen in defense of our country. SW]

When Kris Kristofferson wrote Me and Bobbie Magee, he taught a generation of young Americans in the 1960s that “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I don’t think Kris could have gotten it more wrong if he had tried a thousand times. “Freedom ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free,” he said.

It’s true that a person can’t go to Wal-Mart and buy a case of freedom; he can’t pay a doctor to surgically implant it, a psychologist to instill it in him, a physical trainer to grow his freedom muscles.

Those who think freedom means a person should be free to do whatever he pleases, regardless of the consequences to his fellow human beings, are the same people that complain that life bores them, the ones who fill up their time with empty self-serving pursuits, anesthetizing themselves with the panacea de jure.  As Voltaire said, they spend their waking hours tending their own private gardens, even if their neighbors’ houses need repair, or their friends are in trouble, or their country faces deadly threats.

If such people are right about the meaning of freedom, then it really “ain’t worth

But they are not right about it.

Freedom doesn’t mean a person can do as he pleases, it means he can do as he should.

If a person has freedom of speech, he squanders it when he keeps his mouth shut in
the presence of injustice.  If he enjoys freedom of religion, he negates it if he pays no heed to the higher values that distinguish him from an old hound dog. If he has the privilege to cast a vote in a free election, he devalues his citizenship if he doesn’t go to the polls.

Freedom is hardly free.  Just ask my dad who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, or the young Marine corporal who made it home to Longview, Texas, last week after seven months fighting in Afghanistan where he saw his comrades in arms die for it. Ask Martin Luther King, Jr. or Abraham Lincoln what price they paid for freedom. See if all these, our champions of freedom, tell you “it ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free.”


What freedom means to me is that I must do whatever lies within my power to help those in need, to improve the quality of life for everyone as best I can, to act as a responsible citizen, to create a legacy of opportunity for my children and their children. It means I must stand up and be counted, speak up and fade the heat, shut up when I’m wrong. It means I must put my money where my mouth is and show up when there’s work to be done for a good cause.

It is a costly freedom, more precious than gold, more beautiful than a sunset on the Gulf of Mexico, more enduring than the pyramids of Egypt, the sort of freedom for which many men and women have given their lives.

Let freedom ring.

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  • Terrific piece, Stephen. It is sad to think of all the ways we abuse our freedom by thinking it means what it doesn’t.

  • I believe that there are some poets/songwriters who string words together in pleasant sounding verse without concerning themselves with the meanings of the result. To me, John Lenon’s “Imagine” is another that ranks right down there with “Me and Bobby McGee.”

    • Jack, it is interesting that you say that. I was in Nashville many years ago and visited the Country Music Hall of Fame. There was a Kris Kristofferson exhibit. It explained the story of Me and Bobby Magee. One day when Kristofferson was the hottest songwriter in Nashville, his producer came up to him with a paper napkin in his hand. He handed the napkin to Kris and said, “Here’s your next song.” The only words on the napkin were “Me and Bobby Magee.” So, that song was nothing more than an exercise in song-writing for Kristofferson. Kind of like someone asking you to write a blog about Henry VIII.

  • If you can re-post it, I can re-comment. You are absolutely correct both in your post and your reply to my earlier comment.

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  • Our fighting men and women are the purchasers of our freedom. And for some, like your father, the debt goes on far beyond the date he paid it. He just can’t forget it. And we honor him and those millions like him.

  • jack43

    I’m back… Times change and my comment changes with every reposting of this. Unfortunately, there is a new threat to freedom. People are surrendering it apparently because they fear the responsibility that attaches to personal freedom. Even worse, a new threat has arisen to veterans. Not the dead. They are beyond threats. Rather, to those who served and returned. The Department of Homeland Security seems to think that the only good veteran is a dead veteran. The live ones are to be feared. Thus, they have relaunched operation Vigilant Eagle which presupposes that veterans are potential terrorists. That they should be investigated. Monitored. Harassed. Denied the succor that they have earned. I think I see their point. Inasmuch as many citizens are beginning to perceive threats from their government and forming militia, it is logical to suppose that veterans might be recruited to help train and organize them. As a veteran, I am only too happy to volunteer if anyone thinks that a tired old gimp like me might be of service…

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