Everything I ever needed to know about the meaning of liberty, I learned from a flower-selling hippy on a Fort Worth street corner. Travelin’ Terry was an unabashed champion of liberal values in an intensely conservative town. His long reddish hair and full beard interrupted the wild patterns of his tie-dyed shirts the same way his very presence interrupted the starched and pressed traffic creeping by in Texas Christian University purple and bouffant blond.
In stark contradiction to the crusty punks who would come to line Austin boulevards to school each other in panhandling technique, Terry was an unabashed hustler of the free-market variety. Contradictions were everywhere.
One good ol’ boy who stopped to share the hairy spectacle with his sweetheart insisted magnanimously that Terry didn’t need to call him “sir.” The merchant of fading beauty and fast quips didn’t miss a beat: “I wasn’t calling you sir, I was addressing your money.”
Terry was endlessly entertaining and, at times, painfully direct as he schooled us in his deeply libertarian philosophy. Illustrating that rare moment he believed legislation should encumber an individual’s freedom of choice, he paraphrased former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
“My right to swing my arm ends at the tip of your nose,” he said, pointing a little too enthusiastically at my most forward feature. These were not lessons I took lightly.
For the longest time I ascribed their origins to the Enlightenment philosophers and founding documents like the Declaration of Independence. While the actual rights such documents made a show of declaring came only grudgingly to most – the property-owning white men setting the gears in motion for representative democracy were far and away the early winners – their utterance proved devastating to centuries of supposedly divinely ordained rule by all manner of blue bloods and institutional religious hierarchies.
The concept of liberty, however, didn’t spring whole-cloth from any philosopher’s pen. It was born in significant ways from the colonists’ increasing familiarity with the indigenous cultures they were, in many cases, exterminating as their roots sunk deeper into native soil. It was in the lifeways of the Native Americans that Vermont preacher Samuel Peters discovered “liberty in perfection” — the political perfection of lives governed by individual conscience. In the confederations of the Iroquois and Cherokee the white-wigged Founders found precursors to both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Yet in a disastrous case of cherry-picking, those early colonizing powers now grown into a world-disrupting force enshrined individual liberty while failing to absorb the equally critical concept of the interrelatedness of all things.
“We spend a lot of time obsessing over our inalienable rights,” Dan Wildcat, professor at Haskell Indian Nations University and author of Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge, told a gathering at the University of Kansas recently. “But the most difficult part resides in the inalienable responsibilities humans try to avoid.”
These days those “difficult parts” are multiplying exponentially as humanity’s economic engine races ahead. And there is little idea as to how we will survive the planetary damages we’re causing. Among the trans-boundary challenges facing the nations today are climate change and its increasingly destructive weather patterns, the collapse of ecosystems and threatening rise in plant and animal extinctions, acidifying oceans, disappearing groundwater, food shortages, and rampant economic disparities throughout.
In the globalized forces of climate disruption, the distance between the polluter and the punished has been reduced to a puff. With each thrust of capital intended to keep our energy, food, and entertainments cheap and plentiful, someone’s nose is twisted in the vise.
It should come as no surprise that America’s devotees of personal freedom have proven to be easy targets for a denial industry funded by the economic interests most threatened by a concerted climate response. To them, not even the cacophony of a planet’s life-support system unraveling, or the resounding consensus among the lexicon of federal research agencies and national and international scientific bodies warning of a world growing ever more inhospitable to life, is audible.
However, for those who accept that our rights don’t include living in ways that do violence to our neighbors near and far — and, for that matter, all creation — the planet’s distress call is a call to understand more deeply our rights and our too-infrequently discussed human responsibilities.
It is time to study the second lesson of the elders.
Of note: When climate-change denier Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott was asked during a Twitter town hall to explain in a single word why he should be governor, he replied “Liberty.” That naturally cued up the next installment of Lone Star Green.
Top image was taken during a recent trip to the Chickasaw Cultural Center.