Two events that occurred almost simultaneously constitute an instructive case study on American “freedom.” When juxtaposed, they offer a rare glimpse into the bizarre, paradoxical, and hypocritical conception of “liberty” that is so pervasive in the US—a kind of freedom in which particular hegemonic groups have the “right” to endanger others while marginalized groups do not even have the right to criticize oppression.
Case 1: Reactionaries Have the Right to Personal Militaries
In a 17 June article in the New York Times, Jeff Funicello, a white conservative American who owns an armored bulletproof van, adamantly insisted “This is America. I should be able to have a howitzer or a bazooka if I want one.” The piece drew attention to the fact that, on the morning of 13 June, a right-wing white terrorist attacked the Dallas Police Headquarters. He used an armored van. A more accurate headline for the article would have been “Privately Owned Armored Trucks Raise Eyebrows in Light of Ever-Rising Right-Wing Terrorism.”
Funicello is the kind of guy who, on social media, shares conservative country singer Allen Jackson’s photos of a giant US flag on Memorial Day. Among the pages he likes on Facebook are the ultra-right wing Tea Party, Rand Paul, Conservative Daily, and more.
His “right” to own military-grade weapons that exist solely to kill people is doggedly defended. If the government dares try to regulate Funicello’s “right” to own heavy artillery that was created exclusively for the reason to slaughter as many people as possible, it is suddenly “tyrannical” (and, as he would doubtless call it, “socialist”).
Case 2: Ban Books with Gay Characters
Just one day before, the Washington Post published an article revealing that a third-grade teacher in Efland, North Carolina was fired for reading a children’s book about a gay couple. A student was brought to tears after he was called “gay” in gym class (the fact that this is considered a tear-inducing insult in the first place already says a lot about reactionary US culture). Omar Currie, a black and gay school teacher in the rural southern town, wanted to turn the incident into a teachable moment. He read his students the book King & King, a children’s story about two monarchs who fall in love.
The children’s parents went berserk. They demanded that not only Currie step down, but too that the assistant principal who loaned Currie the book also resign.
And yet even that was not enough. Now, parents are pressuring school administrators to ban the book.
There are few activities more American than book banning.
“Freedom” for the Privileged
The temporal coincidence of these two scenes is most telling. Clearly, in the myopic, oppressive, and reactionary US conception of “freedom,” right-wing extremists absolutely must be able to own military-grade weapons, and yet teachers absolutely must be fired for daring to read books with gay characters.
In the “freedom”-loving US, the very same reactionaries who firmly, even violently, maintain that it is their “God-given right” to own howitzers and bazookas, at the same moment, also want to ban books with gay characters.
If anything, this incident should have generated a different kind of discussion: In the 21st century, teachers still read books to children that humanize and paint kings in a romantic light. In virtually all of the world (excluding the theocratic Gulf states, which very much uncoincidentally also happen to be close US allies), absolute monarchism has been overthrown. Yet children are still raised on books that extol anti-democratic despots.
Instead, US culture punishes those who wish to portray LGBTQ people as actual human beings with feelings, desires, and experiences of love. And not only does it seek to punish them; it furthermore seeks to prohibit and even efface the texts that remind people of this.
Such is “America.” As the internet meme goes, ‘Murica is the kind of place where book banning is not seen as an infringement on your freedom, but not being able to own heavy military equipment is.