I was out driving in Chicago the other day, and as I stopped for a red light near the corner of Lawrence Avenue and Pulaski Road, I found myself idling in front of the Admiral Theater. It’s a strip club.
Above the entryway to the “gentleman’s” club, I noticed chiseled in stone a quote from the notorious Larry Flynt, controversial publisher of Hustler magazine and self-proclaimed champion of free speech: “The greatest right that any nation can afford its people is the right to be left alone.”
It’s not an uncommon definition of freedom, the right to be left alone to do as one pleases. No doubt, such a definition of freedom, among other definitions, has deep roots in the political and cultural traditions of the United States, where we can find multiple concepts of freedom competing for currency in our political discourse.
Flynt’s assertion of the rights freedom ought to entail may find its expression realized most succinctly in the flag we see so many of those protesting stay-at-home orders in states like Michigan and Minnesota—the Gadsden flag featuring an image of a recoiling snake and the tag line, “Don’t Tread on Me.” While the flag has a rich history during which its meaning has evolved and been refashioned for varying ideological uses, it has come to stand as a statement of resistance of government overreach.
Even in more refined voices in the nation’s cultural traditions, those considered classically American, we find this anti-social hyper-individualist concept of freedom animating dominant literary thought. In the mid-19th century, writers and thinkers associated with American Romanticism, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, tended to imagine society, even government, as invariably repressive and hostile to the individual who must always struggle against such structures to truly enjoy freedom.
Recently in the pages of PoliticusUsa, I explored this tradition in the writings of Thoreau, particularly his famous 1849 “Resistance to Civil Government,” in which Thoreau accepts the motto, “That government is best which governs least.” This kind of romantic individualism fuels, I suggested, the very anti-government attitudes underlying and justifying Donald Trump’s dismantling of exactly those government agencies that could have minimized the damage of the coronavirus pandemic and no doubt helped organized a more informed and coordinated approach to addressing it.
But driving by the Admiral Theater, arguably a site where the social legitimation of the exploitation of women is made obvious, I reflected on the utility of this tradition of defining freedom as the right to be left alone, particularly as I read about the surge in reports of domestic violence, or intimate terrorism, during the current pandemic.
Do women enduring abuse, terror, and violence in their homes at the hands of their partners see freedom from government intervention in these so-called private spaces as the highest form of freedom? Do they see it as freedom at all?
Perhaps Flynt’s definition of freedom, maybe even Thoreau’s, are not just hyper-individualist but hyper-masculinist or, more appropriately, hyper-sexist and hyper-misogynist.
The stay-at-home orders were designed, ironically enough, to keep us “safe.” For victims of domestic violence, these orders have imposed conditions that are exactly the opposite of safety.
Imagine being locked in your home with someone who seeks to control you through verbal, physical, and psychological abuse, through terror, and not being able or having another place to go without subjecting yourself to a potentially deadly virus.
Globally and domestically, reports of domestic violence have surged off the charts, and political leaders governing in a culture saturated in sexism, in which women’s issues are still largely invisible and in which women are still effectively categorized as second-class citizens without formally-granted equal rights, did not even anticipate this effect of the pandemic.
Amanda Taub writing for the New York Times captures this dynamic that results from the everyday culture of sexism:
Now, with families in lockdown worldwide, hotlines are lighting up with abuse reports, leaving governments trying to address a crisis that experts say they should have seen coming . . .
But governments largely failed to prepare for the way the new public health measures would create opportunities for abusers to terrorize their victims. Now, many are scrambling to offer services to those at risk.
In Europe, one country after another seems to have followed the same grim path: First, governments impose lockdowns without making sufficient provisions for domestic abuse victims. About 10 days later, distress calls spike, setting off a public outcry. Only then do the governments scramble to improvise solutions.
Indeed, the sexism that validates and even blames women for the abuse is powerful that, according to NPR reporting, the Malaysian government had launched a campaign it later retracted “advising women not to nag their husbands and to refrain from being ‘sarcastic’ when asking for help with household chores.”
The U.S. is equally guilty. The Hill reports, “Departments in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and Seattle have said publicly they are seeing increases in domestic violence allegations.” Year over year, Chicago reports a 14.6 percent increase in reports, Seattle a 21 percent increase, Dallas a 20 percent increase, and Los Angeles a 7.6 percent increase.
But numbers don’t really communicate the story. To get a more human feel for the terror behind these statistics, consider this tweet Shelly Wagers includes in her reporting for NewsOne.com:
Being in an abuse household especially during quarantine is the worst thing in the world I wish I could leave
— aubree elizabeth (@aubreedelcambre) April 9, 2020
So, what would freedom mean for victims of domestic abuse and intimate terrorism? It doesn’t seem to be to have the right to be left alone with their abusers in a private space free from public intervention. That definition of freedom seems like an abuser’s fantasy.
Certainly, I hope we all want the government out of our bedrooms and off of our bodies. I recognize pro-life and homophobic politics often advocate for government intervention to police our bodies.
But can we imagine a freedom for our bodies and selves the government protects?
It seems necessary. And anti-government attitudes informing conceptions of freedom such as those advocated by Flynt threaten to give license to a freedom to abuse.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.