Preserving Our "Freedom"

Posted by Mark Peters

The once-potent word has emerged from the wash a little worse for wear.

That loud whew you heard last week was a collective sigh of relief, as the non-cuckoo contingents of America learned that the building going up at 1 World Trade Center will simply take that name, rather than the pompous, gods-provoking Freedom Tower, which sounded so much like a moniker from Team America: World Police.Far more astute observers than I have noted that mounting an enormous new monument to Americanism at Ground Zero might be tempting fate, not to mention the lunatics of the world. Adding a chesty name would seem to double the jinx, as David Dunlap mentioned in the New York Times: "…it is easy to imagine that prospective tenants-already worried about moving into a building that is potentially a terrorist target-might balk at a name with such potent ideological symbolism."I can't argue with the sentiment, but boy can I make fun of the word choices: potent ideological symbolism? Deleting the name Freedom Tower might indeed make the new building seem like more of an index finger than a middle finger raised to the heavens, but if Freedom Tower is what passes for potent, please pass me a big bowl of impotence, thank you.Like it or not, the word freedom and the concept for which it stands took a beating during the Bush administration, when oversimplifications like "They hate us for our freedom" and "Freedom is on the march" were accompanied by clusterfraks like Operation Iraqi Freedom. Terrorism was reduced to a formula as complex as a Tom and Jerry cartoon: Cats hate mice, terrorists hate freedom, any questions? It didn't help that secret prisons, euphemistically rebranded torture, and illegal wiretaps were part of the fight for freedom, reminding us all of a George Carlin one-liner: "If firefighters fight fire and crimefighters fight crime, what do freedom-fighters fight?"All in all, the word freedom came through the wash far worse for wear, like a beautiful sweater that's been shrunk and shredded and gunked.Making matters worse (but funnier), comedy gold was discovered in 2003 when members of the House-who were miffed over French non-support of the Iraq war-got some government cafeterias to rename French fries and French toast as freedom fries and freedom toast. Those absurd euphemisms-which pleased anyone who also enjoyed the insult cheese-eatin' surrender monkeys-led to approximately 4,109 jokes about freedom kissing.Adding to the comedy was the British freedom bag, appearing in 2005. This see-through package was less arousing than a peekaboo teddy, as it was designed to reveal what deadly bombers, not gorgeous bombshells, were packing. The promiscuous, preposterous use of freedom was never spoofed better than on 30 Rock when Jack Donaghy, about to enter a federal building, told Liz Lemon it was time for his (gulp) freedom search, which, let's hope, was conducted by a trained physician.Of course, any word that's been around the block and back is going to pick up meanings that stray from its origins. In the Vietnam era, the plane taking soldiers home from the war was called a freedom bird, and the trip a freedom flight. More recently, unemployed corporate dudes have taken to wearing beards, calling it the face of freedom, which puts a positive spin on out-of-work-ness and the neo-caveman, hair-growing opportunities it presents. A freedom lawn is a jungle-like, anything-goes rejection of the suburban demand for a golf course-quality, chemically treated lawn.But as groovy as ungroomed faces and lawns can be, American history has produced some terms that were just a little more significant. Freedom papers were the documents that saved a person from slavery. FDR's four freedoms referred to freedom of expression and religion, and freedom from want and fear. In the early sixties, a freedom ride was a protest against segregation: freedom riders and freedom walkers were participants in such protests. Given this weighty history, it's more than a shame that the word freedom has been dunk-tanked (or, if you prefer, waterboarded) into its current soggy condition.But while we're waiting for it to dry out, let's enjoy a bipartisan, underused bit of freedom lingo: freedom of the bathroom.Isaac Asimov coined this term, when he wasn't making the world safe for robotics, in a 1988 interview with Bill Moyers: "If two people live in an apartment and there are two bathrooms, then both have what I call freedom of the bathroom-they can go to the bathroom any time they want and stay as long as they want for whatever they need…. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang on the door, ‘Aren't you through yet?' and so on." Asimov's point was that overpopulation inevitably causes people to lose freedom of the bathroom, while democracy, dignity, privacy are similarly flushed down the toilet of our hearts.Freedom of the bathroom wouldn't look right on a tower or in a revision of the Pledge of Allegiance, but that's a freedom even the surrender monkeys and Fox-News monkeys can rally behind together, perhaps while sharing a banana. If adequate potty space isn't the fifth freedom, maybe it should be.