On Jan. 6, 1941, as Nazi Germany tightened its cruel grip on Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his annual State of the Union address. He acknowledged the terrible costs of war and argued that the sacrifice would be accepted by future generations only if it led to a newer, better world for all people everywhere, a world based on the four human freedoms central to democracy — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
They were, in his view, fundamental American values, and an antidote to the poison of growing tyranny. Three years later, in his 1944 State of the Union address, Roosevelt translated those values into what became known as the “Economic Bill of Rights” — an uncompromising articulation of economic security as a condition of individual freedom.
Today, these principles are embodied by the pure and simple lines, etched in grass, stone and light, of Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park, the great architect’s memorial to Roosevelt that opened last month in New York. Kahn’s extraordinary vision was at last realized, almost 40 years after his death, on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, thanks in no small part to dedicated supporters including my father, Ambassador William vanden Heuvel, who fought tirelessly to make Kahn’s dream a reality in our time.
The New York Times called the park the city’s “new spiritual heart.” But it is also is a living symbol of those enduring values Roosevelt spoke of 70 years ago — a reminder of what those fundamental freedoms have meant to the lives of everyday Americans, and to the everyday life of America.
On this Election Day, it should inspire a rededication to progressive ideals that, pursued with passion and pragmatism, may indeed be attainable through a government that protects freedom by seeking economic justice and security for all. After all, as my father has said, “all of our elections have been replays of the 1932 election . . . of the argument about the role of government and the commitment of nation to all of its citizens.”
The fight to define freedom is, of course, as old as the fight to defend it. Since our earliest days, the word “freedom” has been the political equivalent of St. Peter’s foot, endlessly touched by centuries of devotees and dabblers, and dulled to the point of being unrecognizable. In the last few decades, conservatives have seized on freedom’s shapeless remains and sharpened them into one narrow construction: market freedom. Thus, Corey Robin has written in the Nation, conservatives have persuasively argued that “market equals freedom and government is the threat to freedom.”
The truth is quite the opposite. An unrestrained market that caters exclusively to the interests of powerful businessmen imposes very real constraints on ordinary people’s freedom. FDR’s Four Freedoms and, later, his economic bill of rights reframed government as the tool with which citizens might break free of those constraints.
Roosevelt believed what our founders believed: Government ought to be not only a shield from tyranny but also an instrument of freedom. We see this most clearly in times of economic crisis, when government has a role to play in creating jobs and helping the most vulnerable maintain freedom from want and fear.
Of course, none of this has stopped the right wing from hijacking the word freedom to convey its demented view of patriotism. And this election season, the four freedoms have been particularly perverted.
Freedom from fear has been perverted by Mitt Romney, who used the word freedom 29 times in one speech — at an National Rifle Association convention. There’s nothing to fear as long as everybody has an AK-47.
Freedom of religion has become the justification for Catholic bishops who want to dictate whether women have access to contraception and the right to control their own bodies.
Freedom from want has been upended by Paul Ryan and House Republicans, who unanimously voted — twice — for a budget that would effectively repeal the New Deal, a decades-long goal of the GOP.
Freedom of speech and participation has been drowned by the uninhibited flood of corporate money into elections. As Roosevelt himself said, “Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.”
But the conservative narrative about freedom took on a troubling new meaning last week when Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast. Under President Obama’s leadership, our federal government responded in service of those disaster victims desperately in need of relief. In stark contrast, Mitt Romney’s long history of callousness toward public servants and his disdain for the Federal Emergency Management Agency are evidence that, in his America, for too many, there would be no freedom — only want and fear.
Louis Kahn once said, “Architecture is the reaching out for the truth.” In that sense, the Four Freedoms Park is a call to action for progressives and a reminder that, as University of Wisconsin-Green Bay professor Harvey Kaye writes, “What made FDR truly great was his profound democratic faith and confidence in his fellow citizens.” Roosevelt believed that, if empowered, they would fight for a fairer economy and a freer world.