Resolving freedom’s identity crisis
Among the many persisting struggles for freedom in the world, there are two simultaneous struggles that strike a contrast like no other. Across the northeastern border between the United States and Canada, there are a series of not new, albeit far larger in scale, protests by truck drivers against vaccine mandates and other pandemic restrictions across the country. The truckers have, over the past several weeks, turned what was a series of loosely organized protests in the city into what is essentially an active blockade and campaign of general intimidation, threatening other drivers and pedestrians, as well as a significant portion of trade occurring between Canada and the U.S. in the process. Protesters, described by observers in Ottawa as being “highly determined and volatile,” see their cause as a justified defiance against what they perceive to be tyranny on part of the state, with vaccine requirements constituting a gross violation of their bodily autonomy and choices.
Many outside observers, mostly those on the political right, have related to this cause, seeing it as worthy, just, and a rebellion against the overstepping vaccine mandates that they believe have jeopardized their freedom. Independent of what one may think of vaccine requirements and other pandemic-related restrictions, the protests, at their core, are representative of a particular idealization of freedom, which serves as a vision of the state compelling inoculation against a deadly virus, and seeing this coercion or really any sort of state-enforced personal task as a violation of one’s right to self-determination in an otherwise democratic country.
On the other side of the world, Ukrainians from all walks of life are engaging in a slightly different form of struggle for their perception of freedom. Many, gearing up for a likely large-scale Russian invasion of their territory, have taken to learning basic military training and tactics over the past several months, preparing to potentially defend their cities and neighborhoods block by block from a vastly superior, more destructive, and significantly more brutal invasion force. Vladimir Putin, the president and de facto Tsar of the Russian Federation, believes the fellow Slavic nation, one whom Russia has over a thousand years of kinship with, who would dare have a democratically elected government, and whose citizens want more and more to associate with the West, to be the greatest threat to his iron-fisted rule. Putin sees Ukraine as drifting ever further away from Russia’s sphere of influence, and as a result is taking the military option of likely trying to either overthrow Ukraine’s government by way of utter numerical decimation or trying to force the country to become a failed state, further solidifying Russia’s wall of authoritarian clients. To do this, Putin is willing to wage the slaughter of potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainians, as well as an untold number of his own soldiers, becoming even more of a pariah on the international stage, and likely causing severe economic pain that the West will inflict by way of sanctions. All this is in the name of stomping on a threat far greater than any potential (if very unlikely) NATO membership for Ukraine: freedom.
But Ukraine isn’t going down without a fight. In the name of independence, autonomy, and liberty in a far more concrete form than the Canadian truck drivers claim to be representing, ordinary people both within and outside Ukraine’s armed forces, whether they are volunteering for a weapons or communication course or willfully staying amidst a potentially chaotic Russian assault, vow to protect their homeland and freedom at the cost of their lives.
Thus, the two battling interpretations of what it means to have true self-determination and fundamental natural rights considerably muddy the meaning of liberty but also give it a more abstract notion of privilege. The Canadian truckers, while angry about a violation of their interpretation of freedom, truly don’t know how good they have it.
They can vote to choose their leaders in free and fair elections and can have the very protests they are staging with little to no consequences.
There are no dictators with whom they share a land border with who are willing to wage war to take away their right to do this, and there are no immediate threats to their lives that exist as a suppression of this very concept.
In Ukraine, however, this struggle does exist, and it does not have the luxury of subjective interpretation. What is at stake is not a series of temporary and only slightly inconvenient yet entirely inconsequential restrictions, but instead the end of freedom and the right for the citizens of a country to determine the course of its future. Freedom, as it exists both theoretically and tangibly in our twenty-first century world, is undergoing a serious and possibly fatal identity crisis. Such vastly different interpretations, one born of spoiled, self-righteous entitlement to a vague, hastily thought-out abstract concept, and the other the product of a life-or-death struggle to simply exist, cannot possibly co-exist in the same world, yet they do.
What can change things, however, is the recognition of this fact: that freedom, while it might mean different things to different people in different places at different times, is very much a matter of degree and also one of privilege. These struggles are not even remotely of the same degree of importance and vary immensely on scales of gravity. In a time where the world seems to be trending more and more in the direction of authoritarianism, quantifying the meaning of freedom directly, as it applies to conflicts where thousands, if not millions of lives and livelihoods hang in the balance, as opposed to minor inconvenience, is a matter of prudent necessity.
To recognize this fact is to give freedom and autonomy, some of the most fundamental of human rights, a semblance of their identity back. This is what people like Putin fear the most; not crippling sanctions, weapons, or military alliances, but a redefined, tangible, and struggled-for liberty that emerges triumphant from the ashes of physical and ideological strife. Its fate, the legacy of keeping this identity-struggling flame burning lies with those as brave and convicted as the people of Ukraine.