June 24, 2024

Hubris, Ingratitude, and the Unraveling of American Freedom

People say death imbues life with purpose. And likewise, subjugation is what makes freedom worthwhile. The human spirit harbors an innate longing to demonstrate valor, seeking both community and meaning within moments of crisis. But much of Americans today navigate life devoid of high-stakes or high-risk challenges. Undoubtedly, the absence of incessant turmoil is an immense boon. And yet, the cocoon of physical security, coupled with utter convenience and comfort (which remain inconceivable in certain parts of the world even now) is not without its unexamined tolls—ushering in an era where the word “freedom” leaves a rather lackluster taste in our mouths.

Illustration by Chris Burnett; Photographs by Cheriss May for The New York Times; Dave Randolph/San Francisco Chronicle, via Associated Press; Associated Press; Dith Pran/The New York Times; Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times; D. Gorton/The New York Times; Larry Morris/The New York Times

Editor’s Note: In a world often characterized by ideological polarization and cultural clashes, Jay Sophalkalyan emerges as a refreshing voice, offering a unique perspective on contemporary American political culture. As an immigrant from Cambodia, his lens provides a distinct vantage point from which to analyze and critique the complex landscape of American society.

In his recent contribution to the Journal of Political Inquiry, titled “The Moral Myopia of Woke Culture,” Sophalkalyan delved deep into the implications of Woke Culture, shedding light on its reductionist theoretical assumptions and exploring the phenomenon of self-loathing among those living within this culture of wokeness. It was a thought-provoking exploration of a divisive topic that captivated our readers’ attention.

Now, in his latest article, “Hubris, Ingratitude, and the Unraveling of American Freedom,” Jay Sophalkalyan continues his exploration of American society, turning his analytical gaze toward the concept of freedom. He provocatively questions why, in a nation that boasts unparalleled affluence and freedom, so many individuals find themselves grappling with a pervasive sense of emptiness. His examination of the excess of freedom in America challenges conventional wisdom and invites readers to reevaluate their assumptions about the relationship between freedom and fulfillment.

We are honored to feature his work in our journal, and we hope that his insightful analysis will continue to provoke meaningful discussions and encourage our readers to reflect upon the multifaceted nature of contemporary political culture in America.

In 2005, the American novelist David Foster Wallace gave the commencement address titled “This is Water” at Kenyon College. He began his speech with a story: There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this story, especially now as I’ve returned to my home country, Cambodia, for the summer. Here, the norms and societal undercurrents are distinct from what I have grown accustomed to in the United States. Here, offensive jokes can result in a comedian being coerced into a government-mandated apology. Here, media outlets are forcibly closed down for engaging in independent investigative reporting and objective criticism. Here, environmental activists find themselves confronted with the unsettling possibility of enduring imprisonment for a span of five to ten years, all due to the accusations of having “insulted” the monarch. Here, there are people who stand as prisoners of conscience. Despite being just a 25-hour plane ride away, the American reality stands worlds apart from that of Cambodia.

Having lived in the United States for more than half a decade, I found myself adapting to its environment, imbibing the unspoken mores and embracing the spirit of American freedom that seemed second nature to those around me. It was as though this freedom was woven into their very essence, so deeply ingrained that it became imperceptible to them. The subtleties of their liberties were like the water Wallace referred to in his story, an invisible yet ever-present force shaping their perceptions and actions. And much like Wallace’s young fish in the water, largely unaware of their aquatic environment until juxtaposed with an alternative setting, the lens through which Americans view their experiences is often colored by their surroundings. 

Consider the story of Brittney Griner, an accomplished American professional basketball player for the Phoenix Mercury in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). Following the tragic death of George Floyd in 2020, Griner made a resolute decision not to be on the court for the national anthem and even suggested that it should not be played before WNBA games. 

​​”I’m not going to be out there for the national anthem,” Griner said. “If the league continues to want to play it, that’s fine. It will be all season long; I’ll not be out there.”  It was as if the weight of George Floyd’s tragedy had disillusioned her so much so that she adopted a somewhat nihilistic perspective, momentarily forgetting the proverbial water she was immersed in or the symbolism of freedom embedded in the American national anthem. 

What came as a reminder of that precious freedom for Griner was her arrest in February 2022 at a Moscow airport after she was caught with 0.45 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage while en route to join a Russian basketball team during the WNBA offseason. Later, she was found guilty of drug smuggling, resulting in a nine-year prison sentence in August 2022. 

It should be noted that in Russia, under a gram of cannabis possession can result in a punishment of up to 15 days in prison. Evidently, her sentence was not only disproportionate but also glaringly unjust. This situation was widely viewed as a calculated maneuver by President Vladimir Putin, orchestrated to gain diplomatic leverage over the United States. After negotiations by the US government, Griner was eventually released in December 2022. This release came about through a prisoner exchange, with international arms dealer Viktor Bout being swapped for her.

An officer removes Griner’s handcuffs before a court hearing outside Moscow on July 26, 2022. Photo Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko—POOL/AFP/Getty Images

Upon returning to American soil, Griner’s perspective had undergone a metamorphosis. The essence of American freedom took on a renewed luster in her eyes. This newfound sentiment was palpable when, on May 19, 2023, Griner stood proudly during the national anthem before a WNBA game. Her action didn’t go unnoticed, prompting questions about her decision.

In response, Griner shared, “What I went through and everything, it just means a little bit more to me now. So, I want to be able to stand. I was literally in a cage [in Russia]and could not stand the way I wanted to. […] Just being able to hear my national anthem, see my flag, I definitely want to stand.”

Brittney Griner’s story is one steeped in American hubris. Within the ample spectrum of liberties the United States offers, it is not uncommon for some Americans to misconstrue deficiencies in the system as forms of oppression. This tendency is highlighted when instances like the inordinately high incarceration rates among Black Americans are sensationalized and sometimes hyperbolized as indicative of an ongoing genocide

Paradoxically, these very individuals, who appear oblivious to the extent of their own freedoms within America, absurdly cling to the belief that the norms prevailing within their homeland—norms only made possible by the Bill of Rights enshrined in the US Constitution—are universal, transportable, transcending geographical boundaries. This unyielding assurance resembles confinement, a prison of closed-mindedness so encompassing that the captives remain unaware of their incarceration. Ironically, it was only after her detainment in Russia that Brittney Griner found herself liberated from the constraints of her own hubris and came to understand that concepts like due process and the right to a fair trial might be rarer and more exceptional than she had thought.

Indeed, Griner’s transformation is just a brushstroke on a canvas painted with a myriad of stories. Take, for example, the case of social media influencer Tierra Young Allen, who faced a two-month detention in the United Arab Emirates. Her offense? Raising her voice in public during an altercation with a Dubai car rental company. Then there is the journey of motivational speaker Dr. Umar Johnson, whose trip to China revealed a stark truth: Africans in a different social context, beyond the borders of the US, often encounter unequal treatment such as being excluded from certain establishments and neighborhoods. 

But why is it that these individuals have to come face-to-face with adversities in foreign lands before they fathom the breadth of their blessings in the US?

American journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger indirectly addresses this question in his book Freedom, where he writes: “For most of human history, freedom had to be at least suffered for, if not died for, and that raised its value to something almost sacred. In modern democracies, however, an ethos of public sacrifice is rarely needed because freedom and survival are more or less guaranteed. […] The idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing.” Perhaps this very conundrum now confronts the unaware, albeit freedom-enveloped, citizens of the US today. 

Looking back to the era preceding the 17th century, the predominant preoccupation rested squarely on the pursuit of survival. The pangs of hunger and the grip of fear compelled many people to willingly trade their labor and even their autonomy for a meager meal and protection from harm. 

Then dawned the Enlightenment. The period, spanning from the late 17th century to the 18th century in Europe, was a transformative movement that exalted reason and played a pivotal role in shaping philosophical, political, and scientific discourse. Although it was not a centralized movement, it had a multitude of revered thought leaders: John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire who birthed a range of ideas including natural rights, separation of powers, the rule of law, social contracts, secularism, individual liberty, and freedom of speech. The summation of these political concepts that operate under a representative democratic form of government eventually became what is now known as liberal democracy. This marked a cultural shift from the glorification of violence to the pursuit of conflict resolution through legal means, dialogue, and negotiation—an insight expertly elaborated by the Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker, in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Simultaneously, Adam Smith, hailed as the progenitor of capitalism, conceived the seminal principles of free markets and division of labor, which revolutionized the Western world economic system. These principles invigorated a culture of innovation and bridged scientific advances to technological development, acting as a catalyst for the industrial revolution and lifting vast populations from the scourge of poverty.

Art Images Via Getty Images

But once the basic need for survival is met, a rush ensues to attain more. People find themselves reaching for new ideals, aspiring to new heights, and acquiring new possessions in their quest to transcend mere subsistence. Meanwhile, there is a desire for more leisure and more liberty, to elevate life beyond the battle for survival into something more refined. The driving forces become the accumulation of resources and the luxury of leisure. These elements take center stage as tokens in the grand games of status, wealth, and freedom that forge the fabric of society.

The strides we have made in the domains of human rights, freedoms, and alleviation of suffering are of such monumental proportions that any comparison to earlier periods seems nonsensical. This is not meant to suggest that our current era is without its flaws, but even as recently as the 20th century, the widespread racism stemming from Western Europe led to the deaths of millions of Jews and plunged the world into global conflict. Around that same time, the United States witnessed the draconian grip of Jim Crow segregation in the South, while homosexuality bore the heavy burden of stigma and criminalization across numerous Western nations. 

Nevertheless, as we move through the 21st century, the overarching trend toward nihilism and the waning faith in the notion of American freedom appear grossly disproportionate when considering the relatively modest challenges that persist. These concerns echo the thoughts put forth by American academic Walter Russell Mead in his recent article titled “You Are Not Destined to Live in Quiet Times” in Tablet Magazine. Mead raises thought-provoking questions that warrant earnest reflection in this context:

Progress in small, measured doses is an exhilarating and energizing thing. But can there be too much of it? Can an individual or a society overdose on progress? Can the rate of social, economic, cultural, and technological change drive a particular society into a political, psychological, and moral spiral of crisis and dysfunction?

Professor Deirdre McCloskey of the University of Illinois at Chicago has dubbed our modern era the “Great Enrichment,” though an alternative label could be the “Great Vacancy,” given its erosion of the once-implacable constraints that lent meaning to our lives. People say death imbues life with purpose. And likewise, subjugation is what makes freedom worthwhile. The human spirit harbors an innate longing to demonstrate valor, seeking both community and meaning within moments of crisis. But much of Americans today navigate life devoid of high-stakes or high-risk challenges. Undoubtedly, the absence of incessant turmoil is an immense boon. And yet, the cocoon of physical security, coupled with utter convenience and comfort (which remain inconceivable in certain parts of the world even now) is not without its unexamined tolls—ushering in an era where the word “freedom” leaves a rather lackluster taste in our mouths.

The permeation of freedom, for the most part, steers the mind inward, fixated not on avenues of improvement, but rather on the system’s shortcomings. Consequently, the system evolves into the focal point of culpability for any injustices. The privileges we relish—the right to a fair trial, the ability to speak or yell openly in public, the freedom of movement—are regrettably taken as givens. And strangely, we perceive ourselves as deserving of more. Even though we are the heirs of a world abundant with opportunities, we nurture a sense of aversion toward our origin and who we are. We toy with the notions of dismantling the very ideals that paved the way for us, ostracizing those embodying these ideals, and shattering the institutions that underpin them. Spanish philosopher and essayist José Ortega y Gasset termed this mentality as the “radical ingratitude.”

Perhaps the depth to which “radical ingratitude” has unfurled might find its roots in the hypocrisies embedded within American history—where the Declaration of Independence proclaims that “all men are created equal,” yet the chains of slavery endured long after its proclamation; where the US extols the sanctity of individual and property rights while grappling with the indelible imprints of a historical tapestry characterized by the enforced displacement and ill-treatment of its indigenous Native American population. 

We live in a liberal democracy, and it sometimes seems unpalatable to speak too fervently about it, considering the historical contradictions that have cast a shadow over its aspirations. Nevertheless, it remains fundamental to acknowledge that these hypocrisies, while undeniable, should not—and indeed, do not—diminish the intrinsic value of the American ideal of freedom. Much like the fallible monks who preach virtues or the heartbroken novelists who passionately spin tales of true love, should we simply forsake these concepts due to the human inadequacies among their evangelists? Quoting the insights of political theorist Judith Shklar, she wisely said, “It is easier to dispose of an opponent’s character by exposing his hypocrisy than to show that his political convictions are wrong.” 

I vividly recall a passage from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. […] It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned… America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

In today’s climate, there’s a tendency to ridicule the founders of America and the very bedrock upon which the nation was established. Yet, in a manner akin to King’s oration, I choose to recognize the inherent potency within the US founding documents—referred to by King as promissory notes—that were crafted and signed by those deeply imperfect men. I am a firm believer that even individuals marked by their flaws are still capable of erecting foundations of profound sagacity. To mend America is not to discard the founding creeds, but to draw on the promises of those creeds to demand one’s rights and freedom so that the American Dream comes to encapsulate more and more people in a more expansive way. 

The journey toward addressing the “radical ingratitude” mindset unquestionably commences with acknowledging our shared human fallibility in upholding those creeds in our daily lives. But interestingly, even the United States’ gravest hypocrisies paradoxically serve as the most powerful reminder that the nation strives to live up to its aspirations. After all, hypocrisies themselves imply a deviation from a set of principles, and for America to exhibit hypocrisies, it necessitates a prior attempt to commit to those principles in the first place. 

In stark contrast, places like China, Iran, or my birth country, Cambodia, consistently escape the label of “hypocritical” due to their lack of lofty standards or ideals altogether. America will continue to be susceptible to such critique precisely because it upholds a standard against which its actions are measured. Its imperfections persist as a testament to its human-crafted foundation, but it stands as a nation driven by individuals in a relentless quest for “a more perfect union.”

More than that, we need to foster a sense of gratitude as a countermeasure against the “radical ingratitude” mindset. In his essay titled “Ingratitude and the Death of Freedom,” featured in the book New Threats to Freedom, Mark T. Mitchell, the Dean of Academic Affairs at Patrick Henry College, writes:

Freedom, to be durable, must exist within the context of responsibilities that limit freedom, yet in the process heighten its meaning by orienting it according to ideals of self-sacrifice, love of community, and care for others. […] Clearly we must attempt to cultivate the disposition of gratitude. This will give birth to acts of stewardship, which are necessary to sustain an orderly and mature freedom. Unconstrained by stewardship and gratitude, freedom will invariably descend into license, and license will eventually decline into lawlessness.

In the long arc of human history, the prevailing narrative has primarily featured monarchies, empires, and despotic rule as the default. American freedom, along with its prized liberal democracy, represents a mere blip on this expansive timeline. And if recent events have reminded us of anything, it is that the delicate veneer separating tyranny from liberty remains ever precarious.

We needn’t venture far in time to witness this fragility. Just thirty-four years ago, the Berlin Wall, which had divided a city and its people for three long decades, crumbled before the united will of Berliners. Their euphoria was not only a celebration of a physical wall’s fall but a triumph over the division of humanity into two different realms: communism and democracy. This barrier had torn apart families, friends, and loved ones, etching an unmistakable line between freedom and oppression. It demonstrated how close tyranny can be to liberty and how effortlessly the balance can tip.

West Berliners crowded before the Berlin Wall on November 11, 1989, watching East German border guards demolishing a barrier section. Photo Credit: GERARD MALIE/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

Or consider the people in Eastern Ukraine, who, just two years ago, enjoyed the cultural richness of opera, parks, and movies. Today, mothers and their children find themselves knitting camouflage, fortifying sandbags, and learning to wield firearms. They stand on the precipice between democracy and subjugation, a living testament to the ongoing struggle. 

The absence of a real existential threat in the United States has spurred self-criticism among Americans, but a more encompassing backdrop beckons for our attention. As of now, the tenacious sense of ingratitude for the freedom we have seems to be propelling American culture away from its conventional aspirations of economic growth and social progress, guiding it toward a realm that is notably more somber and rife with entitlement and conflict. Or conceivably, we might already find ourselves within it: from the ascendance of anarchists in Portland, Oregon who reject the traditional framework of the rule of law, to the unofficially accepted act of shoplifting within urban landscapes such as New York City and San Francisco which is a breach of the social contract designed to safeguard the right to property. Within such a turbulent climate, the seeds of anarchic tyranny find fertile ground to grow, while the very foundation of freedom becomes stifled and ultimately meets its demise.

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