Eighty-one years ago this week, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered what was, from a substantive perspective, the most important speech of his unique and remarkable presidency.
While the 1933 inaugural speech (“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”) is almost certainly better known, FDR’s Jan. 6, 1941, address to Congress — commonly referred to as the “Four Freedoms Speech” — is now rightfully remembered, alongside Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, as one of the best and most inspiring testimonials to the cause of human freedom (and enunciations of national purpose) ever offered by an American chief executive.
The speech was delivered at a time the U.S. was still wrestling with what its role should be in combating Nazi Germany and in it, Roosevelt forcefully called for the intentional construction of a world in which such noxious and destructive forces be forever banished and all human beings would enjoy a series of fundamental birthrights.
Today, at another moment of national and global peril (and in which the basic concept of human freedom has frequently been twisted and misdirected off onto weird tangents like the possession of assault weapons, slashing taxes on corporations and the resistance of basic public health guidelines) it’s an apt time to recall and celebrate the four freedoms FDR lifted up and to add a fifth that he would have undoubtedly included had he been able to foresee the changes that have overtaken our planet in the intervening decades.
Freedom No. 1 on FDR’s list was the “freedom of speech and expression.”
Of course, in some ways, the world has made important strides in this realm over the last 81 years. Here in the United States and many other parts of the world, for instance, the freedom of artists resides in a much stronger position than it did in the mid-20th century when thousands were blacklisted for leftist political views and films and books were regularly banned for “obscene” content. The advent of the internet has contributed to this trend by making it harder than ever for would-be censors to monitor and control what people express and consume.
But, of course, the fight in this realm continues. In just the last year, forces of the political right have launched a new and concerted campaign to whitewash how American history is taught and renewed efforts to prevent schoolchildren from accessing celebrated authors. Meanwhile, in other parts of the globe — perhaps most notably, Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia — the right to openly criticize the government and champion meaningful political change remains effectively nonexistent.
A similar story can be told with respect to FDR’s second core freedom — the “freedom of worship.”
While some countries have made enormous strides in ending government efforts to stifle or advance religious belief, the trend is decidedly negative elsewhere. Not only do many nations remain organized as repressive theocracies, but even in the United States, our historic commitment to separation of church and state is under a new and energetic assault.
And then there are Freedoms No. 3 and 4 — the “freedom from want” and the “freedom from fear.” Here too, of course, the record is decidedly mixed.
Across the planet, even as millions of humans live longer and healthier lives than ever before, millions of others live in abject poverty with hunger and hopelessness their constant companions — even here in the U.S.
And while the world has made important strides in turning away from the threat of nuclear annihilation that so dominated and poisoned human mental well-being throughout the second half of the 20th century, today we rightfully fear an equally daunting existential threat: the global environmental emergency.
As more and more people are coming to realize — especially in the dark shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic — the planet Earth is, effectively, shrinking. The global population continues to grow and resources and inhabitable land become stretched thinner and thinner.
As the destructive impacts of climate change become more apparent, humans are, tragically, right to fear for the long-term sustainability of life as we’ve come to know it.
It’s for this reason that we would do well to supplement FDR’s still excellent list with a fifth freedom on which all others remain utterly dependent — the freedom of a sustainable environment. After all, the cause of human freedom won’t amount to much in the long run without rapid and intentional efforts to preserve the fragile biosphere upon which all life is dependent.
The bottom line: the year 2022 is sure to feature passionate and important debates on a dizzying array of political, social and economic issues — so much so that it will become easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
At such a time, caring and thinking people would do well to stay focused on a discreet list of guiding objectives, and the one we might describe as the “Five Freedoms” is a good place to start.
Rob Schofield is director of N.C. Policy Watch, a news and commentary arm of the North Carolina Justice Center.
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