by Brad Stoddard
On April 3rd, the Sportsman Channel will debut a new show called “Amazing America with Sarah Palin.” As the title suggests, the show’s host is none other than former Alaska Governor and Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.
In the promotional trailer, Palin summarized the show when she said, “this show is gonna highlight that freedom that we get to experience in America” (italics added because Palin emphasizes “freedom” with a fist pump). The trailer includes other patriotic signifiers, such as a sparkling American flag and Palin’s invitation to get “red, wild, and blue.”
I watched this trailer with a critical eye, as history and theory suggest that every society (including every regime of freedom) must by necessity not only draw boundaries, but it must be willing and able to police and punish those who transgress those boundaries. As Émile Durkheim, Michel Foucault, and Stanley Fish have suggested, the denial of freedom is not an unfortunate result of tyrannical government; rather, it is a necessary precondition for a stable collective.
With this in mind, I watched the remainder of the trailer not to engage or condemn Palin in her celebration of American freedom; rather, I wanted to identify the activities that comprise Palin’s notion of freedom itself. In other words, what, for Palin, constitutes freedom? What, according to “Amazing America with Sarah Palin” makes America free?
The 30-second trailer includes several clips of people performing activities such as ziplining, shooting guns, wrestling, and racing cars. In one clip a young man used a duck call, and in another clip a man proudly boasted that he possesses “the man cave of all man caves.” The show also equates American masculinity with freedom when the trailer’s narrator promises that the show will highlight “trail blazers” and other “people who never back down!”
In sum, the trailer glorifies what many would identify as a white-collar, working-class, or “outdoorsy” lifestyle as the ideal standard for freedom itself. The question remains, is Palin’s regime of freedom a universal regime, or does it reflect one person’s or perhaps one group’s notion of freedom?
In order to juxtapose Palin’s regime of freedom with other regimes of freedom, consider a recent study that analyzed 729 constitutions adopted by almost 200 countries from 1946 to 2006. The authors of this study reviewed all 729 constitutions and then itemized the most common “substantive rights” or freedoms. When we reference this study, it becomes evident that Palin’s version of freedom differs from the regimes of freedom constructed by the majority of constitutionally-based governments in the world today.
The majority of the world guarantees most of the freedoms highlighted in the trailer to “Amazing America with Sarah Palin,” even if it doesn’t specifically state them (for example, no constitution specifically guarantees the right to own a man cave or to blow a duck call, but few would disagree that man caves and duck calls are protected by property rights and free speech laws respectively). Like many people the world over, Americans have a right to wrestle and ride down a zipline, but unlike Americans, the majority of the world does not possess a constitutional right to bear arms (only the United States, Guatemala, and Mexico guarantee this right).
Americans, then, have one freedom or right that the global majority does not possess; however, there are several freedoms not found in the United States that are commonly found in the vast majority of the world. For example, over 90% of the world’s constitutions include protections for women’s right, a right that is not included in the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, roughly 80% of the world’s constitutions explicitly guarantee the right to social security, health care, and food, none of which have reached constitutional status in the United States. As this rather preliminary summary suggests, while there are many regimes of freedom, few of them collectively agree on the boundaries of those freedoms.
The point of this post is not to criticize Palin for supporting a naïvely-conceived regime of freedom that pales in comparison to other regimes of freedom; rather, I would like to highlight the contingent and disputed nature of freedom itself. All societies regulate behavior and all societies punish. The question is never “are these people free”? Instead, we need to examine the assumptions and interests of the person or group projecting their regime of freedom as the standard of freedom itself.
If “Amazing America with Sarah Palin” ever addresses the concept of religious freedom, should we not expect the same limitations and restrictions that apply to the show’s broader concept of “freedom”? If the show does highlight religious freedom in America, it should not come as a surprise if similar local interests are also presented as natural and universal.
Brad Stoddard is a doctoral candidate in Florida State University’s Department of Religion. His dissertation explores the intersections of religion, law, and faith-based corrections. He is currently conducting research in Florida’s faith-based prisons, a novel prison program that resides at the boundaries of constitutionally permissible partnerships between religion and state.