President Ronald Reagan, left, and his Democratic challenger Walter Mondale...

President Ronald Reagan, left, and his Democratic challenger Walter Mondale before debating in Kansas City, Missouri, on Oct. 22, 1984.  “Freedom is a fragile thing and it's never more than one generation away from extinction," Reagan had warned. Credit: AP/Ron Edmonds

The word “free” appears exactly once in our national anthem. Which seems appropriate. That's how precious freedom is.

It makes its appearance toward the end of the song. Which also seems appropriate. Freedom seldom is quickly achieved.

And it surely is no accident, as others have noted, that the word is sung to the highest note in the anthem, that high G more than an octave above middle C, a tough reach but even tougher coming at the end of a taxing song that requires an enormous vocal range and the ability to sing a vowel — the long “e” of “free” — on that high G, which can physically strain the throat of even the most accomplished singers.

That, too, is appropriate. Freedom is hard-won, and sometimes difficult to hold.

That was worth remembering this week in which we extolled the freedom we enjoy in this nation and recalled the way it was achieved. And it's worth remembering as we go forward with worries about the possibility it might wither away. We can see the threats and provocations all around us, the exploratory jabs that test our mettle, our willingness to defend this birthright of ours, even as we see freedom being corseted or crushed in an alarming number of troubled places around the globe.

Democracy is embattled, by any measure you choose. Rights are under assault. But this freedom we cherish is not only the freedom of a nation from a monarch or tyrant. Freedom is an orchestral score with a multitude of notes, all of which are worth the effort to reach and maintain.

Much of the freedom we enjoy in this country lies not so much in how our government treats us but in how we treat each other. It's a more personal form of freedom, and we need to take care in how we express that and how it affects others. Freedom isn't pure. It requires responsibility in its exercise, lest we constrain someone else's freedom.

When Nelson Mandela reflected on South Africa's long struggle to be rid of apartheid, he extolled freedom not only as a matter of casting off chains but as living “in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Freedom, for example, does not mean one can flout rules and laws they believe constrain their own freedom but that end up harming someone else when they are ignored. You do not have the freedom to disregard requirements to get your child vaccinated when that can cause serious harm to other children. Freedom is a compact, an agreement that we will work together and respect one another to preserve all of our freedoms.

We have plenty of work to do, on many aspects of freedom.

When a person is born into a difficult economic situation, receives a substandard education at a poor-performing school, and now lacks the tools and means to lift them and their family out of poverty, is that person really free?

When someone has an opinion about our government or one of our leaders or an important issue or an official act and is afraid to express that opinion because of the hostility they know they will receive from their neighbors, is that person free?

When a government takes away reproductive rights its citizens once enjoyed, when it capriciously limits parental decision-making rights on some matters it deems important but not others, is it taking a chisel to freedom?

Worries about freedom in America are not baseless. When Ronald Reagan was sworn in as governor of California in 1967, he said, “Freedom is a fragile thing and it's never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation …”

If we love this land of the free, we need to keep reaching for the high G.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.


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