“You young people,” our beloved English teacher once scolded us, “you’ve cleaned up all my beautiful dirty words!”

It was true. There wasn’t a part of speech we didn’t drop an F-bomb in, and the word didn’t hold a sting anymore. We’d rendered it harmless. Meaningless.

Something like that has happened to another F-word, too. And Freedom was a pretty good idea, worth fighting for. Our founding fathers were on the right track: freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Freedom to peaceably assemble. All of these freedoms are rightfully enshrined in our documents. Blood was spilled for them. They represented humanity at its finest.

It was a worthy aspiration, but in a new land with so much room in it for rugged individuals to push into, the concept of freedom was destined to lose its shine. Freedom began to be equated with acquisition. Unearned ownership. Plunder. In a country unconstrained by boundaries or kings, we all became little kings. Survival still took pluck and initiative, but freedom for some meant slavery for others. Or genocide. We got some things right, and still felt free to massacre.

We didn’t let freedom ring. We let it metastasize.

We let ourselves imagine that a family that runs domestic cattle over untold acreages is being deprived of liberty if we insist they account for the damage accrued to the rest of us: loss of habitat, of water, of wildlife. We let ourselves imagine our freedoms should drive other people’s freedom underground: the customer unserved. The medically fragile left to die for our freedom to infectiously assemble.

It’s beyond juvenile. “It’s a free country!” That’s what kids my age used to say whenever someone told them it was bedtime, or scolded them for sass. They didn’t know what it meant to be free but they didn’t care to be told what to do. At least, when I was being brought up, that retort got the attention it deserved. None.

It would all work out if there were fewer of us. Multitudes fewer. But we’re densely populated all over the planet, and everything we do affects everyone else. There must be rules. Freedom cannot be unrestricted, or it results in loss of freedom. If Americans during a quarantine think their freedom is being threatened, they have already been compromised by a wealthy class that has paid dues to ensure we do not notice that they’ve already taken away our freedom. They’ve taken away our ability to organize by telling us unions deny us our “freedom to work”–to work for scraps, for no security, for no benefits. We have the freedom to accept what little they are willing to give us. Tell an American her freedoms are being stolen, and you can steal everything she has. You can leave her desperate after one month without a paycheck, and she won’t even suspect there’s something wrong with a system that produces so much wealth for so few while leaving so many in poverty. You can convince her someone even poorer than she is the real thief.

Get the people all riled up for some shitty little freedoms like not wearing a mask or not baking a cake, and send them to the polls, and you can pick their pockets clean.

Will we stand for that? Or will we stand together, and thrive?