Fists and Noses, Hobbes and Locke

November, 2021

Lincoln — "Freedom" has taken on new definitions recently, acquiring meanings that have surprised me.  

I had thought the concept was long-since defined in aphorisms like "the freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins," and other such expressions.  Clever sayings imparted the idea that freedom has limits and carries with it responsibilities.  

"There is no freedom to shout fire falsely in a crowded theater" also expressed the limits of freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, making clear that they are not absolute.  

Now the idea is abroad that freedom is violated by local, state, or federal government requirements to get vaccinations or wear masks for the protection of society from disease.  The notion, overly simplistic to me, is that a government should have no interest in what one does with his or her own body.

I grew up at a time when we had a military draft, when vaccinations were mandatory for school admissions, and most everyone accepted these as proper functions of government.  It was part of the understanding that government is obliged to act to "secure the blessings of liberty," an expression from our Constitution's preamble.  Certain personal sacrifices, large or small, have long been considered necessary in a society where "freedom is not free," another expression noting the limitations of freedom, especially popular with those who served our country in uniform.  

Re-defining freedom in a way that turns these laws and mores upside down should make citizens reflect on where the lines should be drawn between personal freedom and the duty of governments to protect and defend our society.

I would draw the line where governments begin to restrict the right to vote so as to deny us a Constitutionally guaranteed republican form of democracy; to limit the freedom to assemble peaceably; to limit freedom of movement without due process; to delay the administration of justice; and a whole lot more.   There are limits that government at any level must not transgress.

But governments through their inaction can also cross the line.  Permitting a person's fist to smash another person's nose denies more freedoms than it protects.  My freedoms, and those of a majority of Americans during the pandemic, have been curtailed by those who refuse in the name of their own self-defined freedom not to get vaccinated.  Government indulgence of fists over noses is a slippery slope in the direction of anarchy, which in turn invites authoritarian and totalitarian responses.  It is not a coincidence that many of those who most aggressively tout anti-vaccination "freedom" are also those who would use the government to diminish other freedoms.  This is a Hobbesian view of society, in contrast to the Lockean philosophy embodied in our country's founding documents.  

Perhaps the marketplace can help resolve these conflicts.  If the lives of the unvaccinated are more expensive to save, and treating them clogs up the hospitals and slows business recovery, let it be reflected in health insurance costs.  Likewise, I am not troubled by distinguishing the vaccinated from the un-vaccinated in the workforce, in the military, and in public admissions and accommodations, if the distinctions are part of an effort to recognize that the freedom to swing one's fist does indeed end where another's nose begins.  Philosophers like Bentham and Mill, who have best defined our freedoms, would approve.  

Nothing could be more compatible with the freedoms America traditionally stands for than agreeing on the need for vaccinations to secure the blessings of liberty.    


Defend the Canfield Name

November, 2021

Lincoln — The name Canfield is much storied and honored in Nebraska.  May it ever remain so.

James Hulme Canfield was chancellor of the state university during its early golden era.  The UNL administration building is named for him.  Robert Knoll, author of the authoritative history of the university, wrote, "James Canfield's record as chancellor is unsurpassed in the whole history of the University of Nebraska."

The great chancellor's daughter, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, grew up in Lincoln.  Subsequently, after returning to her family's New England roots, she became a celebrated Vermont writer.  She wrote fiction and non-fiction, for young and old.  She championed causes of women and minorities.  From her years in Lincoln she knew Willa Cather and maintained a lifelong friendship and correspondence with her.  Eleanor Roosevelt named Dorothy Canfield Fisher one of America's ten most influential women and upon Fisher's death wrote:

I had never known Mrs. Fisher intimately, but I read her books with constant interest and pleasure.... Mrs. Fisher was a woman of great spiritual perception, and for many years it has given me comfort if I found myself on the same side of a controversial question with her. We might discover ourselves to be unpopular at the moment, but in the end our position would probably prove to be the best one, I felt, if she believed in it....  May her influence be kept alive among us for a very long time.  

In 2017, a member of the Abenaki Native American tribe of Vermont controversially suggested that Dorothy Canfield Fisher's name should be removed from an annual children's book award.  She was accused of being a eugenicist and of disparaging French Canadians and Native Americans in her writing, particularly in the 1933 novel Bonfire.  

Another Vermonter joined in, making this startling claim:  "Fisher’s involvement with the eugenics movement informed the subject matter of much of her fiction, portraying an idyllic picture of Vermont, romanticizing rural values and describing, pretty unsubtly, the 'right' and 'wrong' kind of people."

Most of those who came to the defense of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, unfortunately, did so only tepidly. They did not push back with evidence that her link to eugenics was only an imagined guilt by association and that Bonfire was surely written as a rebuttal to the idea that heredity is destiny. Rather, they weakly offered that she was a "product of her time." Her name was removed from the award.

Those who have actually read Dorothy Canfield Fisher know that she was decades ahead of her time and deserves better. Which raises the question of the role of scholarship. Where is the academic community in interpreting her works and pursuing the truth about her?

I read Bonfire to determine if there is evidence to support the charges against her. Importantly, it was written the same year her daughter Sally married John Paul Scott, a Rhodes Scholar and zoologist who debunked eugenics and whose views likely shaped the novel.

The novel is set in a small town in Vermont. The protagonist is a district nurse who returns home after living and working in Paris in the 1920s, an autobiographical reference to the author herself. The townspeople see themselves as divided between the better folk who live in the valley and those with hereditary defects living in the hills above. Everyone in the novel knows everyone else's heredity, and they are all judged by the area's inhabitants accordingly.

I count at least thirty-five separate references in Bonfire to heredity.  The nurse herself, however, is not so sure about its influence.  She signals this early on with statements about how human differences might be explained by nutrition and education instead.  She sets up a boarding school arrangement at the local academy to give those living on the mountainsides a chance to improve themselves.  In doing so, she despairs of "the grim local cult of heredity, which made it one with Fate."

Her critics must have missed that sentence.  

A subplot of the novel is a comparison of the lives of two young women, one raised in privilege and one rescued from poverty and family dysfunction in the hills.  It is almost modeled as a scientific experiment.  The results are unclear.  As is often the case in science, the null hypothesis offers itself for rejection but there are too many variables to reach any glib conclusions.  

What is clear, however, is that easily-missed references in Bonfire to French Canadians and Native Americans are not in the voice of the author, but in the voices of those she challenges, those of the "grim local cult."  That matters, decisively.  Bonfire is a disturbing novel, but not in the way its latter-day detractors suggest.

The point is this:  it may be fashionable these days for some to disparage people who are not around to defend themselves, in the misguided hope that somehow it will reflect well on their particular causes.  It doesn't, and is counterproductive.  And indulging it does not reflect well on the academic community, which may know better but remains all too silent.  

The Canfield name deserves restoration.  Nebraskans should come to the defense.