Remember when you could say the word “freedom” without smirking ironically? Originally (1295—2001,) “freedom” had a relatively strict denotative meaning that corresponded to the range of things you were allowed to do. Then a bunch of church people in bathrobes who had never seen a girl’s twanger flew planes into the World Trade Center, and “freedom” became a marketing strategy.
It started with President Bush’s explanation that the 9/11 hijackers attacked us “because they hate our freedom.” That was much catchier than saying “because they hate our defense of Israel and our business negotiations with petro-states that have historically thwarted egalitarian reforms in the region,” but it raised some questions about the meaning of the word. Presumably, terrorists weren’t driven mad by our ability to move around and say stuff. “Freedom” must therefore mean something else, possibly related to Christina Aguilera having her tits out all the time.
Over the next decade, “freedom” gradually lost any specific meaning altogether. Saddam Hussein—who had previously exercised little influence over Americans’ right to publish a newspaper or get a speedy jury trial—became a threat to our freedom, and shortly afterward France’s refusal to participate in the war meant that freedom also had something to do with fries. Toby Keith explained that “freedom” is A) not free, so screw you Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and B) closely connected to the Army, plus probably C) pickup trucks. And Sarah Palin, who wants to make it illegal for women to get abortions and men to make out with each other, has elevated her support for “freedom” to a political position.
So “freedom” is now shorthand for some vague sense of American redneck culture that you may or may not be doing right. Enter the above commercial for the Dodge Challenger, which brings “freedom” to its final joint-custody visitation with meaning before shipping it off to boarding school forever. The remarkably cinematic narrative breaks down like this:
Redcoats are all set to shoot freedom in the face. After being alerted by Frodo Baggins, a smug—some might say elitist—British officer instructs his troops to prepare to fire. Everyone aims his rifle, despite not yet knowing what he is going to shoot at.
Empty fields dappled with snow. Vague shapes drift through the trees—possibly horses, or maybe Bigfoot.
Three Dodge Challengers flying American flags out their windows tear across the field, fishtailing wildly. This change in tone is exactly the kind of smooth shift that owners of Dodge transmissions have come to expect. The Redcoats are terrified, presumably because they have never seen an automobile before and believe it is some kind of dragon.
Oh shit—it’s George Washington! And he is grimly hurtling toward British soldiers in his muscle car. The Redcoats run away, and at least one of them is trampled by his own horse. “Horses suck,” the Dodge Motor Company reminds us.
George Washington stands triumphant next to his car and prepares to get just inundated with pussy. Not pictured: Martha Washington in white lipstick, Skynyrd shirt.
Two things strike me about this commercial:
1) The Dodge “Challenger” is a bad name. Don’t name your new car after the most famous mechanical construction ever to explode.
2) So this is freedom now, huh? When my ancestors were literally freezing their asses off at Valley Forge—okay, your ancestors; mine were alternately starving and drinking themselves to death in Ireland at the time—they consoled themselves with the knowledge that future generations would be able to drive around in rad cars, flying the flag and wearing plastic shoes and eating Taco Bell.
Presumably, this ad is some sort of cynical attempt to cash in on the Tea Party, which makes sense since both that august organization and the market for reissue muscle cars are composed primarily of middle-aged men who desperately want people to look at them. I was going to say that’s a grotesque perversion of an American ideal, but is it really so much worse than what we’ve had already?
“Freedom” once meant to this country what “sportsmanship” meant to Roger Clemens. Now it’s a figure of speech, an attempt to justify our ridiculous cars by reminding people that we used to throw the high heat. This commercial—like the Tea Party, like freedom fries, like Toby Keith on the ranch they flew him out to so he could shoot a video—evokes the past to make us feel good about the present.
Maybe it’s just me, but I have found the past more useful as a way to be ashamed about the present. Lord knows that’s how I feel when I watch this commercial. If George Washington were here, he would not give a rat’s ass about the Dodge Challenger. He would want to know what happened to his hemp fields, and his Irish servant girl abortioner, and all the other things that made American plenty of fun already on a damn horse.