Sixty students were seated in a Victorian chamber with high windows and oak-panelled walls, gazing at the bejewelled and bescarved whirl who was Mme. Vaillancourt, a Parisian marvel of a certain age eased from the pages of Madeline. Young men were swooning, young women taking notes. “Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité,” she announced. I felt myself brace, ready to rise and follow her to the Bastille, the barricades, anywhere. With diction so crisp even the dregs of high school French dreg-mills could understand, she asked us to introduce ourselves, and to state which piece of the tripartite motto of the République we held most dear. “Egalité,” said the girl beside me, and we nodded. Good one. A few soft mmm-hmm’s were heard. Truly it was hard to go wrong. I happened to be second. “Liberté!” I proclaimed, possibly with a soupçon too much enthusiasm, though it’s not like I stood on my chair and brandished a fencing foil. I scanned my classmates in search of my future comrades in the Liberté camp. “Fraternité,” said the next student. More nods; yes, another good one. Now it was just a matter of filling out the numbers in what would surely be three roughly equal camps of idealists, each with its own slant, but united in mutual admiration. How wrong I was. How humiliatingly, bewilderingly wrong.
Some context. The events I’m describing took place in the early 80s. In Southern California at the time there was a chain called Liberty Burger; soon LA punk band The Vandals would elaborate upon this with their song “Anarchy Burger.” (Anarchy burger/Hold the government/Anarchy burger/Hold the government.) The concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ may have leaned slightly right, but we were still in a punkish era, with a sub-culture that took sloganeering about freedom seriously. All of which is to say: a bunch of teenagers were not about to shun freedom out of fear that they’d be thought of as dog-whistling race-baiters. We didn’t have dog whistles yet, and rock and roll had freedom’s back.
Fraternité. Egalité. Egalité. Fraternité.
After 20 students had replied, not a single one with Liberté, I began to feel confused and uneasy. I was in a room full of 18 year olds, all of them, like me, in their first class on their first day of their first year at University. They were free. They had finally been freed: of parents, of home towns, of high schools. So never mind freedom in its broader political sense and never mind sketchy J.S. Mill enthusiasts like me: surely some of these kids were a little drunk on possibility that day, tingling in the places where their shackles had just come off? But I tried to stay hopeful, like you do on election night, when you tell yourself the late-reporting polls are going to roll in and turn the tide. Egalité. Fraternité. Fraternité. Egalité. You may be thinking that I was the problem. Not liberty, but me. The thought crossed my mind. It doesn’t make a lot of sense: because of the seating configuration, half the class hadn’t even set eyes on me, and those who had would have seen a normal enough guy in black Levis and nondescript shoes. The only visible hint of non-conformity was my standard issue Joe Strummer haircut, and you would have to be awfully sensitive to be upset by that. But yes, it could have been me. I will return to this.
It turned a bit ugly for Freedom. Freedom was Caesar, stabbed by his senators, freedom was Colonel Armstrong on the Orient Express, killed by the rest of the passengers. On one point everybody agreed: this was getting interesting. A routine and even banal (pardonnez moi, Mme. V) exercise had turned into… something. A referendum on liberty. A collective shaming of a freak, who, if he was not a freak five minutes ago, was becoming one, by virtue of the creeping decision to shame him. People sat up and paid more attention, tightening the net. My stomach started to churn. I was still puzzled at the lack of support for Liberté, but this was becoming a condemnation of me, too.
Everyone on the other side of the room was watching me; from the corner of my eye I could see people leaning forward to catch a glimpse of the pariah. I was trying to stay cool, but I’m sure my face revealed my confusion, my dawning awareness that I was being voted unanimously off the island (and this was before we even had islands), and probably a sort of wounded desperation for someone, anyone, to pipe up on freedom’s behalf. There was one guy… Kind of a Jerry Harrison thing going on with his hair. Converse shoes. He seemed to be wavering, but when his turn came he studied the floor and mumbled “Egalité.” But, yeah, I think that one guy felt a bit bad. I detected a hint of apology in the way he averted his eyes. Maybe he remembers the day too. Maybe he even has a think-piece on Medium. That time I wussed out on Freedom. Because, teenagers.
A few of the Fraternité girls snuck sympathetic looks my way. Some from the Egalité tribe, on the other hand, glared right at me and spoke like they were icepicking Trotsky. Which was fine; a tripartite motto of the République cage match always threatens to end with Liberté and Egalité sinking thumbs into each other’s eye sockets while Fraternité flaps about helplessly. I didn’t mind equality people proclaiming equality, nor fraternity people flying their “nice” flags. But where were the Liberté people? I was certain I’d seen a few heads nod, those agonizing moments ago when I’d burst out the word.
By the end people weren’t even bothering to say “Bonjour, je m’appelle…” or “et la concept ma plus favorite est…” It was just “James, Egalité” or “Janet, Fraternité.” Like Jean Reno showing up in La Femme Nikita with jerry cans of acid for the body in the bathtub. “Bob, nettoyeur.” My classmates saw liberty’s corpse on the floor and wanted it gone. When the thing was done, an embarrassed silence hung in the air. The snubbing of Liberté had been ugly, no doubt. Some people must have been surprised at the eagerness they’d shown in snarling at me, the guy who… uh, what did I do wrong again? A few people who had thought they would choose Liberté may have been encountering something in themselves, a shocking discovery that their ideals could be so easily corroded by peer pressure and the need to conform. Me, I just sat there stunned with my mouth hanging open.
There are moments in life that are like flashes of lightning. I suddenly saw that there was something about me that pushed people away, whether it was my haircut, my freckles (possible!), or just my vibe. I saw how afraid people are to rock the boat. Towards the end, it would have taken some real social courage to pipe up for liberty. I wouldn’t expect a third of the votes to go to liberty but in a group that large I’m sure some of them were Liberté people who changed their vote as the results accrued. The fucking sheeple. Pardon my French.
I never went back to that class. It wasn’t you, Mme. Vaillancourt, you who in the aftermath favoured me with a quick but very frank appraisal. I can see your eyes when I close my own, and at some point I grew old enough to understand what you were silently telling me: Don’t worry, you will be fine, you awkward wretch. My deepest regret is that I didn’t summon some dignity and ask, “Et vous, Mme. La Professeuse?” You in a cloud of Gypsy scarves and the haughty scent of Paris, your accent as crisp as clean sheets, oh yes, you were Liberté all the way.
I decided that they were rejecting me, not freedom. This was marginally consoling for a self-identified Classical Liberal, but I fretted over doomsday scenarios: what if over the next four years I was about to single-handedly turn the 37,000 students of Canada’s largest university against freedom? I extrapolated into a future, envisioned the indifference to freedom spreading from me, Patient Zero, me with my reverse-Midas touch. At even a conservative rate of osmosis and reproduction, in 30 years we’d have a populace willing to endure unlimited state and corporate surveillance, to vilify privacy whistleblowers, an electorate that would dismiss freedom as a fringe concern of gun owners and hate-mongers.
David Hull’s debut novel The Realm of Means is set a thinly fictionalized version of the same university where he suffered this embarrassment.