Defining Freedom

None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free. ~ Goethe

George Orwell warned us more than 50 years ago about the political consequences of lazy and sloppy thinking in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. Our language, he wrote, 'becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.'

Those linguistic constructions that course through our minds define what we believe and what we do as a result of those beliefs. Our actions depend upon those things we believe, whether consciously or unconsciously. And, quite possibly, many of the difficulties we face even in contemplating freedom, let alone in achieving it, stem from our slovenly understanding and indiscriminate use of that word.

Most Americans believe they are 'free' because Power insists again and again that they are. For nine months of the year, beginning at age five and continuing to age 18, the State requires that people spend almost half their waking weekday hours in government facilities under the direct control of government employees. They begin each daily session by facing that big, imposing, red white and blue symbol of the State, holding their right hand over their hearts, and pledging their allegiance both to it 'and to the republic for which it stands . . . with liberty and justice for all' (and, as I have said before, the irony of saying such words under such coercive conditions rarely if ever occurs to them). Somewhere in their subconscious, a little voice whispers that 'they wouldn't force you to say it every day if it wasn't true . . . .' They tell us the Pilgrims came to the New World for 'religious freedom' (though they denied that same freedom to those, like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, who thought differently) and that during the 1860s Northerners waged total warfare on Southerners 'to free the slaves' (though in some ways they ended up enslaving us all). After all, our national anthem doesn't call the United States 'the land of the free' for nothing.

Does it?

For most of America 's existence, freedom meant lack of government coercion. What government people had then was small, tangible, controllable, and it served only to enforce what few laws they needed to protect their persons and property from the encroachment of others. A man could do what he wanted as long as he didn't interfere with the equal right of another man to do what he wanted. In those instances, and those alone, did government step in. It didn't matter to the government whether a man and his family ate or starved, if they succeeded or failed, even if they lived or died. By and large, the government, as well as people outside an individual's immediate sphere of reference, were simply ideas, abstractions, concepts. Neither had much if any concrete impact on everyday thinking or everyday life.

But the continuing development and cultural infiltration of technology brought two interrelated things with it. First, it removed, slowly but surely, much of the labor associated with everyday life, thus giving people more time to notice how others lived. And second, it provided increasingly powerful means by which people could notice how others lived ' means which gave both government and business the Power to reach into and affect people's minds and lives (to the profit, of course, of both).

Few of us now define freedom as Americans did in the past. We accept almost unquestioned not only the indoctrination from government interests that tells us we are free but also accept, perhaps even more unquestioningly, the indoctrination from business interests that tells us we are not and that we must, instead, purchase it.

Think of the ways in which many of us now define and think of 'freedom.' Many young people, for example, think 'freedom' means, among other things, getting a driver's license and a car. I remember overhearing a conversation between some teenage girls at a ball game about 20 years ago. One of them was telling the others that she made so little working at the drug store that, after making her car payment and insurance payment and buying gas, she hardly had any money left over, and I remember thinking, 'So you're just working to pay for the car that takes you to work? Isn't that kind of pointless? Wouldn't it be better to give up both the car and the job and use that time more wisely?' We both know, though, that such thinking has become so uncommon in today's world as to be almost extinct. To her, a car represented freedom. To me, it represented enslavement: voluntarily submitting my photograph to the State, surrendering a large amount of what little money I then made, having to endure the endless psychic strain of risking death on the highways.

Businesses often incorporate the word 'freedom' into their schemes to part people from their money. Freedom, they know, is something we all want, and they want us to know that they can provide it ' for a small, nominal price. Advertisements for telephones, for instance, often talk about 'freedom.' Verizon, for example, offers what they call a Freedom Package. You can 'talk as long as you want for one low monthly price and a single bill to pay: unlimited long distance calling . . . unlimited local and regional calling . . . unlimited use of our five most popular calling features . . . . Don't limit yourself . . . .' Their website encourages you to 'Enjoy the freedom to call anytime, to anyone--across town, across the state or across the country.' All you need to obtain this 'freedom' is to pay their 'estimated monthly minimum charge' of $60.

The local Time Warner franchise also uses the word 'freedom' in their television ads for their on-demand digital movie service, which gives you the 'freedom' to choose when your film will start, the 'freedom' to pause and resume it whenever you want. In other words, it gives you the 'freedom' to bask in the consumerist rays of Hollywood at your convenience (after all, neither Time Warner nor Hollywood minds when you bask ' as long as you do it, and as much as possible).

The State has busied itself lately exporting this consumerist version of 'freedom' to Iraq . However, at least according to last Saturday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, this effort is experiencing some unexpected consequences. The headline almost says it all: As Iraqi youth see U.S. culture, many turn to nationalism. The story explains that 'many young, middle-class Iraqis -- future leaders of the country -- say they are losing admiration for the America they glimpse through action movies, raunchy music videos and the soldiers their age who patrol the streets. For many, thinking of themselves as Arab and Iraqi has taken on new importance since the American soldiers arrived.' It quotes one Iraqi 18 year old as saying, '"My friends tell me we have development now and they brag about having satellites and cell phones. This is not the development we need. Those things will just take away our culture and traditions." If this is freedom, many young Iraqis apparently don't want it.

Ironically, the Iraqis have more freedom than do most Americans in at least one sense: their ability to reject the crass, soulless commercialism of Coke and video games. How easily can you and I get away from it, especially when it muscles in on almost everything we do every second of the day? I look at my students in class every day and see that, in general, at least half, if not more, are sporting some corporate logo. And when I ask them how much Nike or Old Navy is paying them for advertising their product, most of them seem to have no idea what I'm getting at.

We do have at least one group of Americans willing and very much able to resist the blandishments of modern American technological 'freedom': the Amish. Many of us know that the Amish carefully keep themselves separate from the general run of society. Fewer of us, perhaps, realize that the Amish offer their young the opportunity to sample what they call the 'English' world. One of the fundamental principles of Amish faith is that people must make a conscious choice to be baptized into the church, and this, of course, is possible only when they have reached the age of consent. Consequently, when Amish boys and girls reach the age of 16, they are allowed to experience life as a typical, average American. The wonderful film Devil's Playground documents the lives of a number of Amish teens who go through what they call 'rumspringa.' They buy cars. They have wild parties, get drunk, and use drugs. They shop at the mall. They dress in the latest fashions. They go to movies and watch television. They play video games. They have, in short, the opportunity to immerse themselves in the modern culture of 'the land of the free.'

They cannot, however, indulge themselves this way indefinitely. Eventually, they must make a choice: the 'English' world, or the Amish? Do they want the 'freedom' of modern America ' a job, a television, electric lights, central air, a car? Or do they want the Amish way of life with its hard work and its lack of 'comforts,' of 'relaxation,' of 'ease' and 'entertainment'? They know that once they commit to the church, there is no turning back. Those who renege on their promise are shunned by their family and friends for the rest of their lives.

Interestingly, the film tells us that almost 90% of these young people reject modern American culture, modern American life ' they reject 'freedom' ' and, instead, commit the rest of their lives to the church. Now certainly you could try to make the case that in many ways an Amish upbringing ill-prepares people for 'English' life. But would that adequately answer the question of why so many give up their cars, their music, their electricity, their televisions, and return to the church? Certainly the church requires hard work and what we English would consider a difficult life lacking in comforts and pleasures, but in return it provides love, family, community, security, and serenity. What does English life offer them besides cars and telephones, drugs and television?

Many Americans tend to laugh at or perhaps feel sorry for those who seldom if ever experience the freedom of the open road or who lack the freedom to choose from among hundreds of television offerings. They wonder why the Iraqis seem to resist this gift of 'freedom' that the American government so forcefully offers them. And they positively scratch their heads over the backwardness, the stubbornness, the stupidity of the Amish. But the next time you fill up your car's gas tank or get stuck in traffic; the next time you're at the mall and your child begins to whine incessantly over some gimcrack he saw advertised on Saturday morning television; the next time you marvel over or, perhaps, worry about your tax bill, wondering where it all goes and what it's all for; ask yourself two things: What is freedom? And who lives a freer life?

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.