It's that time of year again folks. Summertime, and the livin' is easy, and you know that that means. That's right, absolutely nothing, in the vast majority of the world. For over five billion people, it is just another day, but to those of us in the US of A, it is an opportunity. It is a chance to reflect on who we are as a Nation, how we got here and essentially slack off and drink beer on a day we would otherwise have to spend working.
Independence Day, the Fourth of July, gives us a chance to reflect on this country that we live in. We can take the time to consider the cost of the lifestyle and the Freedom we enjoy. But do we ever actually stop to think what it is that we have, what it means, and if it is even worth having?
Yes, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness come into play, but these are never really explained either. Interpreting the meaning of Freedom is at least as great a challenge as interpreting the Commandments, and there are as many definitions as there are interpreters.
- 1. The condition of being free of restraints.
- 2. Liberty of the person from slavery, detention, or oppression.
- 3.1 Political independence.
- 3.2 Exemption from the arbitrary exercise of authority in the performance of a specific action; civil liberty: freedom of assembly.
- 4 Exemption from an unpleasant or onerous condition: freedom from want.
- 5 The capacity to exercise choice; free will: We have the freedom to do as we please all afternoon.
- 6 Ease or facility of movement: loose sports clothing, giving the wearer freedom.
- 7 Frankness or boldness; lack of modesty or reserve: the new freedom in movies and novels.
- 8.1 The right to unrestricted use; full access: was given the freedom of their research facilities.
- 8.2 The right of enjoying all of the privileges of membership or citizenship: the freedom of the city.
- 9 A right or the power to engage in certain actions without control or interference: "the seductive freedoms and excesses of the picaresque form" (John W. Aldridge).
Definition 1 seems very straight forward, doesn't it? Freedom is not being bound with restraints. Duh! Well, what are restraints? Need they necessarily be physical things that restrain mobility? No, not really. In fact, most objectors who claim that there is a lack of Freedom say that the restraints are not physical at all. Yes, elsewhere, there are prisoners of conscience and dissidents who are held physically against their will. For the most part, in the US, this definition of Freedom has held up well, unless you're someone like Kevin Mitnick, who without a doubt committed crimes, but was detained and held without trial for much longer than he should have. Although, as in the case of Jose Padilla, the US Citizen held for having had conversations, and possibly the intention of building a "dirty bomb", even the fundamental definition of being unrestrained is becoming strained in these increasingly paranoid times. The first of these examples flirts heavily with the 6th Amendment, the second, well; we are after all at war, are we not?
However, physical restraint is not the only sort of means of limiting Freedom. There are various other restrictions and constraints which render one captive, the opposite of Free. Imposition of Religion and a prescribed practice thereof, for example, is a non-physical restraint. Requiring people to believe specific things, and act in specific ways, is abridging of their Freedom. By definition via the Constitution, the United States does not restrict or impose Religion. Yet those among us, who do not subscribe to the mainstream, conveniently packaged faiths that are derivative of Judaism, know better. In the US our Creator endows us with the inalienable Right to the Freedom of Religion. Consider the irony of that statement.
I am not saying, of course, that Religion should be mandated in schools, Heavens no! Instead, what I am saying is that it is something less than Freedom, to be denied the Right to pray, or hold an organized assembly under the umbrella of some faith, within the context of a Public Place. It is a subtle stripping away of Religion, and that is not the Freedom of it. Yet still, each banknote we touch bears the words "In God we Trust", so Religion, the most widely recognized Judeo-Christian one of course, is subtly imposed upon us. Thank God that the Constitutionality of The Pledge of Allegiance is finally coming into question. Well, thank the Judicial Branch at least.
I hope the example of Religion makes the point that even in this most Free country of all, we are not free of restraints that are non-physical. The legacy of the Founding Fathers and the Pilgrims follows us to this day. Any faith other than one of theirs is frowned upon, and all faiths are deliberately kept out of the semblance of Public Approval, while theirs is subtly imposed.
This point is also seemingly straightforward. Slavery is wrong, imprisonment is a sort of denial of Freedom that's explained in Definition #1, and the Freedom from oppression implies that one should be free to act as one chooses, without the fear of punishment or coercion to act otherwise. But what if you want to give yourself to another person, or institution, to abide by external rules and to abdicate responsibility for your actions?
What if you want to be a slave? Should you not have the Freedom to make that choice? In ancient Sparta, slavery was a run of the mill fact of life, but with a twist. Every so often, each year, or three, or several - it really doesn't matter - all the slaves were declared free. And the cycle would begin again. People would surrender their will to masters for the comfort of being cared for, and in exchange, they would agree to do work, to serve. The Black, excuse me, African-American and White view of slavery that has been with us since before the Civil War is too simplistic to account for the idea of willful slavery.
Should not Free people be able to choose to be slaves? What if I want to give up all responsibility for my actions, and carry out only the will of my owner? Shouldn't this lifestyle be one that is accounted for under the Law? Shouldn't there be a document, sort of like a "living will" in which I could abdicate my Freedom to another person? I can, after all, sell my soul on eBay. Why should I not be Free to make my freedom a commodity or someone else's possession?
Imprisonment is another slippery slope. The United States has a greater percentage of its population in prison than any other nation, industrialized or otherwise, yet we are the Land of the Free. How do we reconcile the two extremes? Well, we say that those who are in prison deserve to be there for having broken the Law. Now, "Law" is an interesting animal in it's own right - it is the popularly agreed upon standard of conduct, a communal agreement that enforces the will of the majority onto the distal sigma of the populace. What was is that Thomas Jefferson, founding father, hemp farmer and rapist of his own slaves, said? "It is no more right for the majority to impose its will onto the individual as it is for the individual to impose his will onto the population", or something to that effect. Thanks Tom.
Why are all those people in prison? Well, why? They did not all violate "inalienable human rights" of others, they did not all commit treason. They are there on technicalities, on obscurity and mainly for reasons of aesthetics. I'm getting at the War on Drugs.
Yes, drugs are bad, m'kay? But think about it for a moment. What makes them so bad? The overdoses, the crimes perpetrated for drug money, the violent outbursts of junkies, or the danger inherent in trafficking in illegal substances? Isn't it true that the one thing about drugs that is most detrimental to society at large is the side effects and consequences of the enforcement of Drug Laws? In most cases, the bad side of drugs is directly related to attempts to curtail their use. Didn't we learn this lesson with Prohibition and Al Capone?
Drugs are, for the most part, a matter of individual choice. The negatives do not become significantly pronounced until that choice is taken away, until people are oppressed, repressed and deprived of the Freedom to do as they please with their bodies. Drugs are a health problem, they tear families and lives asunder, but what a person chooses to do to themselves, and what the consequences are for their loved ones, is a matter of that individual's choice. I say all that as a vocal opponent of drug use. To me, drugs are a bad idea aesthetically. The Law should have no jurisdiction over my own body however. I'm against seatbelt and helmet laws for the same reason. I wear both by choice, not by law. Law should not dictate aesthetics or forbid willful and deliberate disregard for one's personal safety.
This sets Freedom to mean "political independence". OK, well we certainly have that - no one forces us to be members of any particular party. But as independent political entities, we lack representation. Realistically, the US is run by two political parties, which are almost too well balanced for the equilibrium to be a coincidence.
We may have political independence, but when we claim that Freedom, we relegate ourselves to being politically inconsequential as well. After all, the most prominent alternative to the two party system, Ralph Nader, was turned away at the door of the Presidential Debate, to which he had a ticket. Never mind being able to participate, the man was not even allowed to be a spectator and witness the debate between Bush and Gore. Nader was free to watch the debate on television, like the rest of the unwashed.
Per definition #3.2, we have the Freedom of Assembly, and the right to gather without threat of authoritarian power. For the most part, I can not argue this as a valid Freedom. I've seen the Million Man March, even though only a select twenty thousand or so actually showed up. But I am haunted by images of assemblies gone wrong... Seattle, and especially Waco, cause me to severely question whether or not we are truly Free from the arbitrary exercise of authority. As Van Hagar told us "right now... your government is doing things that we think only other governments do".
We are not free to gather as we please, but we are free from the arbitrary application of authority. Those in control are anything but arbitrary about their application of authority. They reserve their power, they hold back, until we do something to threaten their hegemony, and then they bring their authority to bear.
It isn't about Justice, and it isn't even about Lawfulness, but rather about Shepherding. We can gather and protest and chant, as long as the issues we raise are innocuous and non-threatening to those in power. As soon as someone crosses that line, as soon as someone asks the hard questions, the swift hand of the Shepherd authority removes them from sight. As it should, lest they cause the other sheep to think for a minute about why things are as they are, and whether they necessarily need to be so.
This is different entirely. As I see it, Freedom from want and from the lack of something is not something that can be assured. In fact, is it not the very cornerstone of human nature to crave more than one already has? Nietzsche's notorious "Will to Power" rears its self-asserting head here, since once one's wants are satisfied, one wants for more. Defining Freedom in terms of the satisfaction of desires is misguided - it really ought to be phrased in terms of the ability to satiate needs, and satisfy the sense of lacking.
The Constitution defines as a Right the Pursuit of Happiness, not Happiness itself, since a person's Happiness is not something that can be granted or taken away - and the case is similar with Want. A State simply does not have the means to provide for arbitrary "want", so I feel the point is largely moot.
Yes, Freedom from Hunger, from Fear, from any material lack or emotional unpleasantness is a Good Thing. However, when considered from the perspective of the Social Contract, where individual responsibility for assuring such freedoms is abdicated to The State, the definition becomes meaningless - at least until The State demonstrates a means to feed, clothe, house and nurture the homeless.
This definition states that Freedom is the ability to make choices, and in pure terms, that is exactly what it is. Freedom, in essence, is the ability to do something, or do something else, or not do anything at all. Yet, when the choices are preselected and constrained, then Freedom is abridged - and if the choices are so crafted as to be inconsequential, then there is effectively no choice.
Consider the Freedom we have when buying a new car. We can buy any model, of any make that exists on the market. That, in and of itself is interesting, since certain rules and interests control what is "on the market" in the first place. But given the available options, we can "choose" among effectively peer selections. A Chevy Blazer might as well be a Ford Explorer, which might as well be a Nissan Pathfinder. The balance, horizontally, is splendidly engineered, though one can understand that this is simply an evolutionary, Darwinian result of competing corporations all vying for the same consumer dollars.
Where it gets interesting is the additional "illusion of choice" that the major players in the automobile market perpetrate on the half-suspecting public. Consider General Motors. You not only have to consider Chevy versus Ford, you also have to consider Chevy versus Oldsmobile, Pontiac, even Cadillac. The choices are artificially diluted to increase the probability that consumer money will end up in one of the pockets of the GM Corporation. Yes, there are different "price points" involved, especially where Cadillac is concerned, but Chevy, Pontiac, Olds, GMC. These differ only in the color of radio buttons and roundness of levers and dials. Each has a different set of colors on the fenders and marque emblems on the grille. Pretty shinny things to distract the eyes from the man behind the curtain. And one must not forget the "reputation" of the different makes - GMC is
"Professional Grade", Chevy is "All American", Pontiac is aimed at the younger crowd, since it "builds excitement" and Olds is "not your Father's Oldsmobile" and wills to abandon it's niche of stable and mature adults - thereby making exactly that niche feel a little younger. But guess what, all the important parts are interchangeable, and the stuff you don't see on the surface is exactly identical.
Not to be outdone of course, Ford treats us to Mercury and Lincoln, though the scarcity of options here, as opposed to the case of GM, suggests a more genuine attempt as separating out "price points." And this "illusion of choice" and therefore "simulacrum of Freedom" is not limited to the automobile industry, not by a long shot. There is after all only Coke and Pepsi to choose from, right? Have you ever noticed that certain fast-food franchises offer only Coke or only Pepsi as their cola of "choice"? They also offer only Mountain Dew or Dr. Pepper? Care to guess who owns them? Yes folks, Taco-Bell, KFC. They're all one big happy, incestuous family. You can choose to either make a run for the border, or go to the heartland of Kentucky, as long as PepsiCo gets your pocket change. Most of the industries, food and drug, utility, software and almost any others you can think of, are incestuous oligopolies.
But wait, it gets better. Perhaps you've noticed the weeks when the World waited with baited breath to see who might take up the helm of the greatest Democracy ever, the Lone Superpower and the self-appointed global vigilante whose bounty we so enjoy. Humor has it that Yugoslavia actually sent observers to Washington, to oversee that the Election process was not compromised here more than it is in any other part of the World. Well, with the possible exception of the Congo where elections are routinely recounted after big men with machetes run through the villages of the opposition.
Suffice it to say, flipping a coin to choose a Ford or a Chevy results in greater variety of choices than deliberating whether Gush or Bore should represent the whole lot of us to the Global Community. Last I checked, 263 votes, 13 score of senile retiree "chads", made all the difference. Some choice that was. Then again, perhaps political apathy is a Good Thing after all, since it means that the majority to comfortable enough to not care - but that is not Freedom, so let's not be hypocritical about waving that banner, alright?
This definition does not really apply since it is in terms of clothing. Or does it? You do have to inform the DMV within 30 days of a change of address. Why? In a civil society, where crime is an incidental thing, rather than a premeditated one, should the State need to know your whereabouts with such precision? Yes, there's plenty of reasons for keeping that information on file, but are these reasons not an abridgment of Freedom? There are matters of participation in the process of government, and so verification of constituency is at issue there, but the only context in which locality should matter is when services are provided for that location. You pay for electricity, for the phone, for water, and these are things you yourself use, so your identity is necessarily bound to your residence. But need it be? Yes, if you fail to make good on your obligation to pay for what you use, you and you alone should be accountable.
However, in matters of social benefit, where the State provides a service to the population regardless of identity, does the binding of name and place not take away Freedom? Consider police protection of a neighborhood where the identity of the residents is known to be primarily within a certain minority group. Should the State, ideally a fair an impartial entity, have the means to use this information? Is not "equal opportunity" squarely at odds with racial profiling? Is not the knowledge of the identity and location of the individual the ultimate in identifying and singling out a minority? The individual is the smallest of the minorities after all.
Returning to clothing for a moment, have you been to a high school lately? What is the difference between wearing a Cross, or an Ankh, or a Pentagram? Public decency is a matter of personal aesthetic. Just some thoughts.
Frankness, Boldness, the Freedom of the 7th Definition, is something that is sorely lacking in the mainstream of America today. Yes, boundaries are pushed, shock-jocks abound, movies like Hannibal leave us swooning in the aisles and girls barely out of training bras are getting their second or third boob job. The bold has become the banal, and rampant mediocrity has shown us that while we all crave to "express ourselves" and "assert our individuality", few of us realize who we are, and can only express our individuality by forming up into legions of Britney Spears and Marshall Mathers clones.
The Freedom to be Bold and Honest about who we are is sold to us daily at The Gap, and Express, and a whole slew of other retail chains, which themselves are all braided together under the transparent umbrella of parent corporations. For every N'SYNC there's a Backstreet Boys. Once you outgrow the Weathervane, and move into the next price-point after you get a real job, you get to shop at Express, because they're one only one's selling that dress that looks like what Christina Aguillera was wearing when she said that thing about Britney, and you just need to buy it to show your support.
Wake the fuck up!
Realize that even the "grunge" counter-culture was sold to you. Rage music and even the counter-culture stores like "Hot Topic" take your money in exchange for a pre-packaged sense of individualism. Shoot your television, avoid the 8 second sound bite and the 8 minute vacuum between commercials. Look into thrift stores, and do not, ever, buy specialty soap - you don't know what it's made of.
The right to unrestricted use, and full access. One word: Napster. One more word: DeCSS. Another? DMCA [pdf]. Copyrights, patents, intellectual property rights, software licenses and the ability to fully use that which you purchase are in the middle of being reconciled as we speak. And it's not an easy process. Yes, there is the matter of tangibility of certain products, and when you buy a CD of music, you own the CD but not the music itself. These days, when digital technologies make it virtually cost free to duplicate intangible products, the old industry is reeling in the wake of grass-roots intelligence. There was a time when the sale of the medium upon which intangibles were distributed was enough to sustain the entire distribution industry.
Today, that is not the case, yet do notice that as means to privately duplicate such cultural artifacts have become available, the production and distribution industry has grown exponentially.
The increase in profitability of the recording industry has never been greater than since Napster and it's ilk have come upon the scene, despite the blandness of the music released. I know that I have made use of "pirate" music, mainly since I am unwilling to risk $20 on a disc I may thoroughly dislike. When I have found something new online, I have followed it up and purchased the Official distribution. I think most people are like me. Since I found music online, my consumption of for-sale music has increased.
The DVD consortium is another, albeit related matter. If some teenager somewhere can explain with pure logic how to access the content of a disc you have bought, should they be treated as a criminal? Is a corporation's Freedom to profit more valuable in our society than my Freedom to play a movie on my computer without having to pay Apple or Microsoft for the privilege? Why should I be subject to prosecution under a Federal Law, like the DMCA, for SPEAKING, even if the language in which I choose to express myself is C?
There is also the little matter of the U.S. DMCA Law being enforced against citizens of other countries. These other countries do not have a similar law on their books, and certainly do not play vassal to the U.S., yet seem willing to suspend their Sovereignty and their protections over their citizens when confronted by a potential loss of some corporation's profits. Ah, it's a matter for another rant entirely.
As an aside that's little closer to home, consider the nature of State and National forests. These exist because the State funds them, with tax money, yet we routinely pay admission as though they were a commercial attraction. Why should I pay anything at the gate? Is this some sort of deterrent against vandals? Money is certainly a restriction on use, which is all I'm trying to say. "Public" should be Public, not restricted to those who can afford it. This is why we got rid of the Poll Tax. Freedom should not only be there for those who can afford it.
Here we have the right to enjoy all the privileges of membership or citizenship. This sort of Freedom only truly seems to apply to those who do not innately have these rights, such as foreign nationals. Yet, there are different levels of "citizen", are there not? Recall the bit about Nader not being able to participate in the Presidential Candidate debate process? Not even allowed to be in the audience, like all other citizens. Security turned him away at the door. We're talking censorship here, a caste system drawn along the lines of belief, behavior, entitlement and party affiliation.
And once again it gets interesting. I'll spare the gentle reader the diatribe on consensual crime, but I will assert that the right to engage in sexual behavior of one's choosing should not be impinged upon or dictated by The State. What I do in the privacy of my own home, with a consenting partner(s), in any manner agreeable to all parties is nobody's business but that of the people involved. Government does not belong in the bedroom, yet I will invite the interested reader to look up information on "Paddleboro", and the very arbitrary "age of consent", both nationally and worldwide. Draw your own conclusions about the ability of certain individuals and groups to enjoy all the privileges of Citizenship. Which all brings us conveniently to Definition #9.
Freedom here is defined as the right or power to engage in certain actions without control or interference. How convenient that these "certain" actions are not named, but by their qualification, a circumscription is implied. They are "certain" actions not in the sense of their certainty, but rather by their definition as members of a set. These actions are permitted, you are Free within these bounds. The cattle are free to roam, within this corral. Who gets to define what these "certain" actions are, and by having the power to dictate the bounds of Freedom, are these defining powers more Free than the rest of us?
The claiming of Freedom within certain strongly enforced boundaries is a great way to create an illusion of absolute Freedom while obtaining or maintaining control over the population. How? Simply shift emphasis to the Freedom part, say it loud and proud, and capitalize it when you write. If anyone questions the bounds, claim they are there for the benefit of all, that some people need protection from too much Freedom. Try blaming it all on God. If all else fails, call the dissidents "terrorists". Claim responsibility for the lazy and ignorant by disclaiming that some electrical appliance should not be used while showering, and make individuals exempt from the process of evolution by doing so. Give people a set of rules within which they are Free to live. Assure people of Freedom from Responsibility, from Identity, from even Thought.
It is fascinating to observe that the Puritanical aesthetics of the children of Men who coined the term "Freedom" to be a staple of American culture, is exactly the thing that keeps that Freedom hamstrung and bound. It is also very educational to consider the deep, denotative meaning of the definition of the word Freedom, since it is something we are constantly expected to hold up as a perfect Ideal, to the point of being asked to die for it. Most of us probably accept as true the simple definition we are given in grade-school, and never again stop to ponder what it implies, while people more Free than we are, determine that which is best for us despite ourselves.
Now, after all that, please do not misunderstand my intentions in writing this. I love the United States, or more specifically the principles upon which it is founded, enough to kill and die for them. I believe that the US is, in fact, the greatest Nation on Earth. It has afforded me the lifestyle and the opportunities that my country of birth could not. IIRC, it was Rusty who put it most succinctly by saying "America sucks least of all", or something to that effect.
I wrote this piece exactly because I care about the ideals of the United States, and because it pains me to see them dismissed, subverted and exploited for reasons contrary to them. I wrote this because I believe that just because the United States is already the greatest country in the world does not mean that we should stop trying to make it even greater. I wrote this because I believe that Freedom is worth having, and that in order to have it and to keep it, what it is must be considered, weighed, measured and understood.
If the price of Liberty is eternal vigilance, then the price of Freedom is eternal consideration and deliberation of what it means, what is is, and what it should be. Please feel Free to disagree with me if you choose, especially since you are Free to do exactly that. But don't, for the sake of all the Freedom you have and still lack, fail to contemplate the ideal and the reality of your Freedom.