Saturday, July 10, 2010

The mourning after the Fourth of July.

Hi everyone,

Quo vadis, America?

Down to the 7/11 to get a one gallon slushy, that's where.

This week in a nutshell: why don't we do something about the free-marketeer meme corporatists selling the idea that freedom means having whatever you want whenever their marketing tells you you can have it? --and somewhere in there I tried to stuff 14 weeks of Existentialism into 900 words. ;^) Call me crazy.

Along with some pruning by Editor Dan, Saturday's column:

Reflecting on the Fourth of July
Fireworks blind some from responsibility freedoms carry

Fourth of July fireworks are so exciting you can forget there is more to the rocket’s red glare than, well, the rocket’s red glare. In fact, fireworks can distract us from the work on which those fireworks depend. When a celebration is so wonderful that it becomes an end in itself, we forget why we’re celebrating in the first place. Sounds like Christmas in July.

Freedom itself is a lot like fireworks. It’s exhilarating. Today, in the early part of America’s third century, it has become like air. Freedom seems free.

But, of course, it isn’t. There are costs, not all of them obvious.

Let’s do the obvious costs first.

The bumper sticker version of “Freedom isn’t Free” is all about fireworks and patriotic feeling. It helps us enthusiastically embrace the obvious and sometime dreadful costs of freedom: That we or those we love may die in war or that we may be called on, like the Founders, to pledge and lose our own sacred fortunes.

Still, the firecrackers and star shells stiffen our resolve so that, by the end of the evening, we’re all quite sure that we too could proclaim – with Nathan Hale – “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” As the thundering fusillade of Big Boomers concludes the display, we shed a tear and start humming “The Star Spangled Banner.” Anyway, I do.

But then we get back into our cars and drive home. We put the lawn chairs, and the flag, away for another year.

In honor of independence this year, let’s remember not only the obvious sacrifices that make our freedom possible; let’s remember the longterm, hidden cost of freedom as well. For some reason, this is much harder to swallow.

The hidden costs – or, to be philosophically accurate, the unexamined presuppositions that make it possible to suppose that freedom is a natural condition of humankind – are more difficult to access. Here’s a place to start: Real freedom doesn’t depend on feeling at all or on the happy exhilaration of doing whatever you like, but on the willingness to take responsibility for your actions. Responsibility is the backstop of freedom. Think about it this way: We only hold drunk drivers responsible for their actions because we believe they made a free choice to drink and drive. If someone slipped something into the designated driver’s soda, and they got caught weaving across four lanes of Highway 45 on the way home, there would be repercussions, but we wouldn’t hold them responsible in the same way because they did not freely chose to get intoxicated before driving.

The more freedom you want, the more responsibility you have to accept, and the more responsibility you accept, the freer you are. One more thing: Freedom requires letting your brain, rather than your appetites, drive the car.

Ironically, most people would rather sacrifice a quart of blood, or a sibling, than take responsibility for how they live.

Unfortunately, today, we live in a country where freedom has come to mean freedom FROM responsibility – buying any house, car or strategic weapons system I want, rather than the responsible choice. We demand the convenience of hamburgers and getting a full tank of gas at 3am, and ignore the social or environmental costs. We’re a culture in rebellion from this kind of responsibility and, to my eye, this mangled definition is the worm chewing up the center of the American apple.

This false definition of human freedom didn’t appear out of nowhere. It was created just after World War I and carefully injected into American culture over the years that followed. The whole process was kick started by one man: Edward Bernays. Sigmund Freud’s nephew. He borrowed his uncle’s psychological concepts and constructed a system for creating and nourishing the demand for consumer products, something he called “public relations.”

Public relations, what we now call marketing, transformed America’s idea of personal freedom from making rational choices into satisfying appetites for whatever sparkly new doohickie advertising convinced us to be hungry for. We’ve come to believe, as a result, that freedom means being able to have what we want, when we want it – regardless of the consequences.

So here’s a question for the morning (or in this case, week) after: Are we really making choices or are we simply slaves to appetites that have been created, sharpened, and fed by the efficient and soulless economic system we now tend to confuse with our political system?

If the latter, then we’ve reduced our constitutional rights to the rights to blather, bother, and buy. If the latter, then we are not free in any meaningful sense at all.

Freedom without responsibility turns liberty into license and adults into entitled 2-year-olds. Freedom with responsibility requires us to acknowledge not only our responsibilities to ourselves, but balances that egotism by acknowledging the obligations we have to each other as members of the same society.

That responsibility, you’ll notice, is easily forgotten in the fireworks of ego and, as our responsibility to each other is displaced by those fiery desires, so too is true freedom. Everyone likes freedom, but nobody seems to like responsibility.

Without accepting the responsibility that makes freedom possible, it isn’t only our personal identity that is diminished but our national identity as well. This love of freedom without responsibility has turned America into just one more frat party.

Or, more accurately, a frat party on a yacht.



Bert said...

The philosopher Zach de la Rocha talks about those "free to buy what they can't afford."

wbman said...

Some of your friends at another blog would accuse you of humming "The Internationale" and raising a closed fist at the end of the fireworks.

Very good column. Reference Bernays, I think the change you referred to came later. During WWII, Americans accepted the sacrifices of rationing and recycling drives. The black market wasn't socially acceptable; it was shameful to get caught using it. Today, to sacrifice or do without is viewed as an attack on our freedom and "way of life". My parents gladly paid extra taxes for a new school, and adjusted the vacation plans accordingly. That's not how it is now.

Mpeterson said...

Bernays, started life working for Wilson after WWI and brought it all home to encourage people to buy what they wanted rather than what they needed. This latter view characterized Americans prior to WWI. The former to how they began to shop afterwards. The serious marketing -- and linkage of 'democracy' with 'buying stuff' -- was post WWII.

It was Reagan, in fact, who introduced market segments (like non-directeds, his particular swing voter market segment).

Mpeterson said...

Oh, and there is a good BBC series on this from a few years ago called "The Century of Self".