FREEDOM DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING

FREEDOM: OPEN-ENDED CONCEPT

We exist within the strict confines of our conscience.

During interactions with the physical world, our senses provide us with stimuli and information, but our perception of reality is the product of the subsequent inner workings of the ghost in the machine.

Spring Moon, Ninomiya Beach (Haru no tsuki, Ninomiya kaigan), Kawase Hasui, 1932

One of the major consequences of our subjective mechanism to interact with the world is that socio-political concepts are largely devoid of specific and universal meanings.

It is our experience and background that puts meat into these absolute concepts, and thus our outlook on matters such as freedommorality or even beauty are for the most part conditioned (although not exclusively) by our past.

This line of thought can be dissected and debated ad nauseum (and it has been, by philosophers, moralists and scientists), into infinite detail. However, I believe I got across the main point and I’m sure you’ll find enough about it elsewhere.

As Eric Hoffer once explained: «How rare it is to come across a piece of writing that is unambiguous, unqualified, and also unblurred by understatements or subtleties, and yet at the same time urbane and tolerant. It is a vice of the scientific method when applied to human affairs that it fosters hemming and hawing and a scrupulousness that easily degenerates into obscurity and meaninglessness.»

Let us keep it simple, then: most concepts related to human affairs are devoid of universal meaning.

WHAT DOES FREEDOM MEAN?

Clearly different things for different individuals.

Everybody professes to love freedom, but we are all in love with a different kind of freedom. And beyond the domain of our personal understanding of freedomhic sunt dracones.

As an example, the Portuguese constitution (issued in 1976) and the much older American one (1787) both set out to establish republics composed of free men and women. Freedom, in both of these documents, was proclaimed as a sacred constitutional value.

However, in Portugal, no private citizen can carry an automatic pistol and the possibility to carry (concealed or not) firearms is in fact so strictly regulated that, for all practical purposes, guns must be deemed as banned. The fingerprints of all Portuguese citizens are collected since childhood. The names that parents can give their children must be on a pre-approved governmental list of names, etc., etc..

And yet, the vast of majority of Portuguese does not view any of these things as blemishes on their freedom. The majority, I suspect, would vote against the possibility of carrying firearms and, if asked about it (of course nobody asks), would have no qualms about the fact that the government is collecting the fingerprints of its law-abiding citizens since childhood. And most Portuguese are not bothered in the least by the fact that they can’t really get creative with their children’s names (and perhaps that’s a good thing).

First Fingerprints taken 1859/60 by William James Herschel (1833-1917)

However, for the average American (at least for the kind that actually values the Constitution of the United States), these things that are perfectly acceptable for a Portuguese (or a German, or a Spanish), certainly seem beyond the pale. Why should a law-abiding citizen by unable to buy and carry a pistol? Why should my children be fingerprinted? Why shouldn’t I be able to christen my son as River PhoenixX Æ A-12?

[Here’s Johnny Cash about the problems of naming a boy “Sue”]

HOW CAN DIFFERENT PERCEPTIONS OF FREEDOM BE EXPLAINED?

A good place to start would be Clive James’s 2007 collection of biographical essays, Cultural Amnesia, where the late journalist profiles, amongst many others, Heda Margolius Kovaly.

Heda was one of Czechoslovakia’s Jewish survivors of the Nazi death camps in Poland.

Upon her return to Prague (nobody else from her family would make it back), she married another survivor of the Nazi death camps, a man called Rudolf Margolius, and they both joined the Communist Party.

Later, in 1952, Rudolf, by then a high-ranking party member, would be put-on trial for treason and hanged.

In her memoirs, Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968, Heda Kovaly notes as follows:

«The years of imprisonment had yet another paradoxical effect. Although we continually hoped for freedom, our concept of freedom had changed. Shut up behind barbed wire, robbed of all rights including the right to live, we had stopped regarding freedom as something natural and self-evident. Gradually, the idea of freedom as birth right became blurred.»

[thankfully we can listen to Heda’s story, in her own words]

Our understanding of the concrete scope of a particular concept such as freedom rests on the benchmark set by personal and historical experience.

Once certain components of our sense of freedom are taken away (most commonly, as Lord Sumption recently noted, in the name of our own safety), we gradually adjust (man, after all, as Dostoevsky famously defined it in The House of the Dead, is «the creature that can get used to anything») and the angle through which we process the idea of freedom narrows.

Some doors simply should not be open, because you simply won’t be able to close them later.

THE DEVOURERS

Note, for instance, how the privacy infringements noted by whistle-blowers a few years ago remain unchanged, having actually escalated during the Covid-19.

In tandem with that development, the notion of freedom, for all practical purposes, no longer includes the prerogative of maintaining private communications. We simply take it for granted that the government will be listening in (and Apple, and Amazon, and Huawei).

What this means is that once freedom is legally curtailed, and as soon as sufficient time elapses, whatever ingredientes of freedom that were removed (for our own safety, let us keep that in mind) gradually disappear from our conceptual notion of freedom. And worse, those insisting that lost freedoms should be restored are actually frowned upon as menaces to security (and thus a threat to the common-good).

An even more perverse side-effect of this process is that actions and prerogatives that we once viewed as an integral part of our personal measure of freedom can, once change takes root, be perceived by ourselves as threats from which we now recoil in fear.

I couldn’t possibly shake your hand these days… Or could I?

“Good god, you goin to shake with me, Uncle Abe”, Charles Reed (1865)

WHO ARE THE CAMP GUARDS?

Government often deprives us of slices of freedom. From a certain viewpoint, the law can be construed as a tool to curtail individual freedom (hopefully for the good of social harmony).

But what is less transparent to our conscience is the process through wish we voluntarily relinquish elements of freedom that are still made available to us by the “law”.

Can I carry a gun? No, states the law in most countries…

But what about camping? Can I go camping in some remote area, without cell phone cover, roads or facilities of any sort?

In most places, you probably can… But should you, really? Is it safe? “Perhaps I should abstain from doing so, and instead camp in the designated site”, most will say to themselves, preoccupied with their own safety and comfort.

And yet, not so long ago, if you went out camping or for a hike in the mountains or in the woods, the fact that you could be incommunicado for some hours, or even a few days, would not deter the average individual.

Increasingly, we police ourselves and voluntarily devour our measure of freedom.

LIFE: DULY REGULATED

The understanding of life as an adventure – an adventure that obviously entails preparation, responsibility and sacrifice – has for the most part been replaced by a sense that life is something to be consumed, BUT always within whatever externally (and internally) imposed boundaries that provide SAFE (the safest) entitlement and enjoyment.

[The featured image is the cover of National Sportsman magazine (May, 1935), by William Eaton]

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