Thursday, April 28, 2016
America Is A Free Country–Oh, Really?
While few people examine the concept of freedom in any depth, most hold liberty to be the most defining aspect of our culture. Yet, free to do what, exactly?
Freedom of speech is being slowly curtailed and eroded by political correctness. Even the most legitimate and appropriate arguments questioning the progressive canon are shouted down, conservative speakers disinvited from public forums, and ‘safe places’ to protect students from perceived grievances and micro-aggressive speech are everywhere.
The Patriot Act, passed without objection by Congress in October, 2001 shortly after 9-11 gave sweeping powers to government to collect information on ‘potential terrorists’, subversives, and anyone even suspected of seditious activity. Given this unusually broad and permissive law, and the nature of all governments to grow exponentially, it has been no surprise to learn of the startling invasiveness of ours. The American public has been warned in no uncertain terms that unless it cedes some of its freedoms, another 9-11 is sure to happen.
A complaisant public and very willing Congress has given government free rein, and every agency from the NSA to local police are encouraged to track phone conversations, Internet clicks, travel, purchases, and even intentions. ‘Sentient’ software which can detect likelihood from a mass of presumably random and irrelevant Facebook posts, is used widely. Government can detect emotional commitment to questionable causes, track the suspect, record, and ultimately use all information gathered.
This abridgment of free speech by government is of course not new. In the Communist hysteria of the Fifties, Congress, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy went on witch hunts for supposed Communists. Charges were trumped. Assumptions went for fact, and thousands of Americans were unfairly and unlawfully charged. Had Government had the tools available today, one can only imagine the damage that would have been done.
Americans who grew up in earlier eras are now astounded at how terrorism hysteria curtails their freedoms. Any serious student of history wishing to understand ISIS, Boko Haram, or al-Qaeda, their ethos, principles, and purposes must necessarily go to original sources. Yet most are reluctant to visit their websites or those sympathetic to them, for if a pattern of Internet use is detected, they could well be put on a watch list. It never was this way in America.
Surveillance cameras are everywhere. No purchase of falafel in Dearborn – the city with the highest percentage of Arab-origin residents in America - is innocent if it is made anywhere near a mosque, Arab bookstore, or community center.
Government intrusiveness does not stop with politics. Given the hysteria about pedophilia, rape, and assault against women, anyone cruising ‘illicit’ or ‘suspect’ pornography sites on the Internet is immediately suspect.
All this is bad enough, but America has become a more regulated and litigious society than ever. In the name of public safety, traffic cameras are everywhere, enforcing responsible behavior rather than rely on individual judgment and the force of community norms. Public swimming pools have become gulags, ruled with absolute authority by lifeguards who enforce No Running, No Bullying, No Horseplay, No Dunking rules with the severity of a prison guard.
The Nanny State is present everywhere. Not only pools but school playgrounds are policed. Not only have all ‘unsafe’ slides, swings, see-saws, and monkey bars been removed, but behavior is controlled. Children are not allowed to scrap, fight, shove, or show any aggressive behavior. Unsuitable toys are not allowed. Children are no longer free to express normal, natural, innate instincts. Under such regulation they cannot observe the impact of their behavior, learn from it, reinforce it, modify it, or reject it.
In an illogical, moralistic , but not unsurprising move , government is trying to regulate e-cigarettes. Recently the UK Royal Academy of Physicians (4.27.16) has endorsed e-cigarettes because they promoted better health. The issue is lung cancer, they said, and since burning tobacco is the culprit, e-cigarettes provide a far safer ‘nicotine delivery device’. Of course they should be endorsed.
Not so in the United States where the desire to legislate, the insistent overreaching of government, and the patronizing attitude of legislators, dominates. Make it difficult to get e-cigarettes, not easy.
Every aspect of American life is tightly regulated. Cars, decks, home improvements, signs, and displays are regulated. Seatbelts, helmets, and protective eyewear are required. Guns, cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs are controlled. The busiest government agency is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
No infringement of the law is tolerated – no approximations of legal distance from alleyways, fire hydrants, corners, or parks is permitted. No give on requirements for block parties, street fairs, or demonstrations.
The list is endless.
Which, then, are our freedoms? If speech is curtailed, the free flow of information interrupted, behavior regulated, and every aspect of practical, political, and social life under review, then are we really free?
Some would point to the political process. We are free to vote for the candidate of our choice. Really? There is no doubt that the political process is determined and ruled by monied interests. The courts continue to adjudicate in favor of free spending by corporate interests, influential lobby groups raise millions for their preferred candidates, old boy networks continue to work the aisles for power and influence. By the time candidates get to throwing their hat in the ring, the election is all but determined.
Of course there are outliers. In this current presidential election (2016) both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are fringe candidates. Trump, a billionaire, is beholden to no one, and has been attacked by every conservative establishment voice in politics. He is disrupting the normal flow of money and influence. Bernie Sanders, an old Socialist sticks to his principles and little influential money follows him. In the main, however, politics is as usual; and the electorate takes what it gets. What choice does it have? Given the process of election and the money-driven politics afterwards, does it really matter if one votes? Is voting really free?
Progressives add one more criticism of American ‘freedom’. Given the dramatic social and economic inequality in the country; given persistent racism, sexism, and homophobia; and given the almost unassailable centers of extreme wealth, few Americans are really free.
The Chinese laugh at our naïveté. They see the cacophony of individual interests, the howling for individual rights, and the erosion of social and cultural cohesion because of it, and dismiss our so-called freedoms out of hand. They through discipline, authoritarianism, and political will have raided hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty, helped China to become a major economic, political, and military power. Freedom?
Vladimir Putin has the same view. His authoritarianism is necessary to restore Russia to the glory of its Imperial past, to restore its international standing, and to grow to a unique world power. Divisiveness – the natural and inevitable outcome of ‘freedom’'’ – is unacceptable.
The only important question concerning freedom is ‘What for?’. Freedoms alone mean nothing, and only have value if they are used for higher ends. Freedom to support venal individualism – the unfortunate characterization of America today – is worthless. Freedom itself has no intrinsic value as even a cursory look at history will show. It is a variable concept. France was freed from the tyranny of Louis XVI but only a few years later ceded all its freedoms to the new tyranny of the Jacobins and The Reign of Terror. Republics and monarchies come and go, and freedoms along with them.
Yet for most people whether citizens of monarchies, republics, or dictatorships, the principal variable affecting freedom is money. Poverty enslaves, and few people at the bottom of society have any say in anything. The Chinese leaders deserve some credit for understanding this. Freedom, they say, is not speaking your mind, but having a living wage.
Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor challenged the returned Christ by saying that men only want magic, miracles, and authority – not free will. Man was sold a bill of goods by you, the Inquisitor says to Christ, when you said to the Devil in the desert, “Man does not live by bread alone”. Of course he does, said Dostoevsky.
For determinists like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer the whole concept of freedom was inane. No one is free. Every decision is dependent on the millions of others which preceded it.
The term ‘Freedom’ in never more heard than in a presidential election. Every candidate flies the flag, contends that America is the greatest country on earth, and avers that its greatness is dependent on its freedoms. Most people believe this, and will wave the flag along with the candidates. Yet few of us ever stop to ask, “Freedom? What freedom, exactly?”