Sunday, January 27, 2008

Only You Can Be Free

A man's life got took away in the city today, they say
But never tell how many's been born
Inform us of a top notch surgeon's mistake
But not the many lives he's saved before
Show us starving kids through expensive lenses
On a far and distant shore
Of which, when sold, could feed a good few
Hey mister rich - Why don't you help the poor

Bad news, sad news, never no good news
S'all they print and beam
Make a child believe that there ain't no love
Well hey, love lives on my street.

A man giddily calls up his friends and gives them a link to a TV clip where one host admonishes the others for spending 15 minutes talking about the death of Heath Ledger, but not about the 28 soldiers that had died in Iraq that month. Nobody knows the names of those soldiers, the indignant presenter says.

The man sending the link to his friends giggles: way to go! Stick it to the media! The question I ask is, does he know the names of those soldiers? Did he go and look them up after watching the clip?

The media is the scapegoat of the day. The immoral, ratings-hungry media, they say, is dumbing down the nation and destroying society. If only the media had a little more integrity, a little more desire to really change the world for the better... If only we could have a CNN full of Jon Stewarts, and a Fox News full of Keith Olbermanns. Americans are having a hard time believing why, if their country is so fucked up and it's so self-evident, nobody is doing anything to change it. The evil Republicans are in power, and the inept Democrats have the Congress, the Senate, and probably the next presidency one way or the other; and yet nobody actually seems to believe anything will change for the better. Not just an American thing, of course, but America does enough cultural projection that it's the most convenient example. You'll all understand what I'm talking about.

There's a quote that's been thrown around a lot after 9/11, roughly this: People who would sacrifice their essential liberty for a little temporary security deserve neither liberty, nor security. It is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who, although he was never actually the President of the USA, is these days remembered mostly as a statesman and author of some of the principles of modern democracy. And herein lies a big problem: the assumption that both liberty and security are the domain of statesmanship.

The security of its people is the responsibility of a state.

Their freedom is not.

One of the better ways to reach a useful truth is to ignore the perversions that have tainted a presumably good idea over decades and centuries of implementation, and look at what the point was in the first place. A state is an infrastructure, fundamentally not alike the sewer system or the electrical grid; established by consensus with a particular purpose. The purpose of a state is the centralized management of interests which are common to nearly all of the population, but cannot be efficiently managed on an individual basis. Among these interests is security. One of the main purposes of a state is to ensure the security of its members, both from external threats, and from ones that exist inside the community (note how the state and the community are different things).

This is where the concepts of security and freedom begin to be interlinked, and what's worse, juxtaposed. It is a perverted understanding of freedom, bred by childish impatience and a sense of entitlement, that considers the restrictions of a state's security infrastructure to be a violation of freedom.

(There is this romantic myth of the outlaw as a free man; a man that is not bound by the shackles of society. The wimpy version of this is the non-conformist, from hippies to goths. The truth is, you can only be free from society if you go live on a deserted island. Anyone making an effort to publicly flaunt the rules of society places himself under far greater restriction; and the biggest degree of exercisable freedom is available to the person that embraces the state, and understands its system of restrictions.

Of course by embracing the state's restrictions, you gain the opportunity to avoid them far more than any outlaw. I never drink and drive, in fact I'm over-cautious in this regard; I always wear my seatbelt and have my insurance in order. I even have the right winter tires. Because of all this, I can break the speed limit, knowing that I probably won't be stopped - and if I will, I'll only get a relatively minor fine. For the self-evidently loyal citizen of the state, there is a far higher tolerance of formal infractions. This understanding of the relative importance of laws and the skill of selectively ignoring them is what I have referred to here in the past as not being an asshole

The outlaw might think that just because he has a gun and I don't, he is stronger than me. The truth is, he is only as strong as his one gun; I am as strong as my state's entire police force and army.)

The state's purpose is to provide for the security of its members. The state has no tools to provide for their freedom, because it was never designed to do that; because it is presumed, by the designers of the modern, democratic, free state, that people are free by default. People's freedom can be restricted by sheer force, as in a dictatorship, but any dictator relies on the loyalty of the executioners of his power; and so any dictatorship is organic, and exists exactly up to the point that the people are willing to tolerate it. (Revolutions are an integral part of the workings of human society. Now the idea has been introduced and proven that a revolution does not necessarily need to limit itself to replacing a bad dictator with a slightly better one. It is indeed possible for a people to govern itself, by consensus and majority decision.)

Because people are inherently free, they will not tolerate a dictatorship or an injustice beyond a certain level. This mechanism is assumed to work without fail; and so, the state does not have to concern itself with the provision of freedom. The state, being an organism comprising living parts, is subject to analysis; its actions are sometimes difficult to predict, but they are not beyond the boundaries of causality. The organism is indeed flawed, but it is fit for purpose (the purpose being provision of security); any time that the exercise of purpose creates an undue restriction of freedom, it is up to its constituent parts to come in and repair the damage.

So here, finally, is the point: your freedom can only ever be in your own hands. You, the common person, are individually responsible for maintaining the workings of the state. You will never find yourself in a situation or a state completely devoid of wrongs; it is simply a matter of how many and which wrongs you can live with. When you do not act explicitly to right a wrong, it means the wrong is not wrong enough.

So if you don't know the names of the soldiers that died in Iraq this January, then shut the fuck up.


Kristopher said...

Freedom and security have never never opposing concepts in my mind.

My freedom to do what I want is delimited by other people's freedom to do what they want. That is the shape of my freedom.

Freedom can only ever be viewed in relative terms -- otherwise it is a worthless concept. You can go out in the desert and yell nonsense at the wind -- you are free, but you will never gain a clue as to the shape of your freedom through doing that (unless you get bit by a rattlesnake you have roused; then you know where your freedom ends on that vector).

The state can be the steward of freedom by providing an complex algorithm (laws) that ideally map and keep track of the shapes of people's freedoms in real time.

Since these shapes can never be perfectly mapped, the state necessarily errs on the side of greater control (it leaves a greater buffer zone between competing interests than is actually needed).

Hence the rule that I cannot drive with a BAC of 0.1% when I know that is in fact just as safe (if not safer) than driving sober after too much coffee.

Giustino said...

But those soldiers weren't in Brokeback Mountain!

Seriously, the death of heath bummed me out. The guy is the same age as me, was in a similar position in life (relatively young father). And to think his life was ended by a random assortment of sleeping pills and medicines.

There was a guy in a town near mine on Long Island who was killed in Iraq back in 2004. left behind a pregnant wife, same age as me. I wept for him too.

It certainly sucks when the man upstairs decides to pull your ticket, though anytime, I guess, is "the right time".

Alex said...

"...they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM!" - Braveheart

Anonymous said...

Edgar Savisaar quoted saying Heath Ledger death is a boom for Olsen.

Anonymous said...

"The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do. It is the freedom to refrain, withdraw and abstain which makes a totalitarian regime impossible."

-Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind, aph. 176 (1955).


| More