Wayne Holland: Irrational Universe


The Two Freedoms

—can't have your cake and eat it too ...


Freedom is a commodity, an intangible commodity that operates in a manner that is diametrically opposed to tangible goods in that it is not devalued if its quantity increases. It is immune, in other words, to that most basic of economic laws, that of supply and demand.

There are actually two different kinds of freedom, and if we enjoy one we may not partake of the other.

The two faces of freedom may be described as technological and natural.

We currently enjoy (if not utterly wallow in) technological freedom. We have modern marvels (such as automatic washers and automobiles) that free us from the drudgery that the thousands of generations before us had to endure.

But our mastery of technology has been acquired at the expense of natural freedom.

What is natural freedom?

My preferred way to think of it is in terms of something that has lately become a virtual fantasy. There was a time (and not so very long ago) when it was not such a whimsical vision.

The sheer dream that I refer to consists in the ability to step outside our door and set off on foot in pretty much any direction we please and do nothing more than take a walk, and do so without the fear of trespassing on someone else's property.

On this score, some words from Henry David Thoreau are compelling:

I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the woodside. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture even politics, the most alarming of them all -- I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. Politics is but a narrow field, and that still narrower highway yonder leads to it. I sometimes direct the traveler thither. If you would go to the political world, follow the great road, follow that market-man, keep his dust in your eyes, and it will lead you straight to it; for it, too, has its place merely, and does not occupy all space. I pass from it as from a bean field into the forest, and it is forgotten. In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth's surface where a man does not stand from one year's end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man.
—(from Walking)

Our acquisition of technological freedom has come at a great price. It appears that technology has virtually incarcerated us.

Our prison bars are not so apparent though. They are quite deceptive in the manner of their presentation. But however ephemeral they may appear, they are yet made of the same materials as the more commonly known ones (and just as effective).

Our prison bars are the streets, highways and sidewalks that surround us, and demarcate the landscape of our individual cells.

Technology has given us a certain kind of freedom, a freedom that we take great pride in describing as precious, but my personal issue with it goads me to ask a rather pesky question:

What are we doing with this precious freedom?

Yes, I value it as well as the next man. But if it is indeed so precious, why are we not doing something precious with it?

When I take a hard and honest look at American culture, I do not see a whole lot of activity going on that I could truly describe as precious. No way. My hard look at America reveals to me nothing but the crassness and crudity of the marketplace. In America, it is all about the money. (The business of America is business.)

And on the subject of money, I find myself asking the very same question as the one I direct at freedom: what are we doing with it?

In this case, however, I target only those who have excessive amounts of it. And I find that I see the same thing (when I note what the rich do with their excessive wealth) that I see when I consider what we all do with our excessive freedom: self indulgence.

I do not see the rich doing anything that I would call precious with their inordinate access to wealth, any more than I see the masses doing the same with their excessive freedom. In both cases, I see only self-gratifying frivolity and silliness. I see nothing profound, except perhaps the profoundly shallow.

The so-called free market has a way of totally destroying quality.

Can we honestly regard a television show like Hee Haw as an example of quality? Or American Idol? And what about our obsession with soap operas and professional sports? Are these instances of quality? All of these forms of vapid entertainment have one thing in common: sensationalism.

The marketplace thrives on sensationalism, not quality.

And what about the rich and their multiple residences and various collections, like garages filled with classic automobiles? May we regard this as an example of doing something precious with their economic advantage? I see it as nothing but another instance of indulging in the purely selfish. Can we in good conscience acknowledge that which is only selfish as a form of quality?

I am sure that many will respond to this question by noting that our precious freedom is indeed precious for that very reason, that it allows us to indulge ourselves in whatever manner we please, be it selfish or otherwise, so long as we do not touch someone else with our activity.

To which I must respond that we are touching others through our selfish activities, whether we sense it or not, especially if those activities involve the use of resources, which are increasingly threatened by the ever-burgeoning pressures of population growth.

As the popular refrain has it, it's a small world. It is increasingly difficult to do anything without somehow touching someone else with our behavior, which simply underscores the validity of the primary thrust of this post, that we are all severely deprived of natural freedom in the present world of technological empowerment. It is a relentless, indomitable power that has effectively weakened us, virtually forcing us into a small corner of our concrete and steel room, where we may do nothing but exercise our freedom to seek ways to distract ourselves from the reality of its inexorable sway over us.

February 14, 2008

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