Sunday, January 4, 2015

Freedom's Just Another Word

A friend and I were talking about the strengths and weaknesses of Europe and the U.S., when he happened to use the “f” word. No, the other “f” word. “Free” is a word that comes up frequently in the U.S., often in context of democracy and liberty, but it extends heavily into economics. My friend was referring to the economic kind, as in “free” education, healthcare, and other social net services. At which point it hit me: freedom has to be one of the most prostituted words in the history of mankind.

Semantics is where we often park our words when we’re too busy surviving. The complication is, some words represent the dearest values in our lives – as in “love”, “happiness”, “freedom”, and a few others. We might be able to survive for a while without the presence of those basic values, but we can’t prevail without them. And the difference between surviving and prevailing is too important to dismiss, as William Faulkner once pointed out. Yet it seems we constantly run out of time to understand the true meaning of those words, never mind agree on their significance. So we throw our arms up and agree to disagree, at best, or frequently contradict ourselves. All of this takes a serious toll over time when it comes to the quality of our lives, which… is where that elusive prevailing comes in. It’s all just semantics in the end anyway, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t. Look, I realize most of us manage to not lose much sleep over words. But I'm not talking about the words themselves, I'm trying to point out the force behind them. And if we can agree for a moment that the force behind words like lovehappiness and freedom is what we hunger for the most in life, then it might not be so crazy to take a closer look. Seems a bit unorthodox, I'll admit. But challenging our mindset every now and then might be worth a try, considering the upside.

So let's take that mindset back to the word “freedom” for a moment. While the pursuit of freedom is an inalienable right, the pimping of freedom is an unfortunate political manipulation, one which we have allowed to linger for too long. Consider the following observation: the use of the word free in “free market”, to imply that a government does not interfere with price and competition, is a borderline insulting reference to the essence of freedom. A truly free marketplace would be one where everyone has access to it – including the significantly disenfranchised. You can't appropriate the word "free" and then ignore people who can't even touch the marketplace, through no fault of their own (for those who may be need further definition of what "no fault" means, try abused or neglected children and elderly, mentally ill, significant physical handicaps, etc. In the US that count is in the millions, not in the thousands). In that regard, Communism and Capitalism are ironically a negative and positive of the same image: Communism tried (and so far failed) to insure that everyone has limited but equal access to goods and services, with an elite that has unlimited access to the goods. And Capitalism insures the same for the elite, while everyone else has unlimited but unequal access to goods (unequal meaning in some cases none). Meanwhile, nothing in the Socialist middle is free: it is shared by consensus.

These clarifications are not semantics. They are truth-seeking definitions that filter the noise from our perceptions. We can argue politics all day long about which economic paradigms are or should be "free". But it can be far more sobering to challenge conventional wisdoms every now and then. Ask yourself tougher questions. Hell, ask everyone tougher questions. If they kick you out of your church for asking tough questions, you were in the wrong church anyway. As The Lion King's Rafiki would say: look clooser... Freedom is an abstract that we wave around frequently, but it will remain dysfunctionally abstract until we realize what the true driving force is within it. Whichever system you subscribe to, figure out its true meaning first. Don't just defend it blindly, challenge it and make it better. 

We take these very important words and distort them in an endless string of careless arguments, until we render them meaningless. Then we wonder why we’re not happy often enough. Or why meaning eludes us. Or why we’re often in survival mode, where prevailing is just a dream. And I'm not just talking about survival or freedom of the economic kind here... but hey, they're only words. Or not. Your choice. 

Kris and Janis were right: freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose... and nothin' don't mean nothin' hon' if it ain't free.


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