How to Pick a Fight with Kris Kristofferson (or, The Importance of Talking about Freedom)
January 1, 2009
“Yet even as they celebrate freedom, Americans exempt the object of their veneration from critical examination. In our public discourse, freedom is not so much a word or even a value as an incantation, its very mention enough to stifle doubt and terminate all debate.” — Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power, pp. 5-6.
His book is mostly diagnostic. This is hardly a flaw; what he diagnoses would be beyond the power of a single man to solve, or propose to solve. One also senses that the very modesty he calls for in American policy prevents him from the consideration of grand solutions to our problems. It’s more a warning — that the Iraq War, Dick Cheney’s claim for the president’s “monarchical notions of prerogative,” debt-savings ratios and the state of the economy are symptoms, and that we should not delude ourselves into thinking that merely treating the symptoms will cure the disease. Setting aside whatever else I may disagree with in his writing, this seems essential, and true.
The question of freedom was like a rock he’d slipped into my shoe at the very beginning. Now, I want to think that this was intentional. Maybe I’m a cynic, but our understanding of freedom does seem awfully like what one would expect from a lazy student; or, to borrow from my own experiences in class, what happens when you’re tired and simply grab the first definition offered in the dictionary even though it’s not the best, and sometimes not even adequate.
Freedom, he writes, “has an underside.” It is not entirely benign. It is not entirely understood, except insofar as freedom to consume and freedom from consequences misunderstand it. Indeed, freedom from consequences (and now I, and not Bacevich, am talking) is antithetical to the very idea of freedom, at least in my own limited understanding of it. (An excuse for Americans: freedom isn’t easyto examine, by any means. Nor is it a necessarily pleasant experience.) Freedom entails obligations; it is the freedom to commit an act and have it be one’s own: that is, to bear full responsibility for it, whatever that may entail.
I’m of the opinion (this is subject to radical revision over the course of my life) that the most important part of Paradise Lost comes when God explains the purpose of free will:
“Not free, what proof could they have given sincere
Of true allegiance, constant faith, or love,
Where only what they needs must do appear’d,
Not what they would?” (III.103-6)
It goes on for a little longer, and discusses it more at length there (and elsewhere). For Milton, free will was essential in man because without it, there could be no love, and without love… etc. Which is to say, freedom is not the freedom to live a more or less unchanging lifestyle, to incur debt without repayment, but freedom to choose — to be responsible. Freedom is not freedom without obligation.
Hopefully I’m not terribly wrong and just blathering on unknowingly. I don’t pretend that anything I’ve said would be more than a very small beginning to such an understanding — but it’s likely an understanding that grows with experience: getting a full grasp on the meaning of freedom would be immensely difficult (hopefully I’m not just making excuses now), but the endeavour of critical examination of what it means to us now, and what the concept independent of 21st century America means are of extreme importance. The concept is foundational to the government and the state. Citizenship, then, would seem to require some effort be expended.