Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Freedom" is Just Another Word

Freedom's just another word for nothing' left to lose
Nothin' ain't worth nothin' but it's free

I've never quite understood these lines from Kris Kristofferson's song "Me and Bobby McGee" that Janis made into a hit, but then the notion of freedom has always been a puzzle.  The lyrics at least echo my disenchantment with the notion that has been so debased by political rhetoric in the 21st century.  This has been the week of reading Jonathan Franzen's new Freedom: A Novel (actually I finished it in three days) and it has prompted a renewed interest in understanding the attraction of what can seem from some perspectives an impossible dream.

Franzen's last best-selling book, The Corrections, which I also loved, came out right before the September 11 attacks.   "Operation Iraqi Freedom" (originally named "Operation Iraqi Liberation" until the unfortunate acronym was noticed) was begun by President Bush during the gestation of his new novel and was ended by President Obama the week Freedom was published when he announced, "It's time to turn the page."  We've also been told that Obama bought a copy of Freedom on his vacation at Martha's Vineyard the same week that Franzen graced the cover of Time where he was described (I cringed for him) as the "Great American Novelist."  In his new book, Franzen observes that "the personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage."  Is there a lesson here for Iraq, Obama, and the Tea Party libertarians?  For Patty, whom Franzen portrays as the perfect mom of St. Paul, Minnesota, who married her second choice, a decision around which the novel rotates, "all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable."  Freedom is like that.

Franzen (who spends summers in Santa Cruz and winters in the Big Apple)  didn't need the tsunami of promotion, a publicist's dream.   Freedom is an absorbing, somewhat old-fashioned tale (as in Tolstoy's War and Peace which is mentioned several times), of families and love triangles with characters who become fully fleshed when described from within as well as without by the author.  Patty, her "nice" husband Walter, and his best friend and her lover, Katz the rock star, are all seen as both heroes and villains at different points of the narrative.  Their drama and inner motives mirror the zeitgeist of the turn of the 21st century when the personal and the political intersect in so many ways.  The words Franzen puts in his characters' mouths are head turning good, both believable and insightful.  You'll find everything mentioned here, from cotton diapers to iPods, to teens wearing flipflops and substituting credit cards for cash.  Environmentalism is at the center of Franzen's target, with a big greedy corporation led by a wealthy Texan establishing a wildlife sanctuary after removing the top of a mountain to allow for mining, and also profiting from selling shoddy equipment for the Iraqi freedom campaign.  One climax (there are several) comes when a partially drugged Walter experiences a Howard Beale moment from the movie "Network" by shouting "WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!" as the cameras are rolling. He's a hit on YouTube.

Walter and Patty are angry and depressed despite the many choices their middle class lifestyle allows them because their pasts won't let them go.  Patty was a young basketball star, unappreciated by her do-gooder parents, who blew out her knee and was date raped in college.  Walter, the son of a small-town drunk, gave up his ambition to act and make films to become a lawyer for 3M to support his growing family.  Katz finds popular success a drag (like Franzen when he blew off Opra).  Joey, the Republican son of Walter and Patty, pursues wealth until it challenges the morality he perhaps got from his environmentalist father with whom he rarely speaks.  The freest person in the book is Walter's alcoholic brother Mitch "who exhibited no trace of a sense of responsibility," and who worried sometimes about his kids but figured out that "I'm only good at taking care of me." Despite Franzen's clear pessimism about politics and environmentalism and modern culture in general, he ends his novel with redemption on both the personal and the political level.  His universe like ours, is peopled with flawed and confused creations who do their best to make sense of it all. 

I sometimes wonder what a poor Thai farmer would make of the American ideology of freedom.  He probably has very few choices between different courses of action to take and his life is often determined by forces beyond his control (like the weather or the price at which he can sell his crop).  What people do in traditional cultures like Thailand's is constrained by superstition, religious belief, and earthy wisdom.  Only the children have a chance to change if they can get an education and a job that pays a living wage.  Too many drop out of school to work in construction or prostitution in the capital.  Few aspire to a higher station in life like the characters in the nightly TV soap operas who are universally portrayed as rich and well-dressed.  Poor Thai children could never imagine becoming prime minister.  To rise in business you need connections that don't grow in the country.

Freedom, freedom,
That's what I want
--Jimi Hendrix, "Freedom"

Popular culture is full of the praise of freedom.  Bob Dylan during his protest singer phase wrote of the "chimes of freedom flashing."  In Freedom, Patty disparages of the music of Dave Matthews for lyrics that say "I want to be free" and little else.  Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sang that we could "find the cost of freedom buried in the ground." Neil Young ridicules patriotism and the earlier optimism of Dylan in "Flags of Freedom."  Richie Havens chanted "Freedom" at Woodstock to a multitude who knew they'd achieved it, if only for a day or two.  Tim Hardin's "Simple Song of Freedom" was a 60's plea for no more war, as yet unfulfilled.  The Isley Brothers defined it this way:

Be what you wanna be
Join what you wanna join
Well, well, well, that's freedom
Yeah, yeah, freedom, yes sir

Lately I've become enamored of podcasts and iTunesU.  In addition to Democracy Now, I walk around Bangkok with earphones inserted listening to NPR shows Fresh Air, Speaking of Faith and This American Life, in addition to Philosophy Bites and Buddhist Geeks.  I discovered at iTunesU a talk on freedom by Cambridge don Quentin Skinner in which he provides a fascinating history of the concept from Hobbes, Mill and Locke, through Marx and Freud, to contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor.  Hobbes thought freedom was threatened by external agencies, while Mill suggested the self might undermine its own interests (as in "love is blind").  Hegel, on the other hand, asked what freedom is for; "freedom from" is only the negative pole of the dialectic.  Some have compared freedom to self-realization, to have the ability to take part in public life or to serve God.  The question that interests Skinner is what makes the slave unfree.  He believes it's a form of dependence on the will of others.  This could range from the psychology of servitude adopted by the oppressed to the colonized who are taxed without representation, and it also could include the dependency of women on men prior to achieving the vote and the right to control property.  Is freedom an absence of interference or a form of independence?  Is the main threat to freedom coercion or dependence?  Quentin believes there are a variety of notions of freedom and some are incompatible with others. 

Morality in Freedom requires a relinquishment of individual freedom for the sake of the greater good.  As an environmental crank, Walter tries to persuade his neighbors to keep their pet cats indoors to protect the songbirds on his property.  Joey forsakes war profits to grow organic coffee.  Patty learns that erotic love is less dependable than growing old with a nice man.  In my life, I have rarely sacrificed my dreams for the happiness of others and now in old age I can see that I purchased freedom with the the illusion of independence.  This is not strange for an American whose culture promotes the self-sufficiency of its young with a maximum of help from parents and a minimum of gratitude required.  I also had the freedom of my class, the ability to conceive of impossible goals and switch jobs at will (my father was horrified at my lack of company loyalty).    I never feared or faced poverty, except for one day in Greenwich Village when I ate bread and jelly before my paycheck arrived.  Of course, the dreams rarely came true; I never acted in films and my writing has rarely been in print (which is why the invention of the blog has given me so much delayed satisfaction). 

Last week, some of my students participated in a debate at our university's Wang Noi campus.  Four monks joined four students from South-East Asia University to debate in English the motion: "A Life of Luxury is Better than One of Contentment."  I was asked to be one of the commentators along with a teacher from the other school.  They used European rules of debate unfamiliar to me but I recognized the "pro" and "con" positions taken from my days as a debater at Pasadena City College when the motion that year had to do with nuclear testing (our team interviewed Linus Pauling to hear his views).  I was curious to see how Phramaha Weerasak and Samanera Shin would argue for a life of luxury, it being totally contrary to a monk's vows.  Interestingly, they proposed that wealth would enable one to help others and cited the charity work of Bill Gates and the funding of disaster relief.  Unfortunately, it was their only interesting argument (except for the claim that money enabled the construction of planned cities like Dubai, a dubious achievement in the desert).  The "con" side quickly argued that happiness can only come from the heart and challenged the idea that food in an expensive restaurant would taste better than a dinner among friends and family.  As commentator, I suggested that the question could be rephrased as: "It's better to have money than not to have it," and said that I thought the real question was, "How much is enough?"  I was very pleased to see how well my students had learned to express themselves in English and felt like my efforts had achieved something.

Freedom is perhaps more on my mind these days because of the diminishing choices I have now that my Social Security income has disappeared and it does not look as if I can make up the shortfall from additional teaching.   A friend noticed that what has happened to me is not all that different from people accused of dealing in drugs whose property (boats, cars, houses) is confiscated by the law before a court conviction.  People are quite often guilty before proven innocent.  Another practice that seems to defy the rights of individuals is entrapment, routinely practiced at all levels of law enforcement.  Judges have condoned this ignominious practice.  In order to find criminals, undercover agents plan crimes and then encourage susceptible people to commit them.  But getting angry about injustice is counter productive.  Since Social Security refuses to discuss their decision in my case, I have no choice but to return to California in the hope of dealing with the arrest warrant and presenting Social Security with what they desire in order to restore my retirement income.  My current challenge is finding a temporary place to stay.  I'm looking for motels with weekly rates and not too many (other) criminals in residence. 


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Interesting perspective.
I hope that you sort out your own matters with SS OK.

All the best, Boonie

Anonymous said...

Can you stay with family in the USA ... immediate or extended ?

Good luck. This seems like a good effort. I wish a smooth and non-extended remedy.

Sam Deedes said...

This blog is really good value. I only dip in now and again but each time I get hooked. Where to start?

"Exhausted yet full of energy"...good on you Will, that's the mark of a true teacher.

A life of luxury is better than a life of contentment??? There could be a hidden agenda here. You can't be contented if you live a life of luxury, therefore settle for what you have, don't envy the rich but pity them. Not sure I agree. If I remember my maths correctly it's the old Carroll diagram, a window of four parts: rich & content, rich and not content, not rich and content, not rich and not content. That covers everyone, and each section has its occupants. In practical terms it's those who are not rich and not content who deserve our support.

Since the recent eruptions of those who are not rich and justifiably not content, I have stopped calling this country the "Land of Smiles" (a tourist board fiction) and I hope you will consider abandoning the phrase too.

Was Victor Bout a victim of entrapment? Seems like each case need to be considered on its merits. Anyway,I'm taking bets as to which comes first, Bout's extradition to America or Thailand's next general election.

I've said this before but I've stopped using my credit card in Thailand. Handing it over to shop assistants risks fraud and using ATMs incurs unacceptable charges. A telephone transfer via a cheapo phone link to my bank back home once or twice a year transfers funds to my Thai bank account which I visit personally every month to draw funds in cash, and where by now I am known.

I am a UK citizen retired to Thailand and as such suffer a variant of Will's pension problem. (I'm assuming US Social Security = UK State Pension). Because I am in Thailand the UK government will not index link my state pension. It remains at the same level from day one till my death. If I was in the EU this would not happen. The European Court recently rejected an appeal by people like me against the UK law. I am powerless but can see there is no logic here. The total tax bill to the UK government if no one was to become an ex pat ought to be the cornerstone of deciding the level of available funds. At the very least, expats like me who continue to pay UK taxes on all their income (on a retirement visa I am forbidden to work in Thailand) ought to receive better treatment than expats who pay no taxes.

The government is no doubt banking on the fact that at our age in a place like Thailand we have shifted our priorities somewhat away from the material and towards the spiritual. How right they are! Is this where I came in?

Barb said...

Bill, since I don't see you on FB anymore and I don't see your e-mail address on your Blog I am not sure how to get in touch with you. Please write me via e-mail so I can pass some info on to you. Also, Deacon says he still loves you but needs your address so he can write you the old fashion way, by snail mail, as he doesn't partake in computers. You can send that to me in your e-mail if you like.

An please tell me why I cried all night last night after hearing Eddie Fisher died and could only think of you?

As to your latest blog, I am sure there is a way to get your SS reinstated. It may mean a trip to the states but you could stay with me and you would be right here in the capital and should be able to get it taken care of.

Please write.


Anonymous said...

You have good friends WIll.