Jul 4, 2014

Freedom – what in the world is it?

July 4, 2014 Rota, Cádiz, España

If you're like me, you frequently see images on Facebook with pictures of Ronald Reagan standing in front of an American flag with the caption in big type - “Freedom”. And probably down at the bottom there will be some smaller text with the message the authors really want you to accept.
And when I read the comments, I see quite a few knee-jerk reactions to the word “Freedom”.
OK duhh, who is against freedom? Not many of us, and yet we seem to take the word at face value without examining what it means. So let's look at it a bit.
Here in Europe, the word Freedom doesn't seem to come up nearly as often. But America was born as a nation of small merchants feeling strangled by the taxation and control of England. So the word got into our vocabulary and has remained as a high expression of patriotism.
So what does it mean? Well, I suppose the highest form of freedom is the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want. Sounds good, no? But what kind of world would that give us? To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, your right to swing your fist ends just short of your neighbor's nose. Yup, the other side of Freedom is Responsibility. The study of Ethics is all about resolving the right of the individual to act freely and the right of everyone else not to be harmed by that action. It is not a simple conversation...

It gets even more complicated when we move to “do whatever you want”. Hang with me on this one, please. Whatever we want should be pretty simple, no? I assert that what we want doesn't happen in a vacuum. It comes from the possibilities in our culture. Alas, ever since the emergence of mass culture supported by the media, maybe starting in the 1950's, Americans have been bombarded by misinformation provided by the public relations industry. Perhaps you have seen the series Mad Men? It shows the advertising industry as it began to feel its power at the beginning of the television age. The characters discuss ways to influence the thinking (and feelings) of the public about their products. I hate to say it, but public relations is all about distorting the truth to favor the client of the moment. That's a nice way of saying “lying”.
Now here is when we get back to the topic of Freedom again. I assert that during the Nixon years, when the flower children were taking to the streets, the Powers That Be got seriously alarmed at the radical change in public thought. And it didn't take a handful of millionaires very long to figure out that, for a few paltry millions each, they could fund activities of the new public relations industry and begin to influence public thought. I doubt that they ever really appreciated how powerful their efforts would be.
We have now seen three generations of Americans who have been subjected to an increasingly manipulated reality (at times Brainwashing is too strong a word, but in other cases it seems spot on). Having grown up in this brave new world, it always seemed natural to us and we cheerfully accepted the Orwellian social class – consumers. We were born into consuming and never thought to question whether materialism leads to a life we would like to live. Well, most of us didn't question it. So now we are conditioned to want things that our grandparents could have cheerfully lived without.
And just as surely as we have been taught to want products, we have also been taught to want certain political outcomes. Few of us are political scientists or sociologists and so the political outcomes that are paraded in front of us as the solution to all the nation's problems just get accepted, largely because they come from the media. We have an irrational trust for things that come from the media. This is strange because almost everything that comes from the media is a lie! Does X brand soap really get our clothes whiter than Y brand? Probably not, but they say it will.

So even what we think we want is shaped by the public relations industry. That is sobering, but to fully appreciate the truth of that statement is to begin to regain some freedom. So paradoxically, when we see the picture of Ronald Reagan in front of the American flag with the banner FREEDOM across the front, real freedom is the ability to realize that we are being manipulated and that reality is probably quite different than what the caption at the bottom of the graphic would assert.