Chained to Freedom

September 1, 2009
“Give me liberty, or give me death!”

And I ask the Patriot, is liberty really something to die for? Apparently, Patriots, nationalists, and soldiers armed with a powerful desire for independence willingly did just that. Justifying its rebellion with this noble cause, the nation was born. But also, a national conscience, a psychology was born and still lives to affect and shape the ethos of its people. In fact, countless struggles of yesterday and today are justified with freedom. It drives campaigns, wars, and conflicts for policy.
Americans especially hold the word “freedom” with deep reverence. Having plunged into a revolution along with a war set to fulfill the grand purpose of seeking independence from Britain, a “tyrannical power,” we have developed a unique and fluid relationship with the notion of freedom from extraneous control, of self-determination. With one breath, we define ourselves and others. As our society’s values broadcast freedom as the ultimate path to happiness, one worth striving for at all cots, it enervates, accelerates, and determines policy and deployment. While indisputably dynamic and essential to mankind, freedom is a problem-causing illusion, a political force, one that people never stop seeking and become enslaved to.

Perhaps the Patriot saw himself as an eagle, unbound by laws of gravity, an image to motivate the embroiled in devastating war. But in perspective, other laws of motion bound the eagle to certain limits of flight, while still allowing the creature to maneuver its wings to fly safely. So while the idea of boundaries and limits may be rejected by the liberty-loving, a firmly established structure of respected rights is necessary to protect people from tyrants and each other, and chaos.

Chaos in an anarchic society would prevail in the absence of an orderly society governed by laws – in essence the curtailment of freedom in the most complete sense. Picture the ubiquitous terror – the smartest would take advantage of the less gifted; nothing would stop one from hurting or murdering others for their benefit. Ethics would cease to exist – business partners would cheat each other of money, politicians would use campaign hoaxes. Unmonitored, society would lay exhausted in the hands of the most ruthless few who find pleasure in abusing freedom, degenerating this originally pure concept into license, to revel in a world where survival of the fittest is reality. Thus, laws that seem to cause hindrance actually preserve freedom by preventing the most aggressive and the strongest from flourishing at the expense of others as well. Man’s freedom critically needs proper boundaries so that man does not enslave himself or interfere with the rights of others, and to guard against arbitrary use of power to guarantee equal amount of the power to act for all.

In certain respects, we display this concept exceptionally well by keeping it specific and relative. “Freedom of the press!,” “Freedom of speech!,” “Freedom of Religion!,” Americans have chanted and passed laws to guarantee what we now consider as basic rights, and we use this vigorously. A most scathing criticism of Bush’s administration may appear published in the next paper. A radical evangelist reviving the Aztec doctrine may be praised for contributing to diversity or condemned for using his rights to its furthest extent. In this sense we preserve our freedom through the passing of amendments and vetoing of bills to secure our power to act as such by guaranteeing liberties, and these limits set up by America’s government help to ensure us possession of the freedom we have fought for, lived for, and even died for. Thus, freedom cannot stand as a quality alone. Rather, concepts such as justice and equality must regulate freedom, maintain it, and even curtail its abuse.

Acknowledging that successful societies regulate the citizenry by setting the general welfare as its foremost priority, America resorted to another type of “restraint” after gaining its independence. To maintain the original cause of liberty, America now attempts to reflect its values through a government structure, supervising liberties, ensuring that one does not diminish another.

This bound and weighted freedom, circumscribed, causes tension and contrast with the wild abandon and peak promises of the culturally developed image. The spirit of independence revolving around the desire to be responsible to no one but oneself, which had driven America’s “fight for liberty,” or rebellion against its mother country, has embedded itself into America’s set portrait of freedom, now unable to dismiss.

For example, consider the typical teenager in an average American family. The fifteen year-old daydreams of driving to school in her own car, brand new BMW. After throwing the party of the year for her Sweet Sixteenth, she fantasizes even better parties in college, out on her own. At seventeen, she may be writing about how ridiculous some presidential candidates are in the school newspaper, anticipating the moment when she would finally step into the voting booth and make a change. With knowledge of such “privileges” that follow with becoming an adult, she makes haste to hit that target age, perhaps terrifying her parents. “Eighteen and I’m free!” American teens tend to picture, ready to pounce on the number. Yet far less do they realize the binding of responsibilities that follow with both attaining and maintaining such “adulthood.” Before, as a minor the American teen could depend on their guardian to provide for them and account for all their actions. In time, however, their freedom in adulthood masks an agitated state where one must strive to survive each day on their own – restrained to society’s requirements of paying the bills, and working a full-time job; no free, but limited from indulging their true passions. Regarded uncritically because it satisfied base desires and had a fixed spot in the culture, freedom disguised dangerous values. Its aggressive, malleable quality lends itself to manipulation, greed, and selfishness only to become disillusioned. Freedom in our nation now promises only what is superficial – the Mercedes Benz convertible, the beach house, the Louis Vuitton – wealth through career packaged as the American Dream.

Marketing this photograph enables America to obnoxiously stand as an immigrant magnet, with the label, “land of opportunities,” stamped across its forehead, attracting millions of ambitious dream seekers year after year. People believe America guarantees detachment from their currently unsatisfying situations to live a completely transformed, luxurious lifestyle of convenience, thus confidently starting an endless pursuit of the country’s promoted Dream, realistically available to only a few. They may end up in a fruitless endeavor, working minimum-wage with impractical hope for massive wealth, only to become imprisoned to the endless, straining pursuit of money, promotions, and company-work, at the expense of family, relationships, and health. Shaping what the mass population envision the definitive American Dream as, this culturally developed equation of “financial freedom = happiness,” dangerously devalues the meaning of true, inner happiness with its importance on superficial possessions, and ironically promotes bondage to a routine lifestyle, chasing after nothing but a billboard picture, a mere, fading dream.

That is not to say, of course, that freedom is not associated with happiness. The two may complement each other, for happiness follows freedom and vice versa. So why do Fortune’s 500 Company executives become alcoholics; why do famous celebrities overdose on drugs; why do prominent people who seem so “free” in terms of the American Dream definition, fall into such self-destructive ways, and even commit suicide? Perhaps they are far from happiness. Perhaps living the complicated, hectic life and reaching the high positions of prominence providing instant gratifications to boast about, eventually drive them insane. And perhaps the greatest distress that celebrities we idolize, CEOS we envy, and politicians we aspire to become like, faced, was finally becoming part of the American Dream portrait, but waking up every morning in a fifteen thousand square feet mansion alone and bitter, without knowing why. What such people, disillusioned by America’s iconic freedom associated with money that they esteemed so highly, found in the end, could have been too extreme a disappointment, frustrating and suffocating.

The whole culturally developed idea of independence leading to freedom conflicts with the truth that laws and limits actually preserve it in the most coherent sense, delimited for society’s sake. American freedom is defined by culture, economy, and history, not the lexicon. Desire for this brand of freedom rests upon the inner selfishness of man, when true freedom encompasses justice and equality. As the role of laws and guardians play in safeguarding freedom for the general welfare, this quality only becomes effective when granted by an authority.

This may explain why people keep seeking to depend on something greater than themselves, in America’s case, wealth and money, because they believe such acquirement sets them free. Today, religion provides a source of dependence on a supernatural force such as God in which humans find freedom. American Transcendentalism provided Nature as a way to detach from the world as well. Nature is unrestrained because it sets man free from worldly desires. They felt one with God, a supernatural, greater force, and thus possessed increased power to act. Freedom is associated with wielding the power to act under justice. Freedom encompasses all other qualities, for faith cannot develop, love cannot cultivate, without the freedom to do so. Instead of living as products of the world, an imperfect man-made society, living as spiritual creatures relying on an Ultimate authority may provide freedom in the most complete sense. Knowing this, freedom comes with comforting dependence, being able to rely on a greater power that does not require the least from them, whether it be nature or God.

Today, people unknowingly become slaves to the American-produced illusion of freedom, or they knowingly use it as a cloak or shield, either way, discounting the costs. While America upholds the value of freedom, our culture has turned this concept into an icon, a sensational rush of pleasure and dreamlike picture that we chase after, only to lead to its very destruction. With American independence born in a freedom self-defined, our culture imbeds the image, making it inseparable but potentially confusing by its reliance upon wealth and material success. Ironically, although a sort of freedom can be grasped, any quest for ultimate, total freedom in our culture may elude, distract, or even destroy. Just as we rely on the law to guarantee our rights and protect our freedom, perhaps the notion of dependence itself is where freedom truly lies. In fact, we might have been most free when we were three years old, in the arms of our mother, in the arms of innocence, in the arms of God.

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