Vicki Robin

What is freedom, anyway? Still relevant 5 years since first post

In Uncategorized on November 9, 2011 at 1:27 PM

I checked my old personal blog today and found this post from July 4, 2006. At the time I was working on a book about Freedom and Limits – working hard and in isolation and obviously wanting to leak some of it out! Still holds true. OWS is about limiting the 1%’s ability to play a winner takes all game. Not by wrenching money out of their pockets but by using democratic tools to change the conversation. It’s a challenge to freedom = money conversation. Enjoy this tasty morsel, flash from the past!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

What *IS* Freedom Anyway? July 4, 2006

Death by Hyper-Freedom
Vicki Robin
July 4, 2006

This morning the coastal fog hugged my little village tight, the sunny feeling of blue skies, parades and expansive American freedom very far from our shores.

I love that sunny feeling. I love that most American part of myself: my optimistic, generous, can-do self. The world is my oyster… and I’ll share because there’s plenty.

But a fog has rolled in on freedom in America and before it rolls out for the day, yielding to sunshine, potlucks and parades, I want to reflect on the fog of self-centeredness, self-importance and overall self-ishness that now passes for freedom in America. Underneath the rhetoric, both on the streets and in the ‘halls of power’ you hear playground taunts. “It’s mine and I can do whatever I want with it. You can’t tell me what to do. I got here first and you can’t have it.” This bully freedom, entitlement freedom, numero-uno freedom has troubled me for a very long time. Almost as long as the can-do freedom, the generous freedom, the expansive, inventive, creative freedom has fueled my life.

I recently offered a workshop on freedom using one possible title for my upcoming book: If this is a free country, why don’t I feel free? Nobody signed up. Thankfully, I found it curious rather than devastating. One friend offered this explanation: “I don’t see that I have a freedom problem. What would I, or anyone, get from it?” In other words, he has real problems. Relationships. Food. Job. Aging. Money. Insecurity. Discrimination. Parents. Kids.

Actually, I think these are all freedom problems. Problems with the partial – and therefore devastating – current idea of freedom in America.

Here’s why. The very hallmark freedoms that permit the sunny version of America have now gone hyper because we’ve made anything that limits us the enemy of our freedom.

Limits, though, enable freedom. They shape and direct freedom. We all place boundaries to protect what we cherish and express what’s within us. Art, design, houses, games, marriages, markets, traffic, values are generated by limits. Rather than talk intelligently about limits, though, we rail against them. We want to grow without limit. And this hyper-freedom is killing us.

Competition in an open and free marketplace has become hyper-competition, a war of all against all. From pre-school to board rooms, the competition for the few seats at the wee table is fierce. As the wealth gap increases, the race to occupy the top 10% gets more ruthless. If you want your kid to go to Harvard rather than flip burgers, gotta start his education early. Like in the womb. Birth is way too late.

Choice has gone hyper too. From being able to select from a range of products rather than one state issued pair of shoes, we’ve entered the era of oppressive, obsessive choosing – picking the right cell phone, internet service provider, car, computer, cereal, investment, vacation and on and on. And who has the time – we have to work 2 jobs to afford it all.

Which brings me to time. From the freedom to work hard to get ahead we’ve gone to hyper-speed: 24/7/365. If you don’t keep pace, someone else, right behind you, will get ahead of you. The need to exceed the speed of those you are competing with has us sacrificing sleep to keep up. As John deGraaf, founder of TAKE BACK YOUR TIME, contends, we need time to care – to love, parent, learn, worship – and as a society we are not time friendly. Even activists suffer, urgently keeping pace with the train-wrecks of injustice, war, global warming and more.

Each individual’s freedom to have, do or be what we want has become hyper-individualism, a burdensome loneliness of people cut loose from community, who pay for connection by bonding with companies that don’t care about them, eschewing churches then going to workshops and therapists to simply be heard, losing first loves and not knowing where to find the next one. The up and coming household is single. With cat. Like mine.

How many of our relationship, food, job, aging, money, insecurity, etc. problems are rooted in this hyper-freedom world where the only way we know to feel free is to get away from what holds us. It is harder to bond today. Harder to stay bonded. Harder to have job security, harder to care for our bodies and families, harder to find love because the forces of dissolution – away – are so much stronger than the forces of connection. The ties that bind immediately pinch – and we move on. Studies show that loneliness and isolation lead to body and soul disease and early death. We treat the symptoms, but do not question this toxic freedom that convinces us all that to be free is to be on top, at choice, on the go and on our own.

Sustainability is certainly a freedom problem. How can we address overshoot – the condition we’ve been in since the mid-70’s of using up more of the earth’s resources than can be replenished – if we can’t tolerate the fact of limits. Hyper-freedom says we can just get away from problems: invent something new, farm in Siberia, live in space, live in a gated community, find a substitute source of fuel. How, pray tell, will we substitute for water. We are up against major limits and in total denial, and hyper-freedom is the major enabler.

No, it’s not a free country anymore. We are not free to rest, to eat good food, to hang out with people we love, slow down, live at a sane pace, feel secure in our communities without sending armies to our borders or distant lands to stop people before they come and get our good life.

Oh, except for our few holidays, like 4th of July. Today. Freedom day. And what are we celebrating again? I’ll celebrate freedom in America when we get off the hypers and settle down to being a decent kid on the big planetary block, working and playing well with others, valuing our souls and collectively setting some boundaries we collectively respect. Give me grown up liberty or I fear we are all choosing death by hyper-freedom.

*****

p.s. later in the day after the fantastic picnic and parade

Today George Lakoff in the Boston Globe also wrote about the framing battle over freedom in America*. He, like me, counted the number of times…

“President Bush, in his second inaugural address, used “freedom,” “free,” and “liberty”… 49 times in 20 minutes. “Liberty” has become the watchword of the radical right. The right has taken over the use of these words as part of its appropriation of patriotism. Progressives must reclaim not merely the words “freedom” and “liberty,” but the ideas that made this a free country. To lose freedom is awful; to lose the idea of freedom would be worse.”

A political advisor yesterday, hearing me speak, said the “right” wins in the voting booth because of our uneasiness with “hyper-freedoms.” It stands for “law and order” (who wants lawlessness and disorder?), “safety” (who wants danger as a collective way of life?), “protection” (no one wants to be defenseless). Can you see how the conversation needs to shift to where we place our limits to get more of what we value, not freedom vs. limits? Yes we all have “family values.” How absurd to think “the left” wants a rootless, valueless, disconnected, dissolute America, but that’s how the “freedom” issue shows up.

We need to ask: “What values do we actually share here in America?” Answering that seriously will take real soul searching. Consumerism wins because it’s the one common good, or goods. Americans (so the myth goes) all want, deserve and have a right to more stuff. Don’t fence me in when I’m at the store!

But if we agree, for example, that good families are essential to a good society (as they always have been!), then we ask, “What are the qualities of good families that we want more of?” There’s a great conversation for you! Safety? Protection? Care for the young? Education in “knowing right from wrong”? Love? I am certain “left” and “right” would generate very similar lists. Then we ask, “What minimal limits must we collectively place on ourselves – through laws and culture – to get the good families we want? How do we win the ‘good family’ game?” Okay, we’re back to the debate, but with a lot of respectful conversation and shared understanding. We arrive someplace in the vicinty of families where there is love, stability and decency over time. So how do we get that? Well, now we’re into the very lively diversity that is America.

We need to get out of the debate with its dueling frames. We need to get into the respectful conversations about “what we hold dear” and “what limits we agree on to protect those essential goods.”

Lakoff is correct. The left has lost all the important marbles: freedom, values, morality, law, order, family. What’s left is not recapturing the flag, but questioning the game. We all want freedom, values, morality and such. How – through what permissions and prohibitions – will get us there… that’s actually the essence of the conversation that is democracy in America and in that conversation all the jingoistic, bombastic, ideological bullsh-t (left and right) will be as convincing as an Emperor who has no clothes.

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  1. I really appreciate your well expressed ideas. Articulating our hunches and “getting the conversation going” is what we need and want to do– we just don’t know it will work, so we “live lives of quiet desperation,” thinking there has to be some fast or dictated way of creating positive change. Despite the distasteful ring of “family values,” I think that’s where we need to start, in my opinion as a mother and a teacher. Let’s coin a better name for that core structure of human development, security, and compassion.

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