Saturday, July 19, 2008

A few thoughts on the Yang worship word.


For those of you who are not quite as nerdy as I am, and that would be most of my readers but by no means all, the Yang worship word is "freedom". It comes from a Star Trek episode that is one of my least favorites, because it uses one of my least favorite plot devices, the planet light years away from Earth that has uncanny, some might say hackneyed, parallels to earth's history.

Still, as little as I liked the episode, sometimes when I hear the word, I cannot help myself but think of the corny and badly delivered line, "Freedom? You will not speak it. It is Yang worship word!"

It's really everybody's worship word. No matter the ideology a person subscribes to, everyone believes in freedom, at least as they define it. It is so beloved precisely because it is so poorly defined. As a mathematician, I have a great antipathy for poorly defined words. The word "love" for example, is another universally revered concept because its definition is so bad.

The best defined universally beloved concept is chocolate.

But I digress.

Let's go with this definition as the basis for the rest of this essay. Freedom is my right to do whatever I want, and to be fair, it is your right to do whatever you want. I do not deny there are problems arising from this definition, but let's start there.


There are a lot of Americans who think freedom is an American invention. Those would be the people who think the opposite of "Freedom" is "French", as though France is a land of secret prison camps, over-reaching government surveillance and the torture of prisoners held without charges or on trumped up charges. It might surprise them that the French national slogan translates to Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood. It also might surprise them that the earth revolves around the sun, but that is a surprise for another day.

Of course, we have Five Freedoms listed in the First Amendment to the Constitution, all about what Congrefs, sorry, Congress, cannot do. We are free to worship and free from a national religion being established, we have freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble peaceably and to petition the government when we think we have been wronged. Notice how little responsibility is mentioned here, only that assemblies be peaceable. Everything else is about freedom, the right of anyone to do anything he or she wants to do in these areas.

The Second Amendment starts by talking about the need for a militia to keep the peace, and since it is necessary, people should have the right to own guns. Of course, we don't do militias anymore, so Fat Tony Scalia now tells us it just means we have the right to own guns, with no added responsibility. We no longer have the Founding Fathers, but we do have a Floundering Fathead.

Lucky us.


In early 1941, with an eye on the troubles brewing around the world that we were not directly involved in at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the Four Freedoms speech, rights that all people on the earth should have. Carved on the wall, the first is listed as Freedom of Speech, but is often written now as Freedom of Expression, so it would include the press and peaceable assembly and the right to redress grievances. Then comes Freedom of Worship and two freedoms not named in The Constitution directly, Freedom From Want and Freedom From Fear. A world where no one is starving is still a long way off, and it is a sad fact that governments today, including our own, like the populace to be afraid.


Compare these freedoms of Roosevelt's to the Four Freedoms that are in the European Union charter.

* The free movement of goods;
* The free movement of persons (and citizenship), including free movement of workers, and freedom of establishment;
* The free movement of services;
* The free movement of capital.

This is freedom using the definition favored by Milton Friedman, the freedom of what people can do with money. On the cover of his book, metaphorical giants in business appropriate attire are free to look at the world as their own personal file cabinet, one in which they are free not to close drawers when they are finished rifling through them. As Donald Rumsfeld might say, freedom is messy.

Even in those places where the ideas of Milton Friedman are revered as unto a fetish, some free markets, some ways people like to spend their money and others use to make money, are brutally suppressed. The free markets of pornography, prostitution and drugs are matters for law enforcement in most countries, and the Netherlands, the most open country in the world on these topics, is considered irredeemably socialistic by the Friedman Faithful. Of course, they have an entire country built below sea level, not just one town like New Orleans, so the idea they should work together to maintain levees ready for thousand year floods is just common sense, not communism.


Milton Friedman was not enamored of freedom of workers to unionize, which is to say to peaceably assemble and to air their grievances. His father's business was destroyed by a strike when Friedman was young, and it had a profound effect on his political thinking all his life. Starting in the 1970s, many countries around the world began implementing the ideas of Milton Friedman, ideas which lead inevitably to the globalization we see all around us today. First was Chile, where the suppression of the workers was particularly vicious. As the free market ideas spread, the need to destroy unions spread with it. After all, in a free market world, capital is free to go wherever it wants, and if workers are going to get uppity someplace, or some local government is going to get their panties in a bunch and enact laws protecting workers or the environment, capital should have the right to go somewhere else more business friendly.

Some people are beginning to understand that their freedoms come with the responsibility to be citizens of their country and citizens of the world, and the freedom of capital can spell the enslavement of the people.


Which brings us to this suspicious looking character, Friedrich Hegel. Like many 19th Century writers, Hegel took a lot of paragraphs to get to a point, but he did have an interesting definition of freedom. We all live in society, and none of us gets to do whatever we want. I might want to have sex with Melissa Theuriau, but that isn't going to happen because

1) She lives one continent and one ocean away and
2) She has a say in this matter as well.

So here is Freddy Hegel's definition of freedom. Since we are all people who live in nations with laws, the most free person in a society is the person whose personal desires and moral code most closely conform to the laws of the nation. If no law interferes with what you would do anyway, you are as free as that society lets anyone be. Most of us, for example, do not feel like killing someone most of the time, so those laws against murder really don't put a major dent in our personal freedom. People who find many laws of the land keep them from doing what they really want to do will experience aliention, or so said Freddy Hegel. Hegel's definition of alienation has a symptom list that is as good or better than most of definitions found in the DSM-IV.

So here is my view of freedom. We Americans are free to be citizens, and we need to be citizens to preserve our freedoms or to expand our freedoms. Sometimes we need the government to protect us, but we should never forget that sometimes we need to protect ourselves from the government. Five of the ten amendments in The Bill Of Rights are about what the government can't do to you, even when you are accused of a crime. We might not think of ourselves as criminals or potential criminals, but the laws keep changing, and many are written by people who believe deeply in their own freedom, but not so much in the freedom of others. Some are working with a single mindedness that is easy for an idiot to muster. Those of us who are of many minds, and frankly better minds, must work even harder.

Boy, that's lotsa 'splainin'. Glad it's a Saturday.

3 comments:

sfmike said...

Very good explaining, and to hell with Mr. and Mrs. Phil Gramm. Though it may sound a bit like whining, I think it's shameful that both of them aren't in jail right now with their freedoms severely curtailed.

Bob ManDo said...

Freedom? Check out messages from Captain Fatty Goodlander's "Message In A Bottle" audion on NPR site:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92499301

I just LOVE his take on LIFE and FREEDOM!

Bob ManDo

ken said...

Well said, Matt.

- ken