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The First Freedom Act

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From flickr.com/photos/8875400@N06/2513316191/: Albert Camus
From flickr.com/photos/8875400@N06/2513316191/: Albert Camus
(Image by Mitmensch0812)
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June 2, 2015 -- Obama signs The USA Freedom Act

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"Liberty isn't a thing you are given as a present. He who thinks with his own head is a free man. Liberty is something you have to take for yourself. It's no use begging it from others."

- Pietro Spina in Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone

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The year made famous by George Orwell in his oracular novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, has long come and gone. Commentators have had a field day expounding upon Orwell's hermetic vision of a possible totalitarian world. Big Brother, newspeak, doublethink, now accepted parts of our lexicon, have appropriately been applied to various aspects of political life: the Patriot Act, spying, drones, cameras, media and government propaganda, etc. The quality of these commentaries has, of course, varied considerably, but most have agreed in emphasizing the overt political implications of Orwell's warning. This is to be expected in a world dominated by around-the-clock "communications" and the internet. Politics, show business, and advertising today commingle to dominate popular consciousness. All is show, the business of creating perpetual distractions from underlying philosophical issues that are the true basis of political life and the fundament for needed radical political change. An ephemeral show. Thus, like Winston Smith who "could never fix his mind on any one subject for more than a few moments," each bit of news/commentary evanesces in the twinkling of an eye or an internet surfer's finger. New political trivia appear for instantaneous pontification, all to be forgotten in a flash.

Meanwhile, the issue that underlies Orwell's fantasy (and Huxley's as well in Brave New World), the central question of human freedom, what used to be called free will, will continue to be undermined from all quarters, even by those who ostensibly abhor the political implications of Orwell's warning. This is usually done circuitously in the name of science, human welfare, and progress, and is the specialty of those calling themselves progressives. For the idea of individual freedom -- the singular person who can say "No" -- is one of those dangerous thoughts that must be overlooked while slyly being replaced with a better idea. "The mind should develop a blind spot whenever a dangerous thought presented itself," writes Orwell. "The process should be automatic, instinctive. Crimestop, they called it in Newspeak."

Ideas do have consequences, and the idea of the free individual, basic to any decent society, has been replaced by the belief in determinism. This is so despite all the political rhetoric about freedom. This is all a dodge, laughable really. "We are a nation of politicians," Thoreau wrote long ago, "concerned about the outmost defense of freedom." This is still true, but in a far more dangerous and confused way now that science, technology, and mass communications have come to dominate society. (Is it any wonder that STEM --science, technology, engineering, and math -- are being pushed in our colleges and universities.) Thoreau was right to suggest that it is a freedom to be slaves, not a freedom to be free, of which we boast, all the while thinking that because media pundits can remind us of Orwell's warning we are therefore more free. "We do not merely destroy our enemies," O'Brien tells Smith, "we change them." And there is little doubt that that change has occurred at a preconscious level where so many people now believe that their thoughts and actions are caused, not freely chosen.

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Is this the change we can believe in?

In concentrating exclusively on political visions of Big Brother forcing an unwilling public into servitude, most commentators have unknowingly done the job of crimestop. They have diverted their readers from the one idea that is dangerous to all forms of enslavement: existential freedom. Grand theories about Big Brother breaking down the front door, while true at one level, can divert attention from Little Sister who has already snuck in the back door and sapped the will to believe in our own freedom. Determinism is our current sickness; this unthinking acceptance of the belief in our existential un-freedom, that no matter what we do, think, or feel, it will, as Winston Smith keeps repeating, "make no difference."

Is it any wonder that so many people are depressed, hopeless, and resigned.

The great American thinker William James once said that the first act of freedom is to choose it; is to believe you are free. The opposite has been occurring for decades. The idea of the personal freedom to choose, unless it is a brand of deodorant or a stinking political candidate, has disappeared behind a collective blind spot. More and more people, having been repetitively exposed to the meme of determinism, have imbibed the zeitgeist that "freedom is slavery" -- and they are doing so of their "own free will," the way it should be, as O'Brien tells Winston Smith.

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http://www.edwardcurtin.com/

Edward Curtin is a writer whose work has appeared widely. He teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His website is http://edwardcurtin.com/


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