10 February 2022


Kukly, 21 May 2000, "Freedom of Speech." Tolstoy visits the Federal Bureau of Freedom of Speech.
Screenshot from source.

We citizens of the USA live in the "land of the free," but some of us seem determined to enforce our own definitions of freedom at the expense of others.

White people are free to go to school without fear of encountering anything in history or literature classes that could upset us. (Black people must give up their freedom to learn about their historical experiences, except those that pass through that first filter.) Certain pastors demand the freedom to gather their congregations without masks in pandemic conditions, as John MacArthur's lawyers did in California, while denouncing religious freedom when it comes to religions other than their own. Don't get me started on the truck drivers' blockades in Ottawa and Windsor.

People on the political left are often guilty of self-serving definitions of freedom, sometimes doing their best to cancel lectures or shame public figures they disagree with. Despite the reliable flow of alarms from people like Andrew Sullivan (case study) about this inconsistency between liberalism in theory and censorship in practice, I still don't see it as equalling the authoritarian right in danger to public health and democracy. Some alleged examples of left-wing censoriousness are simply bumper-sticker idiocy or mean-spirited caricatures (see embedded tweet), not a serious encounter with actual accusations nor a sign of impending revolution. But in these exaggerations, in spite of their spite, so to speak ... is there a germ of humor?

On the University of Chicago Divinity School's "Sightings" page, William Schweiker posted a useful essay on this phenomenon of selective freedom, "Our Comedy of Errors?" Freedom is necessary, he says, for us to go beyond the grip of our own egos and seek justice for all.

Political freedom, rightly conceived, is bound to the demands and obligations of justice. And yet we are witnessing the morphing of such freedom into simple personal or group preferences. If one does not like an opinion or a statement or person, simply dismiss it, her, or him. If masks are mandated by the government, I need not heed it. In sum, self-interest and mob interest threaten to swallow our capacity for justice, causing the freedom that makes democracy possible to falter on every side of civil life.

Kukly, 30 January 2000. Source.

Schweiker advocates irony and laughter to help break the grip of unreflective ego and "liberate constricted lives from their zealous quest to save the world, always in their own image." He reminds us of the Emperor's New Clothes; I remembered the Russian political satire show Kukly, which disappeared not long into Vladimir Putin's presidency.

If we can laugh at the exaggerations in our own defense of the liberties we prioritize, as well as at the inconsistencies of (say) the defenders of religious liberty, or others whose priorities we question, will we get a bit closer to cracking open our society's capacity to be reflective about freedom?

"The most realistic option for a change of power in the country." Found on vk.com in 2016.

Things that are easy for me to forget in the heat of controversy: 

When we try to look at each other's selective understandings of freedom, our tools also include simple curiosity. And we need to remember whom we are regarding -- all made in God's image.

In English, "freedom" and "liberty" are close synonyms, despite their different linguistic roots. Russian also has two words for the political and practical space to do what one wants, svoboda and volya. As the poet/bard Bulat Okudzhava explained,

What is a simple Russian inclined to do in his free time? Who knows? To reflect, to socialize, to drink. To drink not as an end in itself, but as a means of communication, merrymaking, oblivion. Inclined to free will [volya]; he doesn't give a damn about freedom [svoboda] but he loves liberty [volya]. It's as if he feels "nothing is holding me back." And when they say, "Here you are -- here's freedom [svoboda] for you," he does not understand. 

Here's historian and literary critic Leonid Batkin's version:

What is the difference between volya and svoboda? It is in the fact that svoboda is a positive and perfectly translatable concept. Whereas volya is absence of constraints (when the serfs were given letters of enfranchisement, this letter was called a volnaya), volya is when I do not have a yoke, when there is no authority over me, I do as I please, but there's no duty, no responsibilities. To get volya, people run absolutely anywhere, following their nose, to faraway lands, for example to the Cossacks. (But svoboda, you have to fight for it and treasure it.)

[Both texts are from 93 Untranslatable Russian Words by Natalia Gogolitsyna, which I wrote about here.]

I also remember the woman in a BBC documentary about Russia who said to the interviewer, "I already do whatever I want. Why do I need democracy?"

Another case study of the clash of freedoms: Timothy Snyder on the Canadian teamsters and their USA allies.

As we look north to the troubles of our Canadian friends, we can see familiar features, and recognize a general problem. It is perfectly legitimate for have different views on questions of public policy, and to express them. But social media and dark money favor the extremes against the center, and seem to whet appetite for violating the rights of millions of fellow citizens in the name of what turns out to have been a senseless idea.

Poet Nancy Thomas presents a new blog, Life in an Old Growth Forest: Reflections on Aging. "One of my purposes in initiating this blog is to explore the realities of aging, the highs as well as the voids, and learn to face it with courage and humor."

Tyler Huckabee remembers when Rich Mullins said hanging an American flag in church was "offensive."

A story for Black History Month from Haviland, Kansas, home of Barclay College. (Thanks to Jim Fussell via FB.)

Diana Ohlbaum (Friends Committee on National Legislation) on the Pentagon budget and the fearful "W-word."

Quakers, slavery, and sugar.

Eddington, Einstein, and "an expedition to heal the wounds of war." (The story behind the film, Einstein and Eddington, which we showed our students in Russia for several years.)

Another clip from Steve Guyger in Brazil:


Derek "Longshot" Lamson said...

Everything about this column/post is valuable to me. Thank you!

Johan Maurer said...

Derek, I'm always so grateful for your encouragement!