Saturday, October 21, 2006

To Relinquish Freedom

I saw an interesting, if a bit unsettling, news item yesterday. Apparently, an elementary school south of Boston has joined a growing list of schools that has banned the games “tag” and touch-football from its schoolyard. Officials claim that the school fears kids will be hurt and hold the school liable.

Recess is "a time when accidents can happen," said Willett Elementary School Principal Gaylene Heppe, who approved the ban. While there is no districtwide ban on contact sports during recess, local rules have been cropping up. Several school administrators around Attleboro, a city of about 45,000 residents, took aim at dodgeball a few years ago, saying it was exclusionary and dangerous.
Elementary schools in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Spokane, Wash., also recently banned tag during recess. A suburban Charleston, S.C., school outlawed all unsupervised contact sports.

Of course, some will claim that the primary issue is the need for tort reform. If a person can sue an institution for injury during an innocuous child’s game, and in all likelihood walk away with a reward of hundreds of thousands of dollars, then something is clearly broken. And no doubt there’s some truth to this - as the conservative truism runs, subsidize any behavior and you’ll get more of it, tax any behavior and you’ll get less. The great potential rewards for even frivolous litigation are a very strong incentive, and society is simply (over)reacting to protect itself.

But I think there’s much more to it than that. Take a look at this priceless quote from one of the parents at the school:

Another Willett parent, Celeste D'Elia, said her son feels safer because of the rule. "I've witnessed enough near collisions," she said.

Two of the most famous dystopian works of literature in recent history are Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, published in 1948, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, published in 1932. Both saw a depressing vision of a future with stifled thought and creativity – a world where humanity has completely lost its most basic freedoms. Both were written as cautionary tales against totalitarianism and communism (which tends to lead to totalitarianism.) However, there is a key difference between the two works.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell assumes that the only mechanism capable of depriving a society of freedom is force. In Winston Smith’s totalitarian world, members of the “Party” are monitored carefully and constantly through an elaborate system of cameras and spies for any sign of “criminal behavior.” The Thought Police punishes any infraction swiftly and brutally. As everyone knows, the tale does not end happily – Smith is ultimately caught and tortured, and his desire for a personal humanity crushed.

Huxley, on the other hand, saw a radically different future – therapeutic totalitarianism, if you will. In the Brave New World, there is no need for a thought police or prying cameras. The population itself has been engineered to forgo its freedoms for the sake of an infantile, simplistic existence. They are conformist and happy, the ultimate consumers – indoctrinated into an existence of production and consumption. They are promiscuous from a young age, and are taught to never be alone (something that might lead to thought.) When not at work, they watch “feelies” (thoughtless movies) and play childish games akin to miniature golf. Humans are raised in test tubes and never know or experience anything that might cause feeling or emotion, such as family relationships. And any feelings that do arise are quickly self-quashed with a narcotic drug “soma.” In one scene, the main character almost causes a riot, yet when the police arrive they do subdue the population with drugs and hypnotic music rather than brute force.

In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, critic Neil Postman writes,

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism...Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisisted, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

What Huxley saw clearly is that the greatest threat to liberty and freedom is not necessarily an external force. There comes a time in the lifespan of a materialistic society that the people are willing to trade their basic freedoms for an infantile existence of thoughtless getting and spending.

Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. Children are given relatively little freedom because if they are allowed complete freedom, they would exercise it in an irresponsible manner. Only a truly responsible and moral person can exercise and guard real freedom. And it is clear that a person (or a society) cannot handle freedoms unless his innate character is really fit to handle them. For liberty does not arise by of chance, the gift a benevolent government, but is an outgrowth of a free and moral character. The writer Kenneth Minogue tells us that if we are seeking the conditions of freedom,

“we must look not to those circumstances which happen to accompany it, but to the manner in which it has been attained. And we will find that it has always been attained because of a spontaneous growth of interest in truth, science, or inventiveness; a spontaneous growth of moral principles appropriate to freedom; a spontaneous construction of the political arrangements which permit of free constitutional government. Spontaneity indicates that free behavior has arisen directly out of the character of the people concerned.”

If a people has a character that is conducive to liberty, they will attain freedom. But if they lose that character, they will end up losing their freedom. And liberty is hard work. It must be guarded with strength of will, and sometimes arms. The Constitution did not make the American people free. The pioneers lived in America for almost two hundred years before the Constitution was written. The Constitution was a political expression of the innate character of a free and willful people.

If we view freedom in this manner, it is pretty clear that American society is rapidly degenerating into servitude. The character of freedom and individuality that typified the earlier builders of the nation has all but disappeared. As long as I have a self-parking Lexus, a summer home in Aruba and a preordered PS3, I’ll leave the rest to others.

This is Huxley’s point. A society only concerned with spending and getting will eventually tire itself out. It will lose its well of fortitude and strength. And it will gladly acquiesce to a loss of freedom in return for an infantile existence of carefree materialism and decadence. This explains why the characters in Huxley’s book are named both after communist figures and capitalist ones, and sometimes strange combinations of the two. His point is that capitalism and communism are really two sides of the same coin – they both focus solely on production and consumption as a way of life. Many conservative writers made the same point on the fall of the Soviet Union: materialism had merely defeated materialism. There was, essentially, no great “ideological victory.”

Any careful observer of American society will see that there has been a rampant loss of freedom in recent decades. Virtually every aspect of life is carefully regulated – the examples are legion. This regulation of a simple child’s sport – one played throughout American history – is merely another sign of the cancerous degradation of American society. As Chilton Williamson puts it so well, “four decades after [Huxley’s] death, we can see the horror actually upon us in the form of the calculated proletarianization of the Western publics by a collaborative effort between big government, big business, and the entertainment industry to infantilize the populace in the interests of creating a docile and obedient citizenry, a captive, suggestible consumer market, and a passively receptive mass audience.”

Samuel Francis writes,

Today, virtually everyone in the United States is habituated to a style of living that is wrapped up in dependency on mass organizations of one kind or another – supermarkets, hospitals, insurance companies, the bureaucratized police, local government, the mass media, the factories and office buildings where we work, the apartment complexes and suburban communities where we live, and the massive, remote and mysterious national state that supervises almost every detail of our lives. Most Americans cannot even imagine life without such dependencies and would not want to live without them if they could imagine it. The classical republicans were right. Having become dependent on others for our livelihoods, our protection, our entertainment, and even our thoughts and tastes, we are corrupted. We neither want a republic nor could we keep it if we had one. We do not deserve to have one, and like the barbarians conquered and enslaved by the Greeks and Romans, we are suited only for servitude.

Today, Celeste D’Elia will gladly trade the freedom of her child for an infantile sense of safety. What will she trade tomorrow?

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home