Monday, June 13, 2005


It was the primary theme of Jean-Paul Sartre's work, indeed of many of the French phenomenologists. Perhaps it arises from France's experience in World War II; perhaps it arises from the French Revolution, the one that devolved into the Reign of Terror. In European culture it came out of the Romantic rebellion against the Industrial Revolution and the "Great Chain of Being" which was a mainstay of the Enlightenment. It is clearly a concern for Dostoevsky in Karamazov. It is, we tell ourselves, the very foundation of our "American Way of Life," and the telling is a direct and unexamined result of the American Romanticism of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as the realism of Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. It is no accident that Hemingway said American literature began with Huckleberry Finn. The flight to freedom of Huck and Jim down the Mississippi is the journey across the country of Jack Kerouac On the Road, is the enduring self-image of America. But along the way, the self-image changed, and nobody noticed. Kerouac bummed a ride, but he rode on money. Trucks aren't built by hand in a backyard, and they don't rely on rivers for the energy to move them. Huck was free not only from society, but from the need of money. Jack had to rely on the kindness of strangers; strangers with capital funds.

"I ask you: is such a man free?"

This is what freedom has come to mean for us. Freedom to spend money. Our money. Other people's money. It doesn't matter. Push the metaphor farther, you won't fall through to the other side. Kerouac's flight now depends almost entirely on American empire, on American hegemony. Our freedom of movement depends entirely on our ability to extract raw materials from other people. Cell phones, for example, make us free. Free to be contacted anywhere, anytime; free to be in touch from literally anywhere on the planet. When I toured Europe 30 years ago, I was effectively out of touch from my family for three weeks. Even the thought of a trans-atlantic call was beyond imaging, though certainly possible. My daughter travels to China with a cell phone in her luggage, and a card that will allow her to make calls home from a hotel lobby as easily as I would call my wife at work. But that cell phone works because of natives in Africa who scrape up mud with a certain element in it, and sell it to people who sell it to cell phone manufacturers. Is such a man free? Am I, who depend on the mud- scraping of that man to talk to my wife from my car?

When did freedom equate to money? Kerouac's run depended on someone else working to be possible. Huck and Jim were more truly free. The river provided the energy, and the raft was something they could make by hand. No one can forge an engine block in their back yard, or run a truck on naturally available energy. The refineries that fuel America are massive complexes that depend on thousands of workers and the pollution of square miles of land to make your drive on Highway 1 possible. Is such a man free? Am I?

Freedom in Iraq means freedom to vote for a government. But does it include freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from chaos? Or does it only mean the freedom we give them or as we define it? And more and more, how do we define it? And why do we define it simply in terms of what we can gain?

"I ask you: is such a man free?"

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