Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Behind The Camera:" Conceptions Of Freedom

I will never cease to be amazed at the power of memory: how it can rise up from nowhere, intrude irresistibly into one's thoughts, and assert itself against all attempts to deflect it.

Some years ago, it was my pleasure to encounter, at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope writers' forum, a writer named Kerrigan Philip Coles. (His novels appear under the nom de plume "Philip Kerrigan.") We lavished a bit of praise upon one another's short stories; it was what we were both concentrating on at the time. One of his stories surged to mind this morning as I was preparing for the daily ordeal of my commute to work.

Kerrigan's story concerned a young woman whose father has abused and exploited her sexually, not merely for his own pleasure but as a source of profit, in pornographic films. She breaks away from him as an adult, but in the wake of his later, disabling stroke, is called upon to take him under her care. The story concludes in a horrifically brilliant fashion: she uses her helpless father as the object of abuse in a porn film that she composes and directs.

The conclusion is unforgettable: the protagonist luxuriates in being "behind the camera" and "in control of her own life" at long last.

Let that sink in for just a moment.

One of the recently reported trends I find most disturbing is the sharp diminution of interest among teenaged Americans in acquiring drivers' licenses and cars. I made mention of this to a colleague just yesterday; he replied that his sixteen-year-old son evinced the same disinclination -- that it took paternal pressure to get him behind the wheel for a driving lesson. It's the sort of contrast with the attitudes of young Americans in my age bracket that illuminates what's being done to us, slice by thin slice, by the encroachments of the Omnipotent State.

As a young adult, what being able and equipped to drive meant to me was freedom: a significant increase in my ability to control my own affairs. Indeed, to be unable or unequipped to drive struck me as pitiable, a state well below that which was proper to an American. It didn't occur to me until the rising of the leftist political wave against the personal automobile, some time in the Seventies, how important the auto is as an emblem of personal independence.

There are a few ironies buried in there, of course. Driving isn't a right but a government-licensed privilege. Car ownership is itself regulated by a registration regime that demands periodic (and often quite expensive) renewal. One's car will occasionally fail to cooperate with one's desire to be on the move, requiring expensive propitiation before it will comply. And of course, most of us can only drive where and how the government's roads will allow it.

All the same: To a teen of the Sixties, the first jalopy and the driver's license that allowed him to operate it constituted a giant step toward freedom, the ideal of these United States for which a bloody revolution was fought. That teens and young adults of this age should display such disinterest in acquiring independent mobility speaks volumes about the transformation in the priorities of the young, over the years since my own rite of automotive passage.

It often seems as if the original American conception of freedom -- the absence of coercion or constraint from all matters that don't involve aggression or fraud -- has given way to a welfarist conception, in which what the individual is supposed to prize most highly is "freedom from want:" i.e., the absence of significant unsatisfied desires for material things. Note that "freedom from want" was one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's quartet, by which he hoped to deflect the attention of those who cried out against his New Deal interventions. The Great Depression had created enough of a constituency for government largesse to gain FDR's "Four Freedoms" gambit a respect it has never deserved.

Clarence Carson, in his masterpiece The American Tradition, made plain just how thoroughly the original conception of freedom has been displaced by the Marxist conception of freedom as "an absence of tension or conflict." That didn't happen all by itself; it was pressed upon us by the Progressive political movement, which began with Jeremy Bentham and Edward Bellamy and continues, unchanged in its premises, to this day. That Marx's fatuous economic notions would give rise to "superabundance" of material goods and an eventual "withering away of the State" has never made good on its promises, no matter where or how it's been tried. The Progressives dangled a shiny bauble before the American people...and a heartbreaking number of them released their grip on their freedom to grab for it.

Hearken to Dr. Carson's peroration:

Effective disagreement means not doing what one does not want to do as well as saying what he wants to say. What is from one angle the welfare state is from another the compulsory state. Let me submit a bill of particulars. Children are forced to go to school. Americans are forced to pay taxes to support foreign aid, forced to support the Peace Corps, forced to make loans to the United Nations, forced to contribute to the building of hospitals, forced to serve in the armed forces. Employers are forced to submit to arbitration with labor leaders. Laborers are forced to accept the majority decision. Employers are forced to pay minimum wages, or go out of business. But it is not even certain that they will be permitted by the courts to go out of business. Railroads are forced to charge established rates and to continue services which may have become uneconomical. Many Americans are forced to pay Social Security. Farmers are forced to operate according to the restrictions voted by a majority of those involved. The list could be extended, but surely the point has been made.

As bad as that is, there's more and worse.

Part of the Progressive agenda was to conflate freedom with power, in such a fashion as to efface all distinctions between the original conception of freedom as decision-making free from coercion or constraint and the power to dictate the course of events. John Dewey, perhaps the most potent Progressive evangelist of the Twentieth Century, blatantly wrote that liberty -- political freedom -- is "power, effective power to do specific things:"

"Liberty is not just an idea, an abstract principle. It is power, effective power to do specific things. There is no such thing as liberty in general; liberty, so to speak, at large."

Dewey thus discards freedom of choice in favor of control over outcomes. In his conception, you are not free unless you have or can get what you want: a perfect complement to the Marxian and Rooseveltian formulations. As the premier proponent of government-controlled education, he promulgated this conception to tens of thousands of acolytes: persons who would go on to become teachers themselves.

Those currents have swelled into a fearsome tide. That tide has borne up the specious causes of all the gimme-groups in the country. It has injected the Democrat Party with the greater part of the 1928 Socialist Party platform. It has allowed "constitutional lawyer" Barack Hussein Obama to deride the Constitution as insufficient because it effectuates only "negative liberties," and makes no provision for "positive" ones. It's at the heart of United States Senator Elizabeth Warren's supposedly non-presidential campaign for every leftist wish in their very large wish book.

The original conception of freedom might not be wholly lost, but it is gravely imperiled. Remember the woman who supported Obama because "he gonna pay my mortgage." Remember the one who preened about her "Obama phone." And remember the two, on their way to get some "Obama money," who when asked where Obama would get it, shrugged and said "From his stash."

We return to Kerrigan's story at last. His protagonist, reaved of freedom by her predatory father, sought -- and believed she attained -- "freedom" by reversing their roles: putting him under her control and subjecting him to the very vilenesses he had inflicted on her. That is the nadir of thought, the conflation of untrammeled dictatorial power, the power of life and death and all that lies between them, with personal independence from another's control. That Dad might have deserved no better is utterly irrelevant. The tragedy occurs in the mind of the daughter. By adopting power and seeing it as freedom, she attains revenge but loses all hope of any freedom to come. That very same disease of the mind is steadily becoming epidemic in these United States.

Kerrigan, wherever you are, I hope you're well and happy.


Tim Turner said...

Neat slant, Fran. I hadn't looked at the conflation of freedom and power like that before.

You're still my first stop when I get the nerve to get out from under the covers and look at what's going on.

bob r said...

"Driving isn't a right but a government-licensed privilege."

Without any difficulty you can find many who disagree. Use of the *public* "right of ways" (aka, roads) in the "usual and customary fashion" *is* a "right". Follow any other view to its logical conclusion and you'll discover we have no "right" to leave "private" property *at all* -- that we are not required to obtain a license to use the "public" sidewalk is just because "they" haven't felt it worth while to require it.

Francis W. Porretto said...

-- you'll discover we have no "right" to leave "private" property *at all* --

That is exactly the case under current circumstances. There is no such thing, in the exact sense, as "public property," meaning property that's available to use by any member of the public on no conditions whatsoever. The State can impose whatever conditions it likes. Indeed, it can impose whatever conditions it likes on supposedly private property. What else does zoning mean? What else does it mean to require town inspectors to issue Certificates of Occupancy on a new building? What other significance do property taxes have? And why express such incredulity when you yourself have provided the argument?

bob r said...

Yeah, Fran, I'm aware of the de facto situation. The State does indeed "impose whatever conditions it likes." The *fact* that it does so does not mean that it is *correct* to do so.

Francis W. Porretto said...

What point are you trying to make, Bob? That what's been done to us is wrong? You won't get any argument here. But you must have something to say beyond that, no?

The problem is one of moral precepts. The very existence of the State contradicts your (and my) moral precepts. But the great majority -- including all those who work directly for the State, of course -- feels differently. And there's this about moral precepts: you can't argue about them. They're immune to discourse; all you can do is watch what follows from them.

I'll say it again: "morally different" is a synonym for evil.