"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom (Happy 4th of July, Sort Of)

So, today is the 4th of July, and everybody wants to celebrate freedom -- the freedom to set off illegal fireworks (as the kids around here do until 3:00 AM), the freedom to fire up the grill and cook some hot dogs, as my next door neighbors do, the freedom to eat apple pie, to wave flags, to clap along as the band plays "Stars and Stripes," to gather in the street at the top of the neighborhood hill to watch the city's public fireworks display from afar (because, really, who wants to go through a security checkpoint to see fireworks, especially when you're not "free" to bring beer?).

Freedom is a pretty big deal in libertarian think tank land, as you would expect. We have a bumper sticker in the office that says "I believe in freedom. What do you believe in?"

I'm a progressive, souless. hipster atheist, and I don't believe in anything, by some people's reckoning. But I remain mystified: How, again, does one exactly "believe" in something so abstract? Libertarians and conservatives love to throw "freedom" around,  as if it were a football or a frisbee, and all you have to do is catch it, run with it, and pass it on. And, of course, it has such connotations -- the American Revolution, the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, Presidents George Washington et al.

Hot dogs, apple pie, the Stars and Stripes, baseball, fireworks, Main Street.

But what precisely are you believing in when you "believe in freedom"? When you put it that way, who doesn't believe in freedom? Who doesn't catch hold of the fantasy chain of signifiers that carries you away from the here-and-now into a past that never was, a present that is not, and a future that never will be?

"Freedom," used this way, is nothing if not an attractive distraction from the inescapable relationship "free" individuals bear to the responsibilities, inheritances, and interdependencies of existing as members of a social species.

We are free -- but for the demands of our families.

We are free -- but for the constraints of making a living.

We are free -- but for the inequalities that persist despite the laws intended to correct them.

We are free -- but for our individual and collective past. We are free -- but for our foolishness.

As long as "no man is an island," no one is free.

White Picket Dense puts it this way:
How much freedom do you have on a day to day basis? Do you have the freedom of time? Can you decide what time to wake up each morning? What time to eat lunch? What time to switch tasks? Who controls your hours? Do you have freedom of location? Do you decide where you are going to do your work? Did you decide that you wanted to live so far from where you work, and exhaust valuable energy resources? If you believe you are free, ask yourself: free to do what?
That is the key question: "Free to do what?" Even if your answer is "free to make your own way in the world," you are never free from your dependence upon others. Indeed, even as your wealth increases, so, too, does your dependence on others to maintain it -- to build and clean your houses, to care for and educate your children, to manage your investments, to manufacture your cars, to fly your planes, to work in your offices, to grow and prepare your food, to make and sell you your clothes, to upgrade your technology, to fix your heart when it breaks, to tell -- and sell -- you everything you always wanted to hear.

Freedom, more or less, is an elixir of self-deception.

But fireworks? Well, you are more or less free to enjoy those at your own risk.

If you haven't had a chance to yet, go check out The Homeless Adjunct's most recent post and Independence Day contribution "What Would Thomas Jefferson say?" Here, ze asks us to think about the current situation in academe as we eat our hot dogs and apple pie and watch those fireworks:
What would Thomas Jefferson, who was most proud of founding The University of Virginia, feel about the state of the American university now?  As nearly 1 million university professors are now “contingent” and impoverished, and our universities have been reconfigured on something closer to a factory model, where is the university life Jefferson envisioned?
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I suggest that Jefferson would be appalled.  He saw ignorance as the enemy of freedom:
“I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it.” –(Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1810. ME 12:393)
While freedom may remain an elixir of self-deception for some, I would concede it is an ideal worth believing in -- but only if we can take responsibility for making the means of achieving it accessible to all.

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