The Illusion of Freedom

One of my favorite characters in literature is Edith Wharton’s Pauline Manford, the empty-headed heroine of Twilight Sleep. Readers of these blogs will recognize her name. She has the amazing ability to gather together in her mind seven or eight impossible ideas at the same time, convinced that each is absolutely true. Consistency be damned: if it feels right, that’s good enough for Pauline. Sounds like some people I know.

Late in this novel, Pauline drops an aside that is stunning. She tells her daughter how proud she is to be an American, then adds “Don’t you think it’s glorious to belong to the only country where everybody is absolutely free, and yet we’re all made to do exactly what is best for us?” Now, even in the context, it is not clear exactly what Pauline means. It seldom is, though she drops all sorts of gems in passing, almost without effort, certainly without thought. In this case, I will try my hand at interpretation. I will add a couple of words to make the comment look like this: “Don’t you think it’s glorious to belong to the only country in the world where everybody is absolutely free, and yet we are made to do exactly what [business thinks] is best for us? This seems about right.

We equate freedom with the ability to take whatever product off the shelf we want to, yet we are blind to the fact that persuasive advertising has led us directly to the shelf and virtually made the choice for us. Persuasive advertising manufactures “wants.” Even a quick look at the typical commercial on TV bears witness to the fact that we are being sold products we have no need for whatever.  But we buy them anyway. One obvious example is the new five-hour energy drink that promises to give us an instant lift so we can do our best work. No one needs such a thing. One could simply have a cup of coffee. Moreover,  it may even be bad for our health. But I am told that the company that sells this product is selling them by the thousands. The drink is a hit. And it is typical of the kind of thing we buy every day.

The method works so well the politicians have adopted the business model. They all now routinely hire advertising agencies to sell themselves to us. They hit us with endless deadly repetitions of the same stupefying 30 second message  in the hope that we will buy the “product” —  whether it is good for us or not. We buy politicians the way we buy soap and detergent, based on short, uninformative commercials because we are too lazy to take the time to do the research on the product to make an informed choice: we prefer to go with our “gut” feeling.

We are clearly deluded about just what freedom is — just like Pauline, though perhaps not to such a degree. We are “absolutely free” but we do what we are told is best for us. The most blatant example of this is the advertisement directed at kids on Saturday mornings, since the kids are clearly not able to tell what is and what is not worthy of their attention. But adults are supposed to know better, yet we don’t. The fact that this statement rings true is an indictment of our educational system, of course, since we are supposed to be smart enough to avoid the traps and pitfalls that are set for us every day by advertisers. Once again, we have found grounds for requiring a course or two in logic and critical thinking in the schools, But we hear no talk about this sort of curricular change. Instead we hear about practical courses that will lead directly to jobs — jobs that almost certainly will not be there when the time comes to apply for them.

The most practical education possible is one that prepares us for change, since that is the only thing we can be certain of in this world. And that sort of preparation will also allow us to see the absurdity that lies behind the comments of people like Pauline and the advertisers who inundate us with drivel and seek only to sell us their products — whether they are “best for us” or not. And that sort of education is a liberal education and it just happens to also be the one that will set us free — absolutely.

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