True Freedom

Wisdom in the Comics

Wisdom from Baldo

Wisdom from Baldo

A recent comic strip by Hector D. Cantu and Carlos Castellanos starts today’s conversation. It quotes the Tory philosopher Edmund Burke and expresses the fundamental truth about human freedom. Freedom, as Burke suggests here, is chaos if it is not restrained by wisdom and virtue.

There are two sorts of freedom according to Isiah Berlin, positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom we brag about, the freedom to choose the cereal we want from a shelf filled with countless varieties of cereals. It connotes the absence of restraints. And taken to the extreme, negative freedom is chaos — “folly, vice, madness.”  Imagine a throng of people trying to get on a tow line to reach the top of a ski hill. If they do not line up and take turns it will be hell to pay. Order makes true freedom possible.

And that suggests the other kind of freedom, positive freedom. This requires thought, “wisdom and virtue,” as Burke suggests. This is true human freedom, the freedom the liberal arts are concerned with, based on the assumption that we are not free at birth and we are not free simply because our hands are untied or we have a huge variety of choices. Freedom comes with effort, self-discipline, and education. Freedom comes with knowing which of those cereals are worth eating, which are healthy and which will make us obese and eventually sick.

One of the winning cards that was played in the recent political game we call an election was the freedom card. There are many among us, more than we had imagined, who have felt restrained and held back by “the establishment,” those with money and power who control the strings of government. A man came along speaking in tongues but making clear that if he were elected there would no longer be any restraints, the game would be changed and the disenfranchised would be empowered. These desperate people bought into the lies and prevarication that were tossed at them, huddled together screaming obscene epithets at their opponents and the power-brokers. And they made themselves heard. For better or worse, there are more people who feel free today than they did last week.

But that freedom is negative freedom and it may well lead to “folly, vice, and madness” because there is no suggestion that it will allow restraints and the tempering effects of wisdom and virtue — two words that have become lost in the screaming hatred coming from the mouths of those who happened to win this election.

I wrote some time back that November 8th would be a test to see if our democracy would survive in some form loosely resembling the ideal the founders had envisioned. And given that their ideal was based on their understanding that true freedom requires wisdom and restraint, as Burke suggested, we can say with confidence that we are further away from that ideal than we were before this election took place. Our system of government will soon be in the hands of a thin-skinned demagogue who has no sense of history and has exhibited a total disregard for wisdom and virtue. His promise of greater freedom translates to the removal of restraints and the encouragement of unfettered feelings, including hatred of those who differ from themselves. The freedom he promises is just a nudge this side of chaos. Hang on to your seats, my fellow citizens, we are in for a rough ride.



10 thoughts on “True Freedom

  1. Many times my dear friend Margaret would say, “I knew you would say something like that, Miss Weesa!” and I had most=likely defended someone who was being criticized or judged harshly… I still do that – always the optimist and hoping for the best…

    With the world in shock this morning, I embrace the feedback coming from many tangents, yet I also hope there’s a tiny tiny chance that Trump will take his responsibilities and choose to become a better person, a decent leader —- and only time will tell. Yes, he has shown his ugly side, but maybe there’s a small voice somewhere in him that says, ‘I’ll show those who voted against me that they were wrong.. and I’m going to be a good leader…’

    And Margaret would probably have laughed really hard at my reply… We can live in fear and dread – and if it happens, we’ve lived thru it twice… Or we can embrace the future and hope that the worst does not happen.

    I do, however, respect your warning, “Hang on to your seats, my fellow citizens, we are in for a rough ride.” and I confess that I do worry about our country.


  2. As one might imagine, some of us who read your posts are not very happy this morning.
    I was greatly saddened and disappointed, though not shocked, by the election outcome. The ideals and reality of this country do not generally match up, so I tend to be skeptical of political parties. They are, as Max Weber succinctly put it, organized for the pursuit and exercise of political power. There is little place for virtue in this formulation, other than the virtue of dutiful obligation, which was one of Weber’s key points about bureaucratic organization.

    A Sanders supporter, then a Clinton supporter, I saw virtue in the ideals behind their campaigns, though I knew the political process would erode much of that virtue. Try as I might, however, I failed to see any virtue in the person or platform of Donald Trump. A less qualified, less experienced, less capable, less virtuous candidate is impossible to imagine. And now we have elected him to be our next president.

    While it is true that H.L. Mencken advised us that no one ever goes broke underestimating the American people, it is also likely that he would have been a big Trump supporter. What seems at first reading to be cautionary advice is really an invitation to manipulate the public in pursuit of profit, power, or both. This is where the presidency of Donald Trump comes in.

    Trump will use the power of government to promote profits for the rich (not the last of whom will be himself) AND to increase his own personal hold on governmental power itself. Given the behavior of most congressional Republicans, a significant number of FBI agents, and the members of the cabinet that Trump is likely to put in place, one can see the prospects for a neo-fascist form of government. This represents a political coup of the first order and it frightens me deeply.

    The pursuit and exercise of power without virtue, a “fearless” yet paranoid strongman, a complete disrespect of democratic traditions and laws, a false populism and nationalism to appeal to the masses, and bigotry in all of its forms (nativism, sexism, homophobia, racism, anti-semitism, etc.) are likely to be hallmarks of this new era of “freedom” in this country.

    The questions of freedom from what and freedom for what are, as you say, quite important. I suggest a starting point will be freedom for Trump and Associates to do whatever they want to whomever they want, the freedom for right-wing Christians to impose their faith and practices on the country as a whole (this is what Mike Pence is all about), a freedom from government protections of law and due process for many people, the freedom to live in penury from medical expenses. the freedom to work without labor protections, the freedom of men to dominate women’s reproduction, and the freedom to survive without dependence” upon a social safety net — that is, without food for poor children, without basic medical care for the needy, and without housing for the homeless. O brave new world that has such freedoms in it!

    And what of the four freedoms of which Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke so eloquently?
    1. Freedom of speech and expression.
    2. Freedom of worship.
    3. Freedom from want.
    4. Freedom from fear.

    Ronald Reagan began the largely successful dismantling of the administrative and funding apparatus of the New Deal, yet many of its ideals remained in the pubic discourse, ideals embedded in the four freedoms of which Roosevelt spoke. Trump has directly attacked these ideals and looks to establish a government based only on his sociopathic, nativistic, bigoted, and nationalistic ideas. If we simply take him at his word, likely he will work to establish a neo-fascist form of government.

    Please understand, fascism is not a term I employ lightly. I do not use it as an epithet. It accurately reflects the probable realization of what Trump has represented in his campaign. (Consider essays by Ross Douthat, Robert Paxton, Andrew Sullivan and Robert Kagan, and Robert Reich, among others, for more on this point.)

    Further, it is the basis for my fear and shame for my country, both in its real and ideal forms.

    • Before panic sets in let us recall that ours is a nation based on the balance of power. I noted a few days ago that the election was a test. Well it was and we failed. But the structure of this government, our court system especially, is such that it can act as a restraint on Trump’s egoistic desires. We will now be tested again, or at least our system will be. Let’s hope we don’t fail again.

      • I have no doubt the courts could limit some of the new administration’s excesses, but even the Supreme Court is already and will be even more politicized. With Trump’s appointments and a Republican Senate, I am not completely hopeful.

  3. For the sake of the country, I do want unity to an extent — and peace to large extent. But unity and peace do not mean capitulation. One of the biggest things to remember about this election is that Clinton won the popular vote. So while it’s an immense failure for Clinton and her supporters — in so many regards, she should have wiped the floor with Trump after every single one of his offensive comments — it is no mandate for Trump. All sides have a responsibility to try to make this work, to pull together where we can, Trump included — he teeters on a very thin edge.

    However, the opposition has a responsibility to constantly speak for the majority of voters who did not want Trump. Just as the GOP fought against and obstructed Obama, the opposition has a duty now not to slink back in fear or pout, or react like stunned fish slammed against the surface of the river. We still have a duty to participate in the process, in the system. I do not advocate absolute obstruction — by either party — which is one of the reasons this happened in the first place. But we still have a moral obligation to speak on behalf of the poor, for civil rights (still very much under siege), the immigrant population, for health care fairness, for multiculturalism, for science, and against cavalier comments about war, against the misogyny and excessive traits that mark Trump.

    We also have obligations to become smarter about conveying the message to a largely superficially educated electorate and speak better to and address the other core issues that fueled both Bernie Sanders and Trump — the disconnect between middle class and the super rich, income gap, the disenchantment people feel about lack of opportunity. We also have a duty to do more to educate voters about candidates, issues and the consequences of a vote.

    Trump is a buffoon. But, ultimately, this election maybe was not about a person but conditions that many feel.

    At the same time, of course, we must be ever-vigilant about this individual – we cannot allow him to become a demagogue who ignores the constitution or the system. In places where demagogues emerged and became totalitarian, the opposition spoke up too late or in too small of numbers so they were easily disarmed.

    The true exercise of American principles comes after the vote. The Founders put in so many guarantees that protect those not in power, those without monetary or political clout. Many of those who supported Trump felt those guarantees weren’t respected by the Clinton machine. We have to ensure those guarantees are protected now for so many groups of people.

  4. You always speak with such eloquence, Hugh. Somehow your words calm the turmoil rolling around inside my head and help me remember that there are still voices of reason out there.

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