Freedom may be the most indeterminate word in the postmodern American vernacular. Freedom, freedom, freedom—everyone talking about freedom. It’s almost a fetish for some. What is freedom? Is it merely the absence of the unpleasant, and if we had the freedom we’re always pining for, would our lives suddenly take on a new luster and enhanced quality?
Freedom and democracy are often intertwined. Perhaps this dates back to Alexis de Tocqueville, who came to America in the 19th century and captured the American democratic experiment still in its infancy, like few have since he published Democracy in America in 1835. Tocqueville perceived the United States as the paradigm of the new democratic age. Tocqueville’s work made Americans appreciate the unique and special qualities of the time they were living in and the government that had been created out of a quest for democracy at our founding. Interestingly, at that point in history, no other government based on democracy, equality and freedom had flourished. His work, Democracy in America, helped Americans recognize that they were living in a truly unique country. The text has also managed to demonstrate an amazing staying power and continues garnering attention and attribution in the 21st century.
Fast forwarding nearly two centuries from the publication of Tocqueville’s work, American democracy, or better, our demonstration of freedom, no longer is being hailed as an example to the rest of the world. There are those that would argue that Americans have few vestiges of freedom and liberty left. Libertarians, the most fetishistic of freedom’s advocates, regularly rail against the American police state, of big government, and their solution is to dismantle all vestiges of government, save some mechanism for “the common defense.”
The last decade has unleashed a torrent of legislation and policies that arguably have visited the equivalent of a police state on the citizens of the United States. The USA PATRIOT Act, illegal spying on Americans in clear violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, all considered war crimes under the Nuremberg Standard, not to mention the legalization of torture—have all been carried forth openly and under the guise of freedom. This has been condoned indiscriminately by both Republicans and Democrats.
My point here isn’t an essay on the American police state, however. I wanted to delve into a book I just finished reading, ironically titled, Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen.
Franzen is a favorite writer of mine. I’ve now read three of his novels, which is significant because I read very little fiction. His book, The Corrections, might be one of my favorite novels, and like Freedom, it has a message that resonates beyond merely being a good story, or a way to pass the time.
Freedom is the story of a couple; Walter and Patty Berglund. They live in St. Paul, Minnesota. Walter’s of Swedish descent, as his grandfather, Einar, fled Sweden to escape compulsory military service, meddling Lutheran pastors, and a social hierarchy that all but precluded upward mobility, at least that’s part of the story of the Berglund’s immigrating to American and Minnesota in the late 1880s.
Patty, a former college basketball star, had grown up “back East,” in a suburb of New York City. Her parents were Jewish. Patty had been recruited and received a scholarship to the University of Minnesota. It’s there that she met Walter.
Patty’s parents were do-gooders. They did a lot of good things for other people. Her father was a lawyer who provided a great deal of pro bono services to the poor. Her mother was a politician, a New York State assemblywoman. Neither of them had ever ventured west, or anywhere else to see their daughter play basketball. Patty was a good player; 2nd team All-American good.
Freedom portrays a nuclear family in turmoil. Franzen takes the theme of freedom and spins its web in multiple directions, allowing us to view it through several different personal prisms; husband and wife; brother and sister; best friends; extended family relations—even looking at the time period—the post-9-11 years and America’s eight year neocon experiment in expanding the empire—not lost at all on Franzen, as he utilized journalistic conventions in his narrative.
To be free in America might actually be an unattainable myth. Given that all of us (or at least, most of us), are required to work a minimum of 40 hours per week and often more, to have all the trappings of freedom, essentially negates the actuality of being free, in one way of defining it.
If government is our oppressor, will merely limiting government’s reach increase our freedom? Is it actually possible that our attempts to limit government have merely empowered a different kind of oppression, opening the gates to a kind of corporate totalitarianism, where conspicuous consumption is the order of our lives and what is actually limbing, or limiting most of our freedoms, at least in the context of time?
There is a genius to Franzen as a fiction writer (I also appreciate his nonfiction and essays); his ability to build multiple narratives, across competing families, locales, and even periods of time, looking back and then, coming back to the present, makes sure you won’t get bored, or make the mistake of skipping sections of prose.
Part of the attraction of this novel, and I think why Franzen chose the title that he did, is that adulthood requires us to make a series of choices. All of the primary characters do so, and in turn, all end up compromised by the process.
For all our talk about not compromising—and in America, we are living during a time of heightened ideological posing and poseurs—life is nothing if it’s not about navigating across various decisions and tradeoffs necessary for mere survival.
A few of the reviews I’ve read for Franzen’s Freedom resort to an overly simplistic comparison with his prior novel, written nine years ago, The Corrections. That would be a mistake and a refuge for journalistic hacks and most people that have traded the better (reading and working through longer form narratives) for the simplistic and surface, mainly Facebook and other truncated forms of communication. But of course that could be an entirely different essay.
So is freedom merely a mirage? It depends on how you define freedom. If freedom is merely an ideological construct, or an academic exercise, then I think you’ll be disappointed given the current parameters and obvious steps being taken to control the U.S. citizenry. From what we’ve learned from Edward Snowden and others, the NSA now has an interception machine that East Germany’s Stasi could only have dreamt about.
Perhaps even more depressing, particularly for those who invested so much hope in President Obama as a change agent and someone that would make a difference for all Americans, our current president has become a very amiable and efficient manager of the American empire. In the name of national security, he is laying the foundation for a frighteningly dystopian future by combining full-spectrum surveillance with full-spectrum military dominance.
Freedom has to be something different, something outside the news stories and other rantings and ravings coming from both the left and the right.
Franzen offers some instruction, although his book is a cautionary tale, also, about the excesses that freedom has morphed into. These so-called freedoms have brought us to a place where we’re running out of resources, we’re destroying the natural realm, and we’ve so poisoned our interpersonal relations as a culture that it’s the exception, not the norm, for there to be intact families and where relationships take precedence over anything else.