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.

The latest novel by Jonathan Franzen

The latest novel by Jonathan Franzen

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.

What is freedom?

What is freedom?

4 thoughts on “Freedom

  1. 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?

    (If the blockquote didn’t come out right, please fix it, thank you.)
    Jim, I often think you are too much of a cheerleader for government, and I think it originates in a lack of understanding of American history. Take Tocqueville, for example. What he saw and described was a nation that built bridges, dug canals, turned a wilderness into a productive countryside–and all without government involvement, not in any sense that we would think of. Instead, these freemen formed associations to achieve public goals. If they needed money, they formed corporations, which historically had tightly delimited purposes and could not exist past the completion of that purpose. Greer often writes of the roles of these old associations, in his case, the Grange (but it could be true of the Masons or the Oddfellows or any of the others). It used to be that your membership in the Grange was your health insurance, and the Grange contracted with the town physician “on retainer,” as it were. If you needed medical help, you got it (such as it was back then), and if you were a slacker and a deadbeat, you didn’t get to mooch off of it. What we so blithely claim only government can do for us, used to be done by free associations.

    All of these are gone now, and why? I think the confusion lies in your presenting it as either government rule or corporate rule. It is neither, but both. Our “democratic” government and its incredible expansion of powers to intrude into every little private matter of your daily life– powers no Persian despot, Russian tsar, Chinese emperor, Roman tyrant could or would even dream of having–has worked hard to destroy every one of these free associations over the past century and a half, on behalf of corporate interests (no longer limited in scope or duration) for the profit of those corporate interests. Our sheer, complete ignorance of our true American past prior to the dominance of corporate interests is testimony to how well they’ve succeeded. Even Saddam Hussein couldn’t reach into the daily lives of Iraqis in the ways our government can reach into ours.

    I won’t belabor the point any more than that. To the extent that our “government” (for self government it ain’t) expands its power, it does so at the behest of corporate interests. One can’t stand up for free associations without having to do battle with both government and corporate forces. The very “rugged individualism” you inveigh against is a creation of corporate ideology, a means of dividing us against ourselves by creating an individualist myth to distract us from what has really been pulled out from under us: our freedom of association.

  2. Not to kick out to a different blog, but I think Burning Platform ( resonates with your post today. I think what really links both your concern here and the post over there is their item number ten, We Mistake Comfort for Happiness. Similarly, what we call Freedom is too often just comfort.

    I still think the government versus corporatocracy dichotomy is a misleading one, but I do want to make clear that I agree with you about our misunderstanding what freedom, or more correctly, liberty, actually is.

  3. LP,

    For the life of me, I can’t recall when I’ve been “a cheerleader for government.” Certainly not here at the JBE. In fact, I have stated numerous times that I don’t think the solution to our problems emanates from Washington (or even Augusta). There is a role for government, however. The role I envision is much more robust than any Libertarian would hold. It has to do with economies of scale and things like that.

    Apparently my understanding of U.S. history pales in comparison to your erudite parsing of the subject. I’m certainly not beholden to any traditional telling of the American historical narrative, as I’ve been pretty clear on several occasions that I prefer the story to be told from a common person’s point of view and not the elite frame of reference; I’m a big fan of the late Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” among other similar history sources.

    Actually, I think the anti-government cranks, who continually champion the idea that all commerce needs is for government to get out of the way are grossly misinformed and are not basing their dismantling of government in any factual realm. But I might be showing my historical ignorance again.

    I’ve written several posts about the importance of local communities, local and regional economic models, the importance of local food systems, etc. Perhaps you’ve confused my blog with someone else’s?

    My post today somewhat rhetorical, as Franzen’s excellent book made me ponder what freedom is.

    I do think the neoliberal policies initiated in the 1970s have empowered corporations, allowed them far greater power than benefits the majority of us (rather than the elites), and gutted places like Lisbon Falls and much of rural America where manufacturing actually produced things.

    I am familiar with Greer and the concept and history of the Grange movement. I read his blog regularly.

  4. Jim, I do apologize for what must have felt like criticism when that was not what I at all intended. Re-reading what I wrote, I see I failed entirely in trying to invite you to look at the government/corporate dichotomy differently. The extent of my failure is even more clear when I concede that, yes, you are thoroughly aware of other narratives of American history. I was trying to speak to you as one who already knew them well, and so I didn’t need to spell them all out. It appears that came out as if I was the holder of secret knowledge not at your disposal, not at all my intent. Mea culpa.

    I do stick to my original contention that the dichotomy of either government or corporate rule is a misleading one. Both exist to eliminate the competition and expand themselves, and both claim to do so for our benefit. Tocqueville described an America that ceased to exist a long time ago, and is used by endless ideologues and shills (although I am not including Frantzen in this class) . In fact, Tocqueville predicted our sinking into “soft despotism,” describing how a combination of government and commerce would lull us into complacency with an endless supply of cheap comforts. In either case, corporate or government, they both want to circumscribe the choices I may make, the associations I may freely choose–to maintain the illusion that I have “freedom to choose” when the only choices offered come from a government or corporation dedicated to expansion “for my benefit.”

    I think the challenge is to find a way out of that dichotomy, and key to that is understanding the way we lived and our forms of association from a time before we lost it, hence my reference to Greer and the Grange, and Zinn is a perfect companion in that effort. Even with that understanding, though, the only way to act on them is to push back on both government and corporate expansion. We are in agreement that freedom is not merely the absence of government or corporate intrusions, but only in their absence can we make the real choices, the free associations, that define free men.

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