How Freedom Became Free-dumb in America

The American idiot is, by now, a figure that’s the stuff of myth and legend across the world. Nobody else is really quite sure: are Americans really like this? This…well…laughable? Yesterday, they were the kind of people who made their kids do “active shooter drills,” meaning masked men burst into classrooms…and pretend…to kill them. What the? Today, they’re the kind of people who happily congregate in parks and on beaches during a global pandemic…when the lunatic fringe amongst them isn’t protesting for “liberation” in the first place. What on earth?

I don’t use the term as an insult — the American idiot. I mean it in a precise way, as I try to remind people. For the Greeks, “idiot” carried a precise and special meaning. The person who was only interested in private life, private gain, private advantage. Who had no conception of a public good, common wealth, shared interest. To the Greeks, the pioneers of democracy, the creators of the demos, such a person was the most contemptible of all. Because even the Greeks seemed to understand: you can’t make a functioning democracy out of…idiots.

Now, I’m going to generalize. But I don’t mean that all Americans are idiots. I mean that, for example, more or less everyone who wants to carry a gun to Starbucks, deny their neighbours healthcare, make people beg for medicine online, and not let anyone in society ever retire…all of those people in the world, by and large, are Americans. Nobody else — nobody in the whole world at this point in history — thinks such things are remotely desirable. Hence, the American idiot. It means: the world’s largest and most hardened subset of idiots at this point, in the Classical Greek meaning of the word, is largely American.

You don’t have to think very hard to understand why my Italian friend laughed at such a person. We’ve had many serious conversations over the last few months. “How are things in Italy going”, I ask, trying to be gentle. He looks away, in grief, and says simply: “Dificile.” The dogs play. I wonder if his loved ones are OK. He tells me stories of a society pulling together, to fight a deadly disease, whose toll has been heavy and grave. Is it any wonder that, looking at Americans gathering in Central Park, on Long Beach, he’s shocked into laughter? We’re lucky he’s laughing. What he really feels, I’d bet, is a kind of horror, combined with contempt. The very same contempt the Greeks felt for…their idiots.

‘Freedom?’ I’d bet he thinks. ‘More like freedumb.’

When Matteo, when Ben, when every single person I know who’s not American, when the world looks at America, it sees the American idiot, and what it tries — and usually fails, because it’s lost for words — to express is something like this: can people really be this selfish? This oblivious? This…thankless? Why do they keep voting for less healthcare, retirement, education, income, savings, happiness, trust, year after year — even the so-called good ones? What kind of people…why are the literally the only people left in the whole world who do that? And then…complain bitterly about not having…the very things…they deny each other? Who can even make sense of this, the bizarre circular firing squad of social suicide that America has become? But all those, of course, are key traits of the idiot. The answer — sadly, I think — is: yes, people can really be this way.

Perhaps because they don’t know any other way. Maybe because it’s all they’ve ever been taught or told. That’s not an apologia for the American idiot, by the way. Or is it? Even I wonder. Still, let me try to explain as best I can — America’s strange and complicated with freedom, one so perverse that freedom became twisted into something very much like its opposite. It has to do with the way Americans think — unsubtly, narrowly, single-mindedly — about what freedom is, and means.

About half a century ago, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided freedom into two categories — maybe you already know them. Negative freedom, or freedom from. And positive freedom, or freedom to. The theory then went — and this became the basis of generations of American thought — that only the freedom from was worth developing and cultivating.

The freedom “to”, on the other hand, was vilified as something that only communists and socialists would want. Why? Because my “freedom to” — say to be educated, or to be healthy — requires your input, help, cooperation. But American thinking — which became obsessed with individualism — couldn’t admit or permit that, because then maybe you weren’t “taking responsibility for yourself” and all the rest of the jargon.

All this dates back, of course, to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the Uberman. It’s not too hard to see why a society that was born in slavery, and continued into segregation, in which horrors like crippling and maiming people for the color of their skin were perfectly alright — why a society like that ends up prizing freedom from. America’s obsession with freedom from dates right back to the slave-owner’s desire for freedom from government intervention, law, common decency, any tiny shred of humanity — to have the power to exploit and abuse human beings on an unthinkable scale. There’s a straight line from Nietzsche’s “master morality” naturally dominating the “slave morality” to Berlin’s “freedom from” any restraint on power — and that straight line is the one American thinking, still backwards, mired in the logic of domination and exploitation, traced.

Americans don’t like it when I make those links for them. But they are as plain as day. You only really have to look at Europe or Canada to see the contrast.

There, the idea of freedom itself evolved. Away from “freedom from” — which is what the early European revolution were about, for example, when the French abolished the formal class system, freedom from nobility and monarchy and so forth — and towards “freedom to.”

By the end of the Second World War, Europe had done something radical and transformative: written the “freedom to” into its constitutions. People would now have expansive freedoms to — freedom to have good healthcare, education, retirement, income, savings, and so forth. It’s true that today’s Europe is forgetting about that breakthrough, but it’s not true that it wasn’t history changing. The power of the freedom to gave Europe history’s highest standards of living — in just one human lifetime. Nothing has been seen like it ever before — and maybe nothing will be ever again.

You might have noticed, though, that I’m still accepting Berlin’s old dichotomy: freedom from and freedom to. I reject it. I think the dichotomy itself is a mistake — maybe the formative mistake of American ideas. Isn’t good education also just freedom from ignorance? Good healthcare freedom from illness? And so forth. I think that a century ago, trying to neatly cleave freedoms into the good kind and the bad kind, American thinking made a huge, terrible mistake. One which trapped it to circle a desert for a century — and then find itself in a dead end.

You can see that dead end everywhere today.

In the cruelty, aggression, rage, violence, hate which characterize American life as especially brutal. Americans are always trying to escape from any kind of obligation or responsibility to…anything. Each other. History. The future. Just common decency. Even just basic humanity. Who else makes their kids…pretend to die? And then pretends that doesn’t scar kids for life? What the? That’s why the world doesn’t know whether to be horrified, shocked, repelled, or astonished by America — and it laughs. Nervously, oddly, baffled. What Americans don’t know is that that laughter is a world being polite.

Here’s how extreme America’s belief in freedumb — freedom as the absence of any kind of obligation or responsibility to anything greater than narrow, immediate, infantile self-satisfaction — has gotten. Americans aren’t just congregating in parks and beaches during a global pandemic. They’re literally the only people in the world who just voted against better healthcare (from Bernie and Liz) in the middle of a pandemic. Think about the scale of such folly for a moment. What kind of people vote for worse healthcare…during a pandemic? John Cleese would struggle to make a face that expressed the surreal tragicomedy of such a thing. But that’s what Americans did…what they do, over and over and over again.

Why? Because they still believe — even if they don’t think they believe — in Berlin’s tired, weary, flawed old distinction. Freedom has only come to mean the removal of any restraint — negative freedom — on the exercise of individual desire, the satiation of individual appetite. What freedom still doesn’t mean in America is any of the following, good healthcare, retirement, education, and so forth, because what freedom has never meant is any form of collective action.

Let me put that more sharply. What if the only way that I can have decent healthcare is for you to have decent healthcare — first? What if the only for me to have a decent retirement is for us all to have one, first? You see, that logic — which is the math of public goods — makes a mockery of Berlin’s dichotomy. Then, what we don’t need is simple “freedom from” some kind of restraint — but the “freedom to”…collectively organize, coordinate, take action.

Freedom from can give us liberty as individuals, it’s true, from kings, and even governments. But only the freedom to can give us liberty as societies, groups, classes, nations. These two kinds of freedoms might exist in tension — but try to have one without the other, and the result is a spectacular collapse. Freedom to without freedom from gave us the Soviet Union. But freedom from without freedom to gave us America, the failed state, the world’s first poor rich country. Gentle Europe, wise New Zealand, humble and kind Canada — which balance the two — have found a kind of miracle in that equilibrium.

Matteo and Ben often ask me: “What wrong with Americans?” All my non-American friends do, as do everyone’s. What they really mean is: “why don’t they get it? Why can’t they change?” I tell them that Americans will never really change. They used to think I was kidding. Looking at Americans voting down better healthcare during a pandemic…then happily crowd parks and beaches…after protesting for liberation from lockdown…they’re beginning to believe me.

Change? You know about sunk costs, I’m sure. You should let them go…but you can’t. Think of a bad relationship. You know you should break up. But how can you let all that investment go? So it is with Americans and freedom. They’re too invested in the fools’ idea of freedom that wrecked their future to really begin to understand that it is a fools’ definition of freedom. They’ll go on thinking, in my estimation, that freedom means things like this.

Carrying a gun to Starbucks — so kids have to do active shooter drills. Being able to “choose” between a million health insurance plans, none of which covers you — so that you don’t have to pay higher taxes to the hated government. Making everyone stand on their own two feet — even while every force in society is cutting those very limbs away. Never taking any kind of collective action as a society — that’s socialism! That’s communism!! Those things are bad!! They’re terrible!

No, my friends. Americans will never understand the miracle of European social democracy, of Canadian investment in each other, of New Zealand making a difficult, joyous peace with a broken past. They won’t. Because they can’t? Because they don’t want to? Because nobody teaches them about the gentle and beautiful power in cooperation, in dignity, in respect for the self and others as more than a thing of appetite? Because they’re trapped by a sordid history — which they secretly care little about overcoming?

Maybe, in the end, it’s just all the above.

Freedom! Here I am, the American idiot, carrying my gun to Starbucks, before I go to Walmart, where I’ll choose between a million different flavors of the Everyday Low Price, and then I’ll dream about being Great Again, while I drive my big car down the big, empty highway, listening to some bellowing mullah of capital and individualism and cruelty telling me to hate and rage a little more. Along the way, so what if I create my very own exploitation, abuse, misery, decline into poverty, despair, degradation, dehumanization? Hey! Don’t tell me any different!

Isn’t that what freedom really is?

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