I would like to say that 2013 will go down in history as the year of Edward Snowden’s shocking revelations. From the standpoint of today, however, it was dominated by Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act is not the first behemoth-sized government enterprise to slouch its way, cloaked in shambolic inevitability, toward implementation. It will probably not be the last. But it is definitive of American governance today and the social psychology behind it.
In the hope of a measurable decrease in suffering, many elite and not-so-elite Americans will tolerate almost any cost and any absurdity—especially when the burden appears to fall more upon abstract “liberty” than the particulars of their lives. It is an attitude hardly restricted to health care. The question of Snowden’s immediate impact has already given way to great uncertainty over the prospect for human liberty in this era when so much public emotion and “public sector” machinery has been thrown at the dread aroused by the chance of terrorism.
Health and safety über alles: the prayer of a people shot through with fear, and the motto of our times.
For those concerned to advance liberty as more than a vague ideal—as a lived experience—the glum reality is history is not on our side. This goes far beyond any partisan configuration of events. Since the ink was dry on the Constitution, the federal government has grown ever more powerful. We have fought almost no wars that increased our liberty in our relationship with our own government, and many (including “wars” on improper nouns like drugs, poverty, and terrorism) that have persistently decreased it.
The Americans who rebelled against the English crown pledged their sacred honor in the name of liberty, but their age of powdered wigs and quill pens is inaccessible to us now as a source of visceral inspiration. Indeed, the likes of Frederick Douglass resonate most strongly when it comes to our own independence: Douglass who said “this Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” and—less memorably—quoted Scripture as to how he could sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
The mark of slavery stained American liberty from the outset. It utterly discredited the eloquent paeans to freedom that sometimes emerged from the Confederate South. In the eyes of most today, far beyond any constitutional questions, Robert E. Lee should have led Union armies against his own friends and family rather than defend a slave regime. Even a stirring Hollywood presentation of Stonewall Jackson’s oration against Lincoln’s army cannot quiet our sense that he who will not fight against slavery lacks integrity in any claim to fight against tyranny.
It makes plenty of sense that the Confederacy will never serve to focus the imagination of a popular movement for liberty. And in a strange, foreboding way, the past Southern dedication to slavery and racism hurts the cause of freedom today in an even stronger manner than most of us are trained to recognize. Not only is American history very short on popular movements—violent or otherwise—that rolled back federal power; the Confederates, by standing alone among Americans in the proud and forceful way they did oppose that power, cast centuries of suspicion and contempt even on those who have hoped to rebuff the advance of government without leaving any race or class in chains.
So today it may be said that no popular movement has successfully, substantially reduced the size and scope of government power in America. There have been blips. Speed limits went up! We ended welfare as we know it! And today more Americans than ever adopt servile assumptions toward their relationship with government, and the institutions necessary to serve such a people weave inextricably into the fabric of everyday life.
Much to blame are our dashed hopes that freedom, faith, and knowledge can advance in unison for the benefit of mankind. Charlie Chaplin’s transcendent speech at the close of The Great Dictator strikes today’s cynical, clever audience as quaint and clueless. Our vehement prejudices leave us no patience for his appeal to radical humanism. “Only the unloved hate,” Chaplin cried, “the unloved and the unnatural!”
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man”—not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power—the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. […] Let us fight to free the world—to do away with national barriers—to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.
For such searing, challenging dreams, we have only snark or smarm. It is too demanding, too frightening, to take Chaplin seriously. Hounded by the father of the surveillance state, J. Edgar Hoover, Chaplin gave up on America and retired to Switzerland. What will we do?
Unless something big changes, we will continue to scramble. Confronted with the rule of fear in our private and public lives, our pop psychology gave up on Freud’s quest to allay our terrors in favor of the quicker fix—gratifying our impulses. Today, as a society no less than as individuals, we are locked into the pattern of chasing what our fears tell us to chase, and fleeing what our fears tell us to flee.
This, not any one secret bureaucracy or dysfunctional branch of government, is the root of all threats to liberty. This is the source of lives lived out in radical unfreedom. In 2014, the central battleground in the fight for freedom will be right where John Lennon identified it almost fifty years ago. You tell me it’s the institution? You better free your mind instead.
Policymakers may hack away at the regulatory state. Leakers and whistleblowers may lay its abuses bare. But only artists can now turn the public imagination toward the possibility that our dreams of true freedom can become real.
In a time even worse for freedom than ours, Socrates had to stay up late enough with Athens’ noble sons to trick them into opening their minds. Today, friends of liberty can speak more freely. But we will despair unless we realize we speak only to those with ears to hear.
The youthful nobility were singled out by Socrates because they, above all others, were both erotic and courageous. We Americans are still pretty strong on eroticism, but all too often it is fear that spurs us or restrains us. The message of freedom must awaken a certain minimum of courage: the courage to recognize we are always already stuck with the choice of how to be.
Begin here—not with more talk of agencies, agendas, or activists—and you may be surprised. In the personal and public realm, a year spent fighting this way for freedom can transform American life.