So what is freedom really? Gary Spense (1996) actually says it is dead because that is the only state in which a living human being has no choices to make. Malcolm X (1965) seems to be saying that knowledge is freedom, and this is also about choices. Anna Quindlen (2004) implies in her article that freedom is anarchy. This is also about choices, unlimited choices with no restraint. Each one of these authors uses different analogies and imagery to convey their meaning, but they all agree on one thing: freedom involves choices.
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Malcolm X says that freedom is being given the same choices as everyone else. After a long and very interesting description of his first times in prison, and how he was frustrated in not being able to communicate in standard written English or read an average book, he uses one sentence which has a profound effect upon the reader: Over and over again, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting. This one sentence conveys to intense emotion of the moment which most of us have never experienced. Most of us do not really remember learning to read, and we have not read the amount of literature that Malcolm X read. It seems that he was led to a banquet and he never left it.
While his article focuses on how he learned what slavery was and how it continues all over the world, he is also showing us how knowledge is freedom. Every example he uses depended upon the lack of knowledge on the part of the victims. While I do not totally agree with everything he says about “the white man” is a devil, any more than I would ever say that “the black man” was uncivilized, he shows how the power of education and knowledge tends to create two classes, the powerful and the controlled. At the end of the article, he says that it was a prison that freed him. It enabled him to study.
Gary Spense introduces the idea that the only true freedom is not having any needs. He shows how there is always a price paid for that which we think of as freedom, and it generally requires that we give up some other freedom. So freedom is simply the choice of which freedoms we will protect and which we will surrender in exchange. Spense implies that freedom is the bliss of ignorance. His two horses were free, in that they had no knowledge of any choices they had. Whether or not they had choices is not as important as knowing they had choices.
So we can say whatever we like if we need no friends. We can do whatever we like to a point if we need no allies. However, in reality, we only have the freedom to think whatever we like, and only as long as we know that this freedom is restricted to thought only. He talks about social commitments, respect, employment: all of which are things we exchange for our freedom. His most telling image is from Robert Frost, which he connects to his own memory of his team of horses which were easy in the harness. They really had no choices but were free by virtue of total innocence. They did not know they had any choices, so there were none. I do not remember who wrote that ignorance is bliss, but it is what Spense is saying here. Freedom has responsibility attached.
Anna Quindlen is talking about the responsibilities of freedom and how many of us ignore them. She points out the cost of certain freedoms, such as the freedom to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, the freedom to drive or ride without seatbelts, and the freedom to pollute the air with tobacco smoke. These are all freedoms that have been restricted due to the damage they do to society in monetary cost and the immeasurable cost to life and happiness. Think about the driver who hits a motorcycle rider at 5 miles per hour, but who knows that the rider will never be able to get a job again due to brain injurious. Yes, the driver of the car should be free of guilt, but is this always so? What about the children who suffer emphysema or the waitresses and other workers who contract cancer from second-hand smoke? Quindlen also points out the cost of these “freedoms” in health care and the loss of productivity.
Quindlen points out that any freedom at the cost of the freedom of others must be judged according to merit. Whose freedom takes precedence? She also points out that many of these cherished freedoms cost all of society. While it is not mentioned in her article it reminds me that in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, people risk their lives to vote in a free election. It is a shame how low our voter turnout is. Quindlen suggests that we should follow the example of Australia and fine those who do not vote unless they have a viable reason. I suspect this would be seen as an infringement against our freedom to reject what we no longer value: our freedom.
So I suggest that freedom is really non-existent, but that we do have limited freedom and must choose how we will limit it. Whatever freedom we want requires that we make a choice to exchange it for another freedom or take up the responsibilities which accompany certain freedoms. I am reminded of the famous line from “Me and Bobby McGee”: freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. I think all three of these authors would agree with that.