Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Cry of Freedom

A couple recent artistic encounters have led me to ponder the nature of freedom (although I'll confess it is a favorite topic of mine to consider). The first was Angels in America, a HBO miniseries from a few years ago, based off two plays by Tony Kushner, that had been recommended to me. The miniseries constantly plays with the interchange between duty and freedom, and the ambiguous part love plays in both. If you haven't seen it, I heartily recommend it.

The second was the graphic novel series Lucifer, by Mike Carey, recommended to me by my brother and sister-in-law. Seeing as Lucifer's sin is depicted commonly as a desire for freedom from God's constraints, one can imagine that freedom (and duty) were also considered heavily in the series. The series is also quite good, and I also heartily recommend it.

The two stories converged within my thoughts in odd places. After all, Angels in America is set during the 1980s during the advent of AIDS and is very earthy and depressingly real. Lucifer, on the other hand, is a myth of myths, a story of an (in)famous character. However, the two share a similar perspective - both Angels in America and Lucifer are absolutely fantastical, but the fantasy is always grounded in reality. For those not familiar with the universe of Sandman (which Lucifer is a spin-off from), fantasies and gods are made real by belief. Faith act(ualize)s. Gods are made real by stories. However, it is not a one-way relationship. These actualized gods and fantasies can, in turn, change the world for better or worse, and in turn change the circumstances for the believers. An endless chain of beliefs and believers. If I didn't know better, I might say that the similarities between such and my claims about the interplay between potential and localities were beyond belief. But I digress...

Angels in America takes a similar approach. Despite the grit (in fact, I would argue, partly because of it), the dreams of the characters take form, in angels, companions and fantasies. Those fantasies in turn change how the characters perceive themselves and (re)act. Another circle.

Both consider the interaction between human desire, fantasy and reality (Lucifer actually begins there). What is possible? What are we free to do?

Today, freedom is quite the banner. One should fight for freedom. One might even have to kill for freedom. One has a duty to protect freedom. The funny thing about freedom, however, is it is a bannerless banner. For freedom is always about something; one always stands for the freedom to do something. Freedom is always a banner that hides another cause, a fancy disguise for another value. It is impossible to value pure freedom. Which is not such a terrible thing. Absolute freedom would be a monster.

Consider the cases of freedom-banner waving today. Freedom to vote (democracy campaigns), freedom for women (feminism), freedom to buy and sell unimpeded (free market). Some causes might have more justification than others. However, the difference between freedom for women and the freedom to kill is a value difference - it the value itself which makes the specific banner of freedom bearable or unbearable. A banner we might be able to lift, or a banner that will be left on the ground.

The banner of freedom is always waved for an unactualized ideal, a potential. As Lucifer states, the difference between freedom and greed is that the latter is a desire for what one can already have. Or to quote Angels in America "The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing when he set the word 'free' to a note so high nobody could reach it - that was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me." Here, at first, an apparent contrast is born. That is what makes freedom so complicated - freedom is both an ideal and an actuality. Freedom is present before an act and after, is present in the locality and in the act(ualization), in the potential. Freedom can both be present and before us at the same time. Freedom is not just in our act. Freedom can be before us. Pleading for us to act(ualize). Pleading for us to reach the unreachable. For freedom is impossible.

Freedom is impossible because duty is inescapable. In fact, freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. This is the whole point Derrida wants to make with undecidability - because decisions are undecidable, ethics is born - we are responsible. And, just as freedom has a predicate, so to, duty is never alone. 'You ought' is an incomplete sentence. Ought, should and 'am free' are all transitive verbs. Which, is why, of course, freedom and responsibility are a single coin. They are both created by our values. Values lie beneath. Our cries of freedom always come from our values. Our cries of duty always come from our values. But it is freedom and duty that give voice to our cries. Otherwise, our values would be silent. We would cry silently.

The inseperability of freedom from duty ought to be remembered (an undecidable responsibility). Our postmodern culture today treasures freedom as a concept above all else. In fact, freedom has become the stable ground many attempt to stand upon. Freedom is uncompromisable - striving for freedom is always good. As much as I respect Liberation Theology, for example, whenever I encounter Liberation theology of any sort (feminist, poverty, black, etc.) I want to ask "freedom for what?" Freedom cannot simply be the only end. Which is not, of course, to say Liberation theology's causes are bad. But let us be honest. Freedom is not an end to itself. What are we free to do? If we are reaching for an impossibility, the question remains - what should we desire?

One of the interesting themes in Angels in America is the interaction between love, freedom and responsibility. One might, at first, think that love only gives birth to duty - love (as a value) tells us what is right, how to act - it binds us to who we love. But, it is not that simple. Bitterly, love often pushes us to taste freedom as well. A character leaves his love because he cannot watch him die. Whether he remained or left, his value (love) would be driven either by responsibility or freedom. The act(ualization), the expression of love is different either way. And in the end, the character realizes that the desire for freedom from personal suffering, freedom from love, was wrong, was irresponsible. But, ultimately, he ran because of love. His freedom was a desire from love. Or rather, a desire to lose it. For we must admit, for as much as freedom is truly a just cause, freedom is often also a desire to avoid suffering. The difficulty remains in discerning what we must bear and what we must let go. When should we be Atlas, when should we bear the weight of our world? Even within the decision to hold up the world, the interplay between freedom, duty and our values remain. Sometimes we can live into the decision joyfully. Sometimes, the decision is pure tragedy. Either way, the act of taking on or shrugging the role of Atlas should never be taken lightly.

At times, cries of freedom become even more dangerous than personal suffering. While I'll confess I'm made uncomfortable by Liberation theologians staging violent revolutions in defense of the poor, I can at least respect such acts. If freedom as a banner is to empower, let it at least empower the unempowered. Instead, today, the country of "freedom," the country that waves the banner of freedom more than any other, is a juggernaut, a country of greed as opposed to freedom - we want what is within our grasp (not the impossible). We want a neo-colonial world, a world that values what we do. Freedom hides our real causes. The bombs, however, are not so hidden.

I'll confess, globalization is inevitable. But let us be honest. Let us admit that freedom is often a codeword for capitalism. Freedom a codeword for rule by majority. Freedom a codeword for a loss of duty. And, the last codeword, a loss of duty, is least surprising. In our shifting world, where nothing is stable, with ghosts haunting us, we have no ground to stand upon. Our values are groundless. It is painful, a struggle, an act(ualization) upon itself, to maintain our values in the face of their groundlessness. So why not give up the struggle, give up on values, and duty? Can't we all stand for freedom? Can't we stand for the ability for everyone to be free to construct their own story? Or, so the story goes.

Unfortunately, freedom is always about something. The banner of freedom is always painted by our values. And so, freedom too, is groundless. Beyond this, however, while we live upon groundless ground, we do not live within a vacuum. One person's freedom is another's restriction. One person's freedom to kill is another's restriction from living. One person's freedom to live within a free market is another person's restriction (to starve to death). We live in a relational world. And, as Camus might say, there are limits. There are boundaries. Within every freedom is duty. Within every locality is potential. To act(ualize), we need both freedom and duty. An aporia. And so, we continue to reach for potential. We continue to reach for the impossible. With freedom and responsibility just barely beyond our grasps.

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