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Liberty and Doom

Ever think to yourself that this chick might have just broken a perfectly good TV set?

Ever think to yourself that this chick might have just broken a perfectly good TV set?

In my darker moments, I wonder sometimes whether being free is really worth it. I consider the vast swathe of my freedom that I do not use and cannot envision using. If it were gone, would I miss it? If I didn’t miss it, would it matter? As obsessed with liberty as we are, it sometimes seems as though its benefits are intangible or perhaps outweighed by its drawbacks.

Oh, and there are drawbacks. Freedom means carte blanche for any jackass to do any jackass thing they damned well please, more or less. Civil Society is essentially based on the idea that complete and total freedom is a fundamentally bad idea that achieves the opposite of it’s intended goal. As laid out by Rousseau in The Social Contract:

What man loses as a result of the Social Contract is his natural liberty and his unqualified right to lay hands on all that tempts him, provided only that he can compass its possession. What he gains is civil liberty and the ownership of all that belongs to him. That we may labor under no illusion concerning these compensations, it is well that we distinguish between natural liberty which the individual enjoys so long as he is strong enough to maintain it, and civil liberty which is curtailed by the general will.

It can be seen, then, that instances of natural liberty, rather than permitting one to do as they please, instead result in one being forced to guard what they have against others that would take it. The citizen is thusly deprived of ‘Moral Freedom’, in that they are unable to consider matters any higher than their own survival. In this loose philosophical framework we can see the historical provenance of anarchist societies, economic collapses, the opportunity for tyrants to rise, and a whole mess of horrible mayhem that results when everybody decides not to listen to rules set out for the common good and instead decide to see how much they can wring for themselves out of the system. This happens when the pressure is off, so to speak – when we are free to do as we please. If humans (and cultures) were perhaps wiser, kinder, and less selfish, then maybe we wouldn’t have these problems. They aren’t, though, so we do.

Of course, I always come back to the side of liberty. Being free to do as I please is better than the alternative if for the simple fact that there is no guarantee that the alternative will be a good fit for us collectively. It could be horrible – much worse than freedom sometimes is – even if it isn’t necessarily so.

Science Fiction has explored this conundrum often, and nowhere more potently than in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Where as Orwell was busy scaring the pants off of us with his 1984, Huxley’s dystopian tale is always there, in the background, seeming infinitely more terrifying. You see, whereas Orwell writes a horror story, Huxley makes a hypothetical argument. The argument goes like this: What if society made it so you were never bored, never sad, never hungry, never injured, never sick, never poor, and never lonely, and the only thing you had to give up was your ability to think for yourself?

Do you make that deal? If you’re the ruler of the world, do you force your people to take it?

Before you snort at the thought of giving up your precious liberty, think about it for a second. Think hard: an end to all suffering. ALL suffering. Are you able to fulfill your full potential and wow the world with your genius? Obviously not. But even if you are never ludicrously happy, you will never even be a little bit sad. Even if you never fall in love, you will never be alone. Even if you never believe in God or explore the depths of existential philosophy, you will never feel their lack, either. In a very real sense perhaps you won’t be human anymore, but would you care? Would any of us?

What makes Huxley terrifying is not the ‘wrongness’ of his world, it is the fact that it is all too easy to understand the rightness of it. When I feel depressed about the human race and about the (more-or-less) great society in which I live, I wonder whether we aren’t all just fooling ourselves into thinking we deserve to be free. Maybe this is what we get. Maybe, as Agent Smith points out in the Matrix, we couldn’t handle utopia anyway and we need to have suffering in the world in order to accept it as real. Maybe that’s what freedom is – feeling pain. Suffering for the benefits of liberty. It’s just that sometimes I’m tired of it; sometimes I just want somebody to come give me my dose of soma and make the world go away.

Huxley Vs Orwell

In the early 20th century, two dystopian novels really set the stage for, well, all dystopian novels to follow, really. The first was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1932 and then came George Orwell’s 1984 in 1949. Situated on either side of the Second World War, these two books paint for us two very different but equally horrible future societies where freedom is a thing of the past and mankind is permanently locked beneath the heel of some kind of World State. If you haven’t read them, then I suggest you do so. If you like sci-fi at all, you’ve probably been talking about them for years and don’t even realize it.

What I think is the most important difference between the two, however, is the underlying rationale behind the creators of the World States described in both books. In Brave New World, the society is one of wealth and the ensurance of social stability through endless entertainment, whereas1984 is primarily a society of poverty and need modulated and kept in check by a healthy dose of terror. In Christopher Hitchens’ forward to the most recent printing of Brave New World, he points out that:

                “…it does deserve to be said that [Orwell’s] own fictionalization of absolutism does not depend exclusively upon the power of fear and violence. … The Nineteen Eight-Four is one of scarcity rather than abundance, but the traditional bribes of materialism and indeed of conditioning cannot be said to have been overlooked.” (pg xvii)

So, given that, it is perhaps not fair to entirely characterize Huxley’s world as one of pleasure and Orwell’s as one of pain, but I feel it is near enough to the truth to work with. Big Brother is very different from Mustapha Mond, and intentionally so–Huxley and Orwell were going for different things.

This difference is crucial, I feel, when we assess which of these two works is the more prophetic. For a very long time it was said that Orwell’s future was the one we needed to fear. The Soviet Union was the West’s principal example of this, as its governmental policies mirrored (in a less extreme way) the behavior of Orwell’s Big Brother. Indeed, as we have entered this era of security cameras everywhere and hyperactive worry about the prospect of terrorist attack, the term ‘Orwellian’ is often bandied about and libertarians shake their heads sagely at the horrible things the government might choose to do at any time (put us in camps, shoot us, lock us in chains, etc.).

The thing is, though, I don’t think such fears are founded. Well, perhaps partially–there are places where that kind of thing happens and, indeed, it could potentially happen here, but those kinds of governments–the one’s ruled through fear and oppression–do not represent the future of humanity. Those governments inevitably collapse; there comes a point where the people have had enough and BAM–they’re gone. Consider the Arab Spring if you don’t believe me or, if you wish to contend that it was the free internet that allowed such to be possible, consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Shah’s of Iran, the overthrow of the Russian Czars, the French Revolution, and so on and so forth. Fear and Loathing do not a stable government make.

For Huxley, stability is the main thing. Stability is achieved through contentment, not oppression. Anyone who has owned and trained a dog knows this (or ought to know it): the dog that comes when called is the one that gets a treat every time he does so; the dog that runs away is the one that gets whacked when it comes (the whack being for its disobedience, but dogs seldom make the connection). Accordingly, Huxley’s society of unrestricted sexual enterprise, plentiful recreational drug use, endless entertainment, and non-stop distraction is more likely to keep people in line and docile than any amount of riot police, guns, detention centers, or attack dogs.

Consider, then, our present day society. The Internet, for instance, is an almost endless source of amusement. Companies like Apple and Google spend umpteen billions to get tiny devices in your hands that keep you entertained at all times in all places. Drugs are readily available to all of us–over the counter and without a perscription–to keep us comfy, stable, and happy. Television markets to us a kind of sex-as-amusement concept that would have horrified even my grandparents’ generation, and it stands to continue in that vein. Are these things bad? I don’t know–I like some of them, the same as you. I do think, however, that the dangers to our future thinking and free thought aren’t the obvious ones, but rather the ones that snuggle close to you everytime you ride the train or whisper in your ears anytime you take a jog. As soon as our kids believe that all knowledge is contained in Google (and, indeed, many of my students already believe this), the quicker Huxley’s prophesy comes true.

I could keep going, but let me leave it at that. Oh, and for God’s sake, turn off that damned Ipod for a few minutes and pay attention to the world around you. You aren’t going to die if you don’t hear Beyonce talk about what you should or should not have put a ring upon for the next ten minutes.