I shall begin this post with a short story.
In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: ‘Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it’s true; if it’s written in red ink, it’s false.’ After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink:
‘Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair – the only thing you can’t get is red ink.’
One starts by agreeing that one has all the freedoms one wants – then one merely adds that the only thing missing is the ‘red ink’: we ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.
I found this excerpt fascinating, and even more so when you switch the German Democratic Republic with the United States. Throughout my life growing up in America, I have always been told that we are blessed to live in the freest nation on earth. This idea is reinforced to us on a regular basis. Before every sports game, one is guaranteed to hear The Star Spangle Banner and its highly quoted last line “and the land and of the free, and the home of the brave.” In the press, one always hears how America is fighting for freedom and democracy throughout the world. America’s founding documents reiterate the echoes of freedom, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What do Americans have their freedom to compare too?
Being born in the mid-nineties, I have very few memories of what life is like in a pre-9/11 world. I and many others have lived with the fact that our communications are data-mined on a regular basis. There have been revelations of this even before Edward Snowden came along. In the great balancing act between security and privacy, it seems that the scale is tipping towards an unnerving direction, and the consequences of this are catastrophic to public discourse.
Over 50% of Americans have never been abroad. They have nothing to compare how free they are from other countries. From my personal travels, the difference was quite noticeable. I can confidently proclaim that I felt more liberty in Brazil, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic than I do going to school in Western Massachusetts. For example, I probably see three police cars a day driving around my college town. I regularly hear stories of unprecedented uses of force and Constitutional rights being violated all because of the perceived stereotypes of being a college student. While being abroad, I did not feel a looming presence that was seeking to get people in trouble. Furthermore, in America, I am constantly bombarded with messages about being politically correct, what I should invest in my body, who is “good” and who is “bad,” etc. The propaganda messages displayed by the media every day is mind-boggling. Is this perpetual bombardment of conformist commands really what Enlightenment thinkers envisioned for liberty? When is enough is enough?
The greatest use of our freedom is to question everything. We might be told that we are free but what makes us free? How are we free? Who says we are free? Remember there is a drastic difference in meaning depending on who says it, whether if its Thomas Jefferson or Adolf Hitler.