Yesterday I read an article posted by a friend on Facebook. It stimulated a ranting response of the type no one wants clogging up their timeline, the kind that co-opts a news feed. She’d posted a thought-provoking quotation and a link to a Medium (blog post) article, How Freedom became Free-dumb in America (Free-dumb). I was intrigued by the quotation, so I read the article.
The author claims to look at the United States from an international perspective. His big concern is the stupidity of many American people, particularly those who are — now — brandishing weapons, espousing conspiracy theories and ignoring science. He writes about this moment when many Americans are pushing to go back to “normal” in the face of a disease we can’t cure and cannot prevent. He’s looking for the cultural source for American stupidity and anti-intellectualism. The author makes many good points, but also returns to many of the usual subjects; Slavery and Nietzsche’s “Superman”. I hope you’re shaking your heads because I was.
Anti-intellectualism has a long history in US culture. My best guess for that is that many of us came from countries where education was for the rich elite who were considered by many immigrants as “the enemy.” This isn’t an 18th century thing. I contended against this as a college teacher in California. Many of my community college students — mostly Latino girls, but not exclusively — had to fight their parents for the chance to attend a junior college. Along with this was the reality that many students didn’t value their education as anything beyond the way to get a higher paying job. Education for the sake of learning? Not really mainstream American culture as far as I can tell. My students constantly asked me why I made them read things like “The Allegory of the Cave” or any other “old” thing. They didn’t see how it was going to help their career. It wasn’t as if they knew what their careers would be or who they would be at age 40 or even what they might encounter (in a class, in life) that would delight them or awaken them. They didn’t know.
Bringing me to another point the author of the article has made, that Americans value equality above all else. I’ll say right here that the words “freedom” and “equality” are so abstract I could sit and write all day and never get to the heart of either concept. I don’t even know for sure what they mean. I do know this. Equality among humans can exist only under the law. We’re not equal. My neighbor is tall, long-legged, slender. I’m short, short-legged and a little chubby. My other neighbor is nearly 80 and can run. I can’t run at all and I’m 11 years younger. I can paint and write novels, neither of them do those things. My Aussie neighbor, who can run, can knit sweaters and socks and sew dozens of face masks. I’d rather die. My other neighbor has wonderful children and grandchildren. I’m in awe of that, but I don’t want them. Equality? No. Absolute equality implies uniformity. That isn’t how it is (thank goodness). As for “freedom”? I won’t even Try. I think the author of the article is right, though.
Equality — vague as it is — is a big deal here but it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. In a society that relies on a democratic process it generally means that ignorant people have the same voice as educated people. I might not like the results of that, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Since grad school, I’ve been fascinated by the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French nomad (there I got the word in) who visited the great American experiment in the 1830s. One of the points he made (though he loved the idea of democracy) was that it is a system that will ultimately lead to mediocrity and dictatorship by the ignorant. That didn’t stop him from preferring it to other systems, but he made that point. These were the days when Lasseiz Faire capitalism was the THING and the industrial revolution was taking off. That people could make a LOT of money from the labor of others in industry was pretty cool. It seemed to be a great thing for everyone — employment for more people and more disposable income all around. It brought huge problems with it but how was anyone to know that at the beginning?
De Toqueville also contrasts democracy with socialism which, I think is a mistake. Democracy is a political system; socialism is a method for distributing wealth. They are really not comparable in spite of the fact that this comparison persists. It makes my teeth itch.
The author of Free-dumb then brings in Nietzsche for some reason that I don’t totally grasp, but it has something to do with Berlin. There is a LOT more to Nietzsche than the fact that Hitler admired him. That was never Nietzsche’s fault. When I was 17, I read Also Sprach Zarathustra for the first time. That is the book in which the idea of the Superman is introduced. Reading Zarathustra was far more than reading a book; it was an EXPERIENCE. I can still SEE myself sitting at one end of my mom’s dark tan brocade French provincial sofa (1969). It was a summer day. I’m wearing cut-off jeans and a top. I’m reading passages to my dad who sat on the other end of the sofa. “Listen to this, Dad.” I found Zarathustra incredibly beautiful, life affirming, life defining. Even reading it later, I NEVER saw the Superman as anything more than the fulfillment of individual human potential, the self in harmony with its true nature, nature which the Superman has taken the time to discover. In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche condemns German anti-semitism. But it’s inconvenient to remember this when we blame Nietzsche for Hitler.
The author of Free-dumb rants about the distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to” saying other nations have embraced “freedom to” while Americans “always” embrace “freedom from.” Again, what? I think it’s a false dichotomy but convenient. It’s true that many immigrants came here to get freedom FROM and brought with them a primal mistrust of government for a lot of good reasons. Still, freedom FROM religious tyranny implies freedom TO worship as they pleased.
Then, as randomly as he brings in Nietzsche, the author of Free-dumb brings up the word “slavery.” No one in the modern world is going to stand up and say, “Slavery is good!” It’s not going to happen. But that word is sure to stimulate the usual knee-jerk reaction against slavery. Americans are also not the only people on the planet to have owned slaves. Slavery existed far longer than it has not existed. The abolition of slavery is the REALLY big deal, but here’s the conundrum. It’s a lot harder to deal with THAT than it is to be angry about slavery. It’s a context that’s way too big. One of my own ancestors was a prisoner of war in Scotland, put in chains, shipped to Barbados where he worked on a sugar plantation as a slave. When he was released, he went to the colony of Maryland where he…grew tobacco and owned slaves. That right there is far more complex than slavery vs. freedom from slavery. What SHOULD happen now is an investigation into the voluntary slavery of consumerism, but…
“Generally speaking, only simple conceptions can grip the mind of a nation. An idea that is clear and precise even though false will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true but complex.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
The author of this article is focused on the Americans who are demonstrating right now for what they call “freedom,” and who regard the stay at home orders, the wear a mask orders, all of that, as tyranny. I agree completely with the author when he says they’re stupid. They are the very “tyranny of ignorance” de Tocqueville warned about. When I look at these douchebag bleach drinkers who are chomping to get back to work because the odds (one plays the odds with one’s life? Russian roulette is a close parallel) are against them getting sick and dying, I see voluntary slaves, people who have been conditioned to believe that their stupid ass little jobs are going to get them somewhere. They seem not to have thought deep enough to see that there is no “somewhere” without life. They don’t realize that the money that’s “given” to them by the government to help them out and get them through (even though it’s been mishandled and fucked up) is the very money they paid in taxes!
I believe American freeDUMB is related to the pervasive (and beloved) ignorance of many? most? American people and a lack of curiosity about other cultures or anything remotely intellectually challenging. All this is fostered by “American First” thinking. Globalism doesn’t exclude the United States. It includes all of the other small worlds that exist on this large world. It’s too bad that we have created a society that is “us” and “them.” The bleach drinkers people haven’t thought about the word “freedom” beyond it meaning they get to do what they want. Their pervasive paranoia, fed by conspiracy theories, justifies (to them) their actions. They don’t seem to question anything individually, personally, against a higher standard than convenience.
As de Tocqueville wrote, “Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom…. The subjection of individuals will increase amongst democratic nations, not only in the same proportion as their equality, but in the same proportion as their ignorance.”
My own doctor, Heidi Helgesen at the Rio Grande Hospital Clinic, a tiny hospital and clinic in Del Norte, Colorado wrote this morning, “The government did not take away our rights. It didn’t even challenge our rights, it gave us the power and opportunity to exercise our freedom of choice and good will, to prove that “we the people” are in this together despite all the pressure to be partisan and divisive. In this battle every individual who has chosen to wear a mask in public, bought groceries for their neighbors, danced and played games with their children, developed an online curriculum, ordered out from a local restaurant, bought milk or bison or beef right from the farmer, driven a semi across the country with critical supplies, attended ZOOM after ZOOM meeting, figured out how to make due with less of a paycheck, acted as a surrogate family member for the vulnerable and sick, wrote inspirational messages on hospital sidewalks, compounded hand sanitizer and sewed masks is a hero. Please don’t stop being a hero now. Don’t give into the negative. Don’t buy into the manipulation of the facts, the drama and “The Plandemic.” Be free by being safe, responsible, kind and respectful.“
That’s my rant for the day (I hope) ❤