Freedom is for Grown-Ups

…but our leaders want to keep us children. My newest Kindle read is Daniel Hannan’s Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. Hannan, a Member of the European Parliament who advocates for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, traces the development of the liberty that we take for granted from its roots in pre-Norman England through to the present-day anglosphere of the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Looking back at the foundations of the old English concept of liberty, Hannan points out one of the many differences between English common law and the top-down style of law in Europe:

“Common law is based on the notion that anything not expressly prohibited is legal. There is no need to get the permission of the authorities for a new initiative. Again, even now, we see this consequence of the different between British and Continental practice. British Euro-skepticism owes a great deal to a resentment of what is seen as unnecessary meddling, but, to the Eurocrat, “unregulated” is more or less synonymous with “illegal.” I see the difference almost every day. Why, I often find myself asking in the European Parliament, do we need a new EU directive on, let’s say, herbal medicine? Because, comes the answer, there isn’t one. In England, herbalists have been self-regulating since the reign of Henry VIII. In most of Europe, such a state of affairs could never have come about.”

This strikes at the very heart of what makes a people truly free. If you come across a meadow, with no fences or signs, are you allowed to cross it? If you want to do something against which there is no law, must you first ask permission? In grade school, children are taught to ask permission before doing anything. While this may be necessary for children who are learning the etiquette and mores of polite society, there comes a time when you no longer need ask to use the bathroom. Yet activists and political leaders always feel the temptation to treat their fellow citizens as children who require their guiding hand in order to do right.

Jonah Goldberg wrote the book on the way the modern American left is driven by a paternalistic fervor to rule over us for our own good. A leftist is one who looks around and, seeing people making poor choices, wants to free them from the consequences of their actions by taking away the ability to make poor choices in the first place. As usual, good intentions are all that matter. This wannabe dictator would balk at any comparison with such dictators as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, or Pol Pot, despite the fact that they all came to power promising the same things. Their evil actions make them evil, while my good intentions make me good, he might say. Sure, he will take away your rights and your liberty, but don’t you see that it is for your own good? Whether it is about protecting you from greedy unscrupulous corporations or keeping you safe from the consequences of your own actions, the wannabe dictator is there, freeing you from the tyranny of choice.

C.S. Lewis wrote about this strain of paternalistic totalitarianism decades ago in God in the Dock:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

In a truly free society, laws exist to protect our liberty and our property. Murder, theft, and rape are crimes, and the government will punish on behalf of the victims those who commit such crimes. Contracts are enforced, and fraud is illegal. Beyond that, however, people are free to live as they will. Free men and women can choose to pay someone to braid their hair, arrange their flowers, or decorate their house. Free men and women can sell or trade firearms or loose cigarettes as they please. Free men and women can operate bakeries with the right to refuse service when an event violates their conscience. In a free society, adults can interact freely as long as they are not harming or defrauding each other.

In a paternalistic society, on the other hand, everything that is not regulated is unlawful. In the European model that Dan Hannan describes, and in the society that the American left is constantly pushing for, every personal interaction is overseen by government agents. Permits are required for braiding hair, arranging flowers, and interior decorating. Excessive taxes must be collected on every transaction, even between individuals. Friends cannot trade firearms without involving the government in an expensive background check. Bakers are forced to provide service if their prospective client comes from a government-recognized victim group. Beyond protecting liberty and property, the government of a paternalistic society treats its citizens as subject children, who must be guided by their benevolent parents lest they make the wrong decision. (Former Obama Administration official Cass Sunstein called it “nudging”.)

Despite the fact that such a society is ostensibly built on doing what is best for everyone, it is no less dangerous than the dictatorships that plunged the world into war during the twentieth century. If you doubt that, try ignoring your taxes one year. Try to practice law without a license. Open a business without going through the proper governmental channels. First, you will get strongly-worded form letters. Then, officers of the state will show up at your door. Eventually, police will be involved. Continue resisting, and they will eventually shoot you. Our government may be nicer about the situation than Hitler’s gestapo, but the end result is the same: comply with the state or be destroyed.

We let this happen. Our forefathers fought a bloody war against their mother country because they wanted to rule themselves, rather than let a king and parliament on the other side of the world determine the course of their lives. In just over two centuries, we have surrendered that hard-won sovereignty to a president, a congress, and an innumerable army of petty bureaucrats on the other side of the continent. We did it because in some ways, it makes our lives easier. We have traded our eternal liberties for the temporal security of knowing that Big Brother is indeed watching, and has our best interests at heart. If we are to have any hope of reversing this situation, it has to start locally. Get involved in your city council and school board. If you live in rural areas, get involved in your county commission, lest the city-dwellers decide how you must live on your own land. The next time you think “there ought to be a law” remember all the thousands of little regulations that have slowly curtailed our liberty up to this point. The death of the American Dream has not been by a single strike but by a thousand tiny cuts.

But beware: Liberty comes at a cost. We will be accountable for our choices and must accept the consequences of our actions. In a truly free society, there are no government bailouts – not for the trillion-dollar corporation that mismanaged their capital into nothing; not for the broke college student who is a hundred thousand in debt with only a liberal arts degree to show for it. One of the many causes of our recent recession was the way our government took on the cost of failure in housing investments while leaving the investors to reap the rewards of success. If you know you cannot fail, you will act with much greater risk to your money and to your life. In a truly free country, men and women know that risk is real, and will act accordingly.

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Slaves To Fashion

In joining people from all over the world in a great system of communication, the Internet has effectively killed the nonconformist. Now, as in days past, the great majority of the people say what they say and do what they do because other people have said and done the same things before. In the past, one or two in a community would walk to their own beat, so to speak, and stand out from the crowd. Whether they did this because they did not care for the groupthink of the masses or because they just wanted attention, they did not conform. Now, the Internet unites these rebels with others of like mind, effectively defeating the purpose of nonconformity. It is a cliché that people express their individuality by doing what so many have done before.

Society is enslaved to fashion. Advertisers with mountains of data create commercial enterprises for the purpose of selling a brand to millions of people. Just as casinos are designed using the latest in technology and psychology to part a man from his money, modern-day advertising uses deep knowledge of human behaviour to convince people of what they absolutely need.

I am tempted at times to call this a modern phenomenon, but this is clearly not the case. Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Henry David Thoreau spent two years in relative solitude, pondering the vagaries of human existence. Of the human obsession with fashion he wrote thus:

We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcae, but Fashion. She spins and weaves and cuts with full authority. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveler’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.

I was amazed at how well Thoreau describes our modern society just as much as his own. We are a nation of monkeys, merely copying the monkeys in Hollywood and Madison Avenue. We may think we have free will to decide how we will dress and how we will present ourselves to others, but the advertisers who create our products are much smarter than we are. They know our psychology, they know what creates desire in a human being. They know how to push our buttons to achieve a desired result.

Even the nonconformists conform to something. Through the Internet, those who rebel against the system reach out to others who do the same. Soon, they all march together: a long parade of nonconformists, marching to the same tune. Behind it all is another advertiser, a student of human nature, beating the drum.

Is it too late? Can a man still withdraw from the system? Is there still a Walden Pond where one can step back and observe, without being a part of it all?

I hope so.

Building The Bridge

They took turns swinging across the gully on the rope. It was a glorious autumn day, and if you looked up as you swung, it gave you the feeling of floating. Jess leaned back and drank in the rich, clear color of the sky. He was drifting, drifting like a fat white lazy cloud back and forth across the blue.
“Do you know what we need?” Leslie called to him. Intoxicated as he was with the heavens, he couldn’t imagine needing anything anything on earth.
“We need a place,” she said, “just for us. It would be so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it.” Jess came swinging back and dragged his feet to stop. She lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “It might be a whole secret country,” she continued, “and you and I would be the rulers of it.”

Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia

Imagination is a wonderful thing and the imagination of a child is the most wonderful of all. Unencumbered by the encroaching walls of adult society, a child is free to experience anything in the universe. Before he or she is told what does not exist and what is not possible, a child can create anything imaginable.

The Lord God created the world and all its wonders from His own imagination. He made air and water, darkness and light, plants and animals, men and women, and then He called it “Good”. He infused mankind with the ability to think, to imagine, to commune with Him.

They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. How then can we humans imitate our Creator? We use the imaginations inherent in the souls of mankind. J.R.R. Tolkien, the great author, called this process “subcreation”. We cannot create out of nothing, as God has, but we can create our own worlds within His.

An artist uses colors to create magnificent pictures that evoke wondrous feelings. An author uses words to create worlds that cannot exist outside of human imagination. Songwriters take simple sounds and weave them into a musical mosaic that pleases the ears and moves the heart. Movie directors put them together to show us things we never thought possible. Video game designers open the door to magnificent new places, allowing us to take part in the subcreation of another.

At the heart of all subcreation is the imagination, and imagination comes from the mind of a child. In Surprised By Joy, C.S. Lewis speaks of a make-believe land populated by talking animals in which he played as a child. Had any adults known of these flights of fancy at the time they would likely have brushed them off as the idle imaginings of childhood, soon to be forgotten. Yet how many people, children and adults alike, have been touched by the wonder of the Chronicles of Narnia. The wonder grows deeper when one sees the reality of Christ mirrored in the story. The Creator is revealed in the subcreation.

Imagination is a joyful experience. A child who is lost in another world of their own making may be called absent-minded and a slacker, but who could ever say he was dour? Subcreation is the highest calling of we the created. In Paterson’s novel, Jess finds joy in his imaginary kingdom of Terabithia that gives him the strength to endure the rest of his life.

In his autobiographical treatise, Lewis writes of a feeling I know dearly. He recalls the later years of his childhood being bereft of joy, full of boarding schools and few friends. Yet there was a moment when he remembered joy itself, and it came with the stirrings of imagination.

This long winter broke up in a single moment… Spring is the inevitable image, but this was not gradual like Nature’s springs. It was as if the Arctic itself, all the deep layers of secular ice, should change not in a week nor in an hour, but instantly, into a landscape of grass and primroses and orchards in bloom, deafened with bird songs and astir with running water. I can lay my hand on the very moment; there is hardly any fact I know so well, though I cannot date it. Someone must have left in the schoolroom a literary periodical: The Bookman, perhaps, or the Times Literary Supplement. My eye fell upon a headline and a picture, carelessly, expecting nothing. A moment later, as the poet says, ‘The sky had turned round.’
What I had read was the words Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods. What I had seen was one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to that volume. I had never heard of Wagner, nor of Siegfried. I thought the Twilight of the Gods means the twilight in which the gods lived. How did I know, at once and beyond question, that this was no Celtic, or silvan, or terrestrial twilight? But so it was. Pure ‘Northerness’ engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country; and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss, which suddenly became one with the loss of the whole experience, which, as I now stared round that dusty schoolroom like a man recovering from unconsciousness, had already vanished, had eluded me at the very moment when I could first say It is. And at once I knew (with fatal knowledge) that to ‘have it again’ was the supreme and only important object of desire.

C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy

Lewis spent the rest of his life in the process of subcreation, for it is there that joy is found. It is not the minute details of publishing a crafted work but in the opening of your mind to the wonders of imagination that finds joy. Adults are often concerned about the things of this world – rent, work, groceries, car payments – to close their eyes and open their minds. Sure, these things are important to life. However, if this is all there is to life, then life is not worth living.

Life is a journey, and our imagination can take us much further than our feet. Who can not feel a shiver upon hearing Captain Kirk, flying into the unknown, “…to boldly go where no man has gone before!” What is there in a simple song that makes “…the road goes ever on and on…” so magnetic when spoken by Gandalf the Wizard? What motivated explorers such as Magellan, Columbus, Lewis and Clark? They had to see what was out there. It is the same thing that motivates authors and artists, songwriters and moviemakers. There are infinite worlds out there, waiting to be discovered!

Here then is the answer to the questions begged by my previous post. Where do we go when we realize that modern life is lived in a small box, whose walls close in like a collapsing cave? When the whole world is mapped and civilized and paved and there are no more new worlds? Our imagination can take us anywhere. Like a child who does not know the cynicism of life, we can reach beyond ourselves. Narnia and Terabithia are only the beginning. There is a secret country for each of us, a country that can at once take us beyond ourselves and reveal an aspect of our True Country.

Plato spoke of ideals. Everything that exists is merely a reflection of the real thing, as best as we can see it. All the horses we see are imperfect reflections of the ideal horse, much like a shimmering visage of a mountain turns out to be a reflection of the real mountain on the water. Life is like this. Our existence is merely a reflection of what eternity holds for the children of God. This existence is finite and solid, while eternity will be infinite and perfect.

Our God-given imagination gives us a peek through the keyhole of eternity. Until he is used to the world, a child can conceive of wonderful and fantastic things. Yet we cannot remain children forever. John Timmerman writes here about his first-hand experience with subcreation.

I learned… that the world badly wanted me to grow up. And to grow up is to strip yourself of gauzy clouds of wonder and put on heavier garb — woolens and cottons that protect you from winter’s cold or summer’s heat.

John H. Timmerman, Tolkien’s Crucible of Faith: The Sub-Creation

Growing out of childhood does not have to mean the death of imagination. Indeed, the examples of Tolkien, Lewis, and many other subcreators shows us that we can hold on to our infinite imaginations forever, no matter how hard the world tries to bring us back down to earth.

The great literary character Don Quixote de la Mancha was ridiculed for attacking windmills as if they were giants. To everyone else, they were obviously plain old windmills. But to Quixote, they were clearly evil giants that must be defeated. To the subcreator, well, they might be giants after all.

Of course, he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be… Well, all the best minds used to think the world was flat. But, what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what they might be, why, we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.

Justin Playfair (George C. Scott), They Might Be Giants (Source)

People grow up and grow out of their own imaginations. They enter an adult world, a world of taxes and mortgages and politics. They do their best to pull children and childlike adults back to the so-called ‘real world.’ The satirical newspaper The Onion reportson the safety hazard that a child’s imagination poses and makes a more logical point than perhaps it should.

According to McMillan, children can suffer broken bones, head trauma, and even fatal injuries from unsupervised exposure to childlike awe. “If your children are allowed to unlock their imaginations, anything from a backyard swing set to a child’s own bedroom can be transformed into a dangerous undersea castle or dragon’s lair,” McMillan said. “But by encouraging your kids to think linearly and literally, and constantly reminding them they can never be anything but human children with no extraordinary characteristics, you can better ensure that they will lead prolonged lives.”

An imagination is a powerful and dangerous thing. It makes life worth living, and opens our minds to the wonders of the universe. With just a thought, the mundane becomes extraordinary. We use our imaginations in imitation of our God, and we look forward to the day when all is made perfect and this world passes away. You could say that imagination is a bridge to eternity.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

1 Corinthians 13:9-12