Freedom and community


Two powerful impulses propel the modern soul.  One is the wish for an ever-expanding circle of personal freedom.  The other is a craving for authentic community among like-minded persons.

Immediately, trouble arises.  We walk the earth twitching with tension, bent under the weight of a terrible contradiction.  My ideal dispensation would make of life a canvas of infinite possibility and experimentation, over which I am supreme, an artist-tyrant, attended all the while by friends and neighbors whose behavior I have scripted to careful specifications.  I must be free – all others, authentic.

I suppose most people today would shrink from using the term “artist-tyrant.”  And of course, realistically speaking, they are right to do so.  As a rule they only crave a little adventure, nothing more:  a temporary release from the rigors of social existence.  A week at a nudist beach, say.  Or a grotesque tattoo.  Or milder still, the loud public embrace of one of those moralistic causes, like gay marriage, that absorb our neo-Victorian minds.

The difficulty is that these tiny assertions of freedom take place in an empty theater.  I crave applause.  In the way of all humanity, I require validation, which can be delivered only by a community working under shared rules, but everybody else is at that nudist beach alongside with me.  We are all together, but nobody’s there.

Most of us would also probably deny wishing to script the human race into a supporting cast or approving audience to the exercise of our freedom.  We just ask for a little companionship.  We love freedom, but hate loneliness.  But this resembles the argument of the cheating husband who demands that his wife remain faithful.  It’s morally false.

So let me make the point very plainly.  Freedom and community are not rights to be claimed, or virtues to be internalized, or even conditions to be achieved, whether by luck or willed effort.  They are problems to be wrestled with, painfully, at every level of human existence, from the personal to the cosmic.

Freedom is a problem because it’s empty.  It must be filled with something.  To be sure, I can decide to fill it with community.  But what exactly does this mean, and how does one go about it?  The path to community, it turns out, is twisted and steep – mortal mistakes are possible along the way.

The problem with community is that it can’t be produced or tailored on demand.  It can only evolve on its own terms, over time.

From a certain perspective, the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be viewed as the political and economic liberation of hundreds of millions, who nevertheless felt lost, cheated, and enraged by their new condition in life.  Many abandoned the old faiths and ideals, without having a clue about what to put in their place.  Such people, whose numbers were legion in Europe, hungered after a messianic future or an invented past:  hence the cult of authenticity preached by Martin Heidegger and his intellectual brood.  Authenticity condemned liberal democracy, capitalism, industrial life – the present order, with all its confusions and compromises – to oblivion.  It justified nihilism now for the promise of community, maybe later.

Given the temper of the times, it was probably inevitable that these existential cravings would assume political form.  The mass movements of the last century failed to reconcile the tension between freedom and community, but were highly successful in identifying culprits.  For the proletarian, it was the kulak and the bourgeoisie.  For members of the Aryan race, it was the Jew and the gypsy.  Happiness was possible only after the extermination of these selfish troublemakers.

Fraternity, converted into political action, invariably ends in holocaust.  This remains as true in our day as it was during the horrors of the twentieth century:  President Obama, who seems to think that mere passage of time has lifted the human race above such irrationalities, is perpetually shocked by events.   Today a seeker after an invented Islamic caliphate (offspring of Heidegger rather than Muhammad) must begin his quest with the elimination of troublemaking groups:  Yazidis, Shias, Christians.

It is sometimes maintained that mass movements represent a flight away from freedom, to a more childish and obedient state.  I can imagine a different motivation.  The mass movement offers freedom of a peculiar kind:  that of the criminal.  It holds the faithful together by a powerful bond:  the knowledge of having spilled rivers of innocent blood.

The new millennium has stumbled on a new manner to organize community:  the (mostly) virtual network.  These are freely chosen, egalitarian, and clustered around an object of true interest – computer games, say, or some political predilection.  One joins the network at will, participates as much or as little as desired, and departs without penalty.  Networks lack the intrinsic virulence of the mass movement.  None has ever built an extermination camp.  Yet they, too, in their own way, are problematic.

The problem with networks lies precisely in their openness, in the extraordinary degree of freedom allowed to participants.  There are no headmen, no fuehrer principles, no hierarchies or ruling castes – but also no rules, no plans, no programs, not even the outline of an ideology to guide positive action.  The network grows up and blows up at the speed of light.  Only a powerfully persuasive shared point of reference can keep it together:  almost always, this has meant being against.

The community that sprang up around the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page in opposition to the Mubarak regime in Egypt demonstrated the power and the problems of networked action.  The page, managed on inclusive and interactive principles by a few individuals – notably Wael Ghonim – mobilized hundreds of thousands to participate in the street revolt of January 2011.  An authentic loathing of the regime held this network together.  Members lacked a shared ideology or program, but were united against the status quo. Once Mubarak, object of their loathing, was shoved offstage, neither the site, nor any of its members, nor Ghonim, had any positive contributions to make regarding the future of Egypt.  Power devolved first to an old-fashioned mass movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and later to the same institution that had produced Mubarak – the military.

Eternal negation is the price of online authenticity.  To retain the (short) attention of participants, the political network, much like the mass movement, will end up slouching toward nihilism.

Entry into a network is easy.  All I need is an opinion and a cell phone.  I can cash in my freedom to oppose this or that – capitalism, say, or President Obama, or a dictator like Mubarak, or a semi-dictator like Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.  But the path to community, I repeat, is torturous and often painful.  At the end of the day, much more than opposition is demanded.

Initiation into a traditional community was never comfortable, never easy.  Terror and pain guarded the gates to adulthood.  Many reasons have been given to explain the harsh ceremonies of traditional societies, but the simplest answer works best for me:  the higher the cost of entry, the greater the value of membership.

The same principle holds true for contemporary life.  Something must be yielded before something can be gained.  In this regard, the oath administered to new US citizens, which requires that they “renounce and abjure” past allegiances and “protect and defend” the Constitution against all enemies, is a true rite of passage.  The Europeans have struggled to develop a similar process.  At one time, the Dutch asked immigrants to watch a video showing naked women and same-sex lovers, to test their Netherlandish tolerance.

The English, having absent-mindedly become “British,” can’t articulate what that means or what the penalty should be for renouncing and abjuring – witness the panic around the vote for Scottish independence.  Today twice as many supposedly “British” Muslims fight for the Islamic caliphate than for the British armed forces.  These are not immigrants but the children of immigrants:  young people lost to crime and violence on that twisted road to community, beyond the boundaries of the nation-state.

Far more than nationalism, religion aims at communion in the depths, and exacts an entry toll proportionate to that ambition.  I can exercise my freedom and “convert” to a faith, join a congregation.  But what am I saying when I use those words?  Conversion, properly understood, means revelation:  it’s less a question of switching teams than of being shown a new cosmic order that demands a new mode of life.  The experience is always traumatic.  Personality cracks like fractured bone and must be painfully reorganized, so that the convert emerges a stranger to his original self, confused and disoriented, a newborn.

The agony endured is every bit as physical as it is spiritual.  St. Paul “fell to the ground” and became temporarily blinded by his revelation on the road to Damascus.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James records cases of conversion attended by “unconsciousness, convulsions, visions, involuntary vocal utterances, and suffocation.”  Community at the cosmic level can’t be achieved simply by knocking on the door of the right fraternity house.  Something – sometimes everything – must be yielded, if something is to be gained.

In a sense, such transformations are a consequence of personal freedom and choice:  but that’s not how it feels.  The convert feels chosen by a higher power.  The path to spiritual community appears to run through what James termed “self-surrender.”  The abiding paradox of personal freedom is that it often achieves the most complete individual regeneration by forsaking the individual’s will and its desires.  My freedom to alter my life in some wished-for direction becomes more potent the less I concern myself with my life and plans and directions.

I think this paradox throws light on our present condition – on our conflicted hunger for more freedom and more authentic community.  Freedom, on the moral plane, is not about personal achievement or private satisfaction.  The pursuit of happiness, as Jefferson well understood, is identical to the practice of virtue:  insofar as I possess human dignity it is because I freely choose to act in ways that benefit my family, my friends, my neighborhood, my church, my town, even my country, no less than myself.

Sartre said that hell is other people.  Granted that French philosophers, like children with disabilities, should be treated in special ways – but that is still a remarkably obtuse and wrongheaded judgment.  Authentic community is other people.  There is nothing else that can stand in their place.  Personal freedom is the basic unit of moral information in my interaction with others.  And it may well be that, at the psychological level, we as a species have been selected to feel satisfaction in the exercise of generosity and justice toward the people around us, and to be penalized with tension and unease when we allow our private cravings to consume our freedom of action.


3 Responses to Freedom and community

  1. Adam Gurri says:

    The trauma of self-surrender gets at something that’s been bothering me lately; the idea of redemption, and our modern fixation with it. It seems to me that we shouldn’t be so entranced by the idea of hitting rock bottom and finding salvation; we should focus on those who summon the strength to live their lives morally from the beginning.

    On the other hand, the path to virtue is not a straight line. Obviously there are people who make it there with a relatively unbumpy road, but then there are also a lot of people who remain middling, unsure of their moral compass because it is untested. Perhaps it is the trauma of rock bottom and redemption (for some version of each) that a lot of people require to cross the bridge?

    Just spitballing. Great piece.

  2. […] authenticity on the other. We want to break free of the shackles imposed on us by community, but we want to belong. We want our choices to be completely untethered, but we want to feel connected. We don’t want to […]

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