Submitted by Edward Curtin
June 2, 2015 — Obama signs The USA Freedom Act
“Liberty isn’t a thing you are given as a present. He who thinks with his own head is a free man. Liberty is something you have to take for yourself. It’s no use begging it from others.” – Pietro Spina in Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone
The year made famous by George Orwell in his oracular novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, has long come and gone. Commentators have had a field day expounding upon Orwell’s hermetic vision of a possible totalitarian world. Big Brother, newspeak, doublethink, now accepted parts of our lexicon, have appropriately been applied to various aspects of political life: the Patriot Act, spying, drones, cameras, media and government propaganda, etc.
The quality of these commentaries has, of course, varied considerably, but most have agreed in emphasizing the overt political implications of Orwell’s warning. This is to be expected in a world dominated by around-the-clock “communications” and the internet. Politics, show business, and advertising today commingle to dominate popular consciousness. All is show, the business of creating perpetual distractions from underlying philosophical issues that are the true basis of political life and the fundament for needed radical political change. An ephemeral show. Thus, like Winston Smith who “could never fix his mind on any one subject for more than a few moments,” each bit of news/commentary evanesces in the twinkling of an eye or an internet surfer’s finger. New political trivia appear for instantaneous pontification, all to be forgotten in a flash.
Meanwhile, the issue that underlies Orwell’s fantasy (and Huxley’s as well in Brave New World), the central question of human freedom, what used to be called free will, will continue to be undermined from all quarters, even by those who ostensibly abhor the political implications of Orwell’s warning. This is usually done circuitously in the name of science, human welfare, and progress, and is the specialty of those calling themselves progressives. For the idea of individual freedom — the singular person who can say “No” — is one of those dangerous thoughts that must be overlooked while slyly being replaced with a better idea. “The mind should develop a blind spot whenever a dangerous thought presented itself,” writes Orwell. “The process should be automatic, instinctive. Crimestop, they called it in Newspeak.”
Ideas do have consequences, and the idea of the free individual, basic to any decent society, has been replaced by the belief in determinism. This is so despite all the political rhetoric about freedom. This is all a dodge, laughable really. “We are a nation of politicians,” Thoreau wrote long ago, “concerned about the outmost defense of freedom.” This is still true, but in a far more dangerous and confused way now that science, technology, and mass communications have come to dominate society. (Is it any wonder that STEM –science, technology, engineering, and math — are being pushed in our colleges and universities.) Thoreau was right to suggest that it is a freedom to be slaves, not a freedom to be free, of which we boast, all the while thinking that because media pundits can remind us of Orwell’s warning we are therefore more free. “We do not merely destroy our enemies,” O’Brien tells Smith, “we change them.” And there is little doubt that that change has occurred at a preconscious level where so many people now believe that their thoughts and actions are caused, not freely chosen.
Is this the change we can believe in?
In concentrating exclusively on political visions of Big Brother forcing an unwilling public into servitude, most commentators have unknowingly done the job of crimestop. They have diverted their readers from the one idea that is dangerous to all forms of enslavement: existential freedom. Grand theories about Big Brother breaking down the front door, while true at one level, can divert attention from Little Sister who has already snuck in the back door and sapped the will to believe in our own freedom. Determinism is our current sickness; this unthinking acceptance of the belief in our existential un-freedom, that no matter what we do, think, or feel, it will, as Winston Smith keeps repeating, “make no difference.”
Is it any wonder that so many people are depressed, hopeless, and resigned.
The great American thinker William James once said that the first act of freedom is to choose it; is to believe you are free. The opposite has been occurring for decades. The idea of the personal freedom to choose, unless it is a brand of deodorant or a stinking political candidate, has disappeared behind a collective blind spot. More and more people, having been repetitively exposed to the meme of determinism, have imbibed the zeitgeist that “freedom is slavery” — and they are doing so of their “own free will,” the way it should be, as O’Brien tells Winston Smith.
This denial of existential freedom is widespread, encompassing all areas of contemporary life. It is inter-wound with a growing sense of resignation and cultural retrenchment that reflects the cancerous growth of fear enveloping the present age of diminishing expectations, a time when individual survival is heralded as the epitome of fulfillment. Resignation rules. The hopes and struggles of the 1960s for a more just and humane world, limited though they were, have given way to widespread cynicism and despair masquerading as realism. What was once thought possible is now dismissed as adolescent dreams, illusions that were bound to burst against the hard reality of the world.
This is untrue, of course, what Tolstoy called the social lie. But it is widespread and growing in influence. That the majority of people are under its sway shouldn’t be surprising; this has always been the case. Today, however, the pendulum swings faster if not wider, for we live under the spell of total and instantaneous propaganda. What we euphemistically call mass communications is mass seduction, and the desire to be seduced is one old truth that still holds popular appeal. It is the prevailing mental condition of controlled insanity of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
If one surveys present society, it seems clear that the courage and awareness to change is sorely lacking. We can only muddle through, at best, until disaster strikes. Then we will moan and groan, lick our wounds, and continue apace. Orthodox politics, the so-called art of compromise for the commonweal, has compromised us to the brink of despair. And though we like to deny it, that hopelessness and resignation has profoundly meshed with our public sense of private unhappiness, so that our “private” arrangements are of little use to us. Freedom to shop, even for “happiness,” doesn’t do the trick. The more this is so — and it is unavoidable — the more we deny it by clinging like the shipwrecked to shards of consolation in our private lives. Our small-life worlds seem like places of “freedom” to us, when we refuse to think clearly, which is most of the time. These private realms of “autonomy,” cut off as they are from public power, the very power that legitimates them and therefore paradoxically controls them, are intimately bound up with our public malaise.
As we call from our cells, we tend to forget we are in prison.
Examples of this prison mentality abound: the iron cage, the zoo, the prison, the matrix, the closed room, the garbage can, the labyrinth with no exit — all metaphors for our present situation. And metaphors are mental, ideas in pictures. We live necessarily within the pictures we imagine or accept. And to live in a cell is to live in un-freedom and to see no way out. These are the ideas that circulate as truth and within which we live our stunted lives. “The party is not interested in the overt act,” O’Brien tells Winston, “the thought is all we care about.”
So maybe if we thought about the thoughts that have led to our deepest beliefs about freedom, we could change our minds. Like a field seeded with American cluster bombs, these thoughts have been dropped everywhere. In the fields of psychology and psychiatry there is a pervasive acceptance and promulgation of a deterministic view of human beings. (And the USA is a psychologically oriented society.) This is rat psychology; rats, as O’Brien tells Winston, that “show astonishing intelligence in knowing when a human being is helpless.”
Genetic, environmental, and biological factors are crucial to these modern doctors of the soul. Biological psychiatry reigns supreme; drug therapy is the basis of clinical practice, and the notion that mental problems are biological brain disorders is widely accepted by the lay public as well as the professionals. High school and college students learn it in courses; others read it or hear it constantly through the media. It is delivered ex cathedra, and the secular faithful accept it as an article of faith. This is the medical model of the person; freedom has no place in it.
Normal behavior has become a sickness and the abnormal has become the norm (see Christopher Lane’s brilliant book, Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became Sickness). Influenced by B.F. Skinner, behaviorist psychologists madly search for a technology of behavior. The person is here reduced to a meaningless performer of a string of predetermined actions. Appropriately enough, in the year 1984, in Psychology Today magazine, Skinner explained an earlier depression of his in the following words: “The behavior I had acquired in college was not paying off, and I was depressed. I did not consider actual suicide; behaviorism offered me another way out: It was not I but my history that had failed.” In his opinion there can be no freedom since there is no I. His history failed him and made him depressed. It happened to him; he was not responsible. History, a pure abstraction, is here the “devil,” the snake in the grass that victimized him. It’s very appealing, this abdication of responsibility, this denial of freedom, this creation of an outside coercive force. It’s Big Brother in another guise. For a man who referred to his autobiography as “the autobiography of a nonperson,” however, it is understandable.
Deterministic thinking of this sort is integral to the pseudo-scientific mindset that prevails today. It permeates the academic and medical worlds and is dutifully transcribed by journalists. As readers can easily attest, most people have been convinced that chemical brain imbalances and genes have been proven to be the causes of a host of psychological issues from anxiety to worrying to depression, etc. Theses misconceptions have been linked to popularized psychiatric twin studies that are falsely presented as scientific facts proving the genetic basis for behavior.
As a long list of eminent researchers — Peter Gotzshe, M.D., David Healy, M.D., Peter Breggin, M.D., Christopher Lane, Jay Joseph, et.al — have emphatically shown, the chemical imbalance and genetic predisposition stories have no scientific validity and have never been proven. They exist in the popular mind as myths, forms of pseudo-scientific religious belief. In other words, hocus pocus — false beliefs scattered through the media resulting in an embrace of deterministic thinking.
Many of these “scientific” studies are related to the question of addiction: alcohol, drugs, etc. These are now explained with the disease concept so beloved by the medical and scientific establishments. Chemistry is the key to cure. The idea of free will is not considered a possibility in all this. One is an addict because one is diseased, though one might not know it. Cure lies in accepting one’s biological disease and learning, usually with the assistance of drugs – the great cure-all — to live without the substances that cause one’s “brain centers to go bonkers,” to crib a phrase I once read a doctor use to describe what causes one to fall in love. Brain chemicals and pharmaceutical chemicals are the causes of our happiness and despair. We are all victims.
We live in a world of doublethink in which the ultimate subtlety is the rule: “consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.” Unconscious despair lies behind this whole process of doublethink. A terrible unacknowledged anxiety grips the world, an anxiety created and fueled by the very techniques, technologies, and technicians who propose to “cure” us of the idea of freedom and mold us into a technology of behavior.
If we are self-hypnotized into being determined to be determined, the only way out is the way in, into an examination of why we choose not to believe we are free. Until individuals take their freedom, society can’t be changed. And to change society you need large numbers of free people acting in concert, something that is desperately needed. Then we will have a freedom movement, a true freedom act.
“The only way to deal with an unfree world,” Albert Camus wrote, “is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
William James said it was a choice.
Could the first act of freedom be to snap your fingers and say, “Yes, I am free, free at last.”
Edward Curtin teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and writes and researches on a wide variety of issues. He is currently developing a book on the sociological life, an extended essay on the marriage of sociological thought and personal life. Curtin is also researching perceptions and meanings surrounding the events of 9/11. Additional writings are available at opednews.com, where this article first appeared.