Wednesday, December 1, 2010


The question arose this week if linguistically, in English, you can attach singular or plural articles to the word "freedom" e.g. "a freedom" or "my freedoms". The German speakers were determined that you could not, the British were not at all sure, the North Americans were insistent that you could. I thought about how you can (without any argument) say; "I have the freedom to wear what I want", but realised this is not quite the same as saying "The freedom to wear what I want is just one of my freedoms." It sounds wrong to all but North American ears, and even some of those listeners find it strange, but why so? Moreover it is not just awkward to hear, but unsettling, a thorny concept.

When you make freedom an object, by applying an indefinite article to it, it enters into an economy of commodity and exchange, it becomes a product. As with all products in advanced capitalist economies, you are require to buy or trade for it and this is exactly what is happening, right now. The linguistic newness of "a freedom" and "my freedoms" are a central part of this era of terror, it's a marketing ploy which highlights exactly how far the language of counter-terrorism has affected the lexicon and capacity for thought in the US and Europe. All of the post-9/11 language, of "terrorists hating our freedom" put such a focus on the concept of freedom and with concurrent sleight of hand, changed the meaning of freedom.

Singular and plural freedoms, in stark opposition to definite freedom (the freedom) allow for freedom to be treated like a multipack of liberties. Freedom is broken down into units (freedoms), so we notice less when they're removed from us. It's not our freedom (our liberty, our rights as human beings) that is at stake, we argue, we are just trading certain freedoms (specific privileges) for protection against some semi-fictional force that wants to wipe us out. In this logic, since we are not losing our access to facebook, or our cars, or the ability to buy new jeans, we don't seem to notice that all we are being left with is the most empty kind of freedom. We have governments who rule almost totally and openly in the name of the rich, who have no qualms in waging wars against the better judgments of the people, who set-up teenagers as scapegoats, and deliberately stir up fear to stimulate support for their insane policies, backed by a masochistic media which kneels to lick their boots.

Breaking freedom down into freedoms allows for this, it suggests to us in its very language that we can pick and chose, that some freedoms are more equal than others, that we can drop some and trade them for something else. We are no longer concerned with liberty for all (wo)mankind, but rather protecting these few fake freedoms we're still holding onto (to all intents and purposes "a lifestyle"). In short it is the end of the Enlightenment, the death of idea that everyone should be free, the grave of Martin Luther King. Only now the epitaph has been deface, it no longer reads "no man is free until we are all free" but "Souvenir postcards $15.99". We are now entering the middle-ages again, we are all becoming serfs again, because we have forgotten what it was that led us so briefly out of servitude - collective struggle and an honest belief that the world could be made a better place. All we have now is cynicism, greed, irony and fatigue, and in this state we are allowing ourselves to be stripped bare.


Witness the new US airport regulations which have brought controversial full-body "naked" scans into major airports. The German government looks likely to follow suit next year. Not only is this a horrible violation of privacy and a miserable windfall for the cyborgs who make these machines (already $247m from US airports) but drastically increases psychological paranoia in an already thoroughly traumatised population. Now terrorists are even further advanced than technology! And the only people who can save us are our beloved leaders, who really have our best interests at heart. It was Benjamin Franklin who wrote, "He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither," I think.

And meanwhile we have the CIA training a teenage Somalian boy for almost two years, in how to plan a mass impact suicide bombing. At a Christmas market in Oregon he was arrested only 20 minutes before detonating his (fake) bomb, which is a rather brilliant PR coup for the CIA, since it allows them to simultaneously say "Look! You need us!" and "Don't worry we know everything!" It posits them as an omnipotent God, in some Cartesian paradox in which they rescue us from what they put into motion themselves. The German newspapers are full of terror alerts also, warning that terrorists planned to hit "soft targets" at Christmas markets. Not long ago wikileaks shared information with the world that this exact tactic (of putting terror plots into the media) had been discussed by the US government as a way of increasing support for its unpopular foreign policy within Germany. Or rather, I should say that these stories were all over the news, now the news says we must go shopping at the Christmas markets because if not (You guessed it!) the terrorists will have won.

And now 19 year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, will go to prison for a long, long time, probably forever, because one of the world's most powerful, best resourced, most advanced institutions found him when he was 17 and persuaded him to take up the role of this year's would be festive slayer.

Merry Christmas.


gp said...

My comment applies only to the U.S.; i have no idea about other English-speaking nations. The fact is that for constitutional/legal purposes the word "freedom" is a shorthand way of describing certain legal rights. For example "freedom of speech" is a legal term regarding the limits on government censorship. Likewise, "freedom of religion" refers to limits on the government's power to establish or limit religious practice. It's perfectly sensible and in no way sinister to apply the plural "freedoms" when referring to these different legal rights.

La JohnJoseph said...

Hello gp,

The constitution doesn't grant anyone "a right to free speech" or "a right to bear arms" does it? Nor can you say "a freedom of religion." No, you must use "the", and that connotes a right which is part of a bigger freedom, not to be sold separately. So, for me, the individualizing and objectifying of "a freedom" is sinister and cynical.