Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Do we need more “Freedom,” Like the People in 'Mockingjay"?

The prevailing trend today is to favor “freedom,” and to hate the government, particularly the big, distant, central government. “Local” and “grassroots” are seen as good things, going hand in hand with “freedom.”

Popular culture is also on that side, of course, as I was recently reminded by the wildly popular Mockingjay, the third Hunger Games movie. It’s not my intent to dignify this mediocre picture with a review or a serious political analysis, as it is essentially a money-making piece of entertainment, which is fine. But it shows precisely the ideological confusion which I want to talk about:

The main theme of the entire Hunger Games series is that of an evil central government (Capitol) that oppresses the local districts, which then start a revolution. It is a story about the quest for freedom at the grassroots level vs. the tyranny of the central government. As banal as could be. The story of every revolution in history - the American, the French, the Russian, you name it.

Hollywood has always depicted rebellion and revolution as noble causes, as fights against some evil, remote, imperial, power. Think of the Star Wars series, or every movie ever made about the Roman Empire. In the most popular film ever made, Gone with the Wind, even the Southern secession is depicted as a heroic quest for freedom from an oppressive federal government.

Obviously, central governments can be imperial and tyrannical. I am not going to make a list of such regimes, which would include the Soviet Union, the Aztec empire and many others. Of course.

But surely this issue cannot be disposed of categorically? Each case must be judged individually.

Take that “evil Roman empire,” depicted a million times by the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Stanley Kubrick: what was the alternative back then? The freedom to live in mud huts surrounded by heaps of dung and bones? The freedom to destroy aqueducts that provided water to millions?

Those of us who went to gymnasium (the classical secondary school) and read Tacitus, Livy, Pliny, Cicero and the other great Romans, got a message quite different from current popular culture. That message was congruent with Edward Gibbon’s view of ancient Rome as the best thing that ever happened to humanity:

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus...” (Frank C. Bourne, A History of the Romans, p. 436).

The generic question is this: Is tribalism all that it’s cracked up to be? This is an important question today, because we live in a world where centrifugal forces are in the ascendency. Centralization has become a bad word.

This was not always so, not even during my own life: When I grew up, progress was equated with UNIFICATION, not fragmentation. I was a world-federalist, hoping that humanity was moving towards a one-world government, of which the United Nations were a preview. We understood that nationalism and ethnic tribalism were the evils which had led to catastrophic wars. The European UNION was the best thing that happened to Europe in two thousand years.

The 19th century had already been in the same mood. It was an optimistic century, animated by a belief in progress. Whether on the right (Herbert Spencer) or on the left (Karl Marx), everyone agreed that social evolution was UPWARD. It was an era of unification, as when dozens of tiny states unified to form large nations like Italy and Germany.

America was guided by the same mentality: The Union HAD to be preserved, no matter what, even at the cost of a bloody Civil War. Fragmentation was not an option.

Today, the wind is blowing in a different direction. During the 1990s, we had the horror of the Yugoslav split-up into half a dozen countries. Recently, Scotland was not quite stupid enough to secede from the United Kingdom. The Belgians want to separate. Catalonia is thinking of seceding, as are many other regions of Europe, as well as Quebec in Canada.

Secession has always been especially seductive to Americans, a people with anarchist tendencies. Lately, Northern Californians want to secede and form the Republic of Jefferson. Texans are always talking about secession. The entire Tea Party can be summed up as a paranoid anti-federal-government movement.

In the US, talk of secession, and equating that with “freedom,” becomes particularly absurd. There is nothing dictatorial about this country’s federal government, even considering the NSA’s information collection programs.

To the contrary, IN THIS COUNTRY, it is the federal government which has been the major force AGAINST oppression and injustice. From the Civil War to Ferguson, Civil Rights would have been in jeopardy without federal backup. In this country, States’ Rights and the right to secede meant the right to keep slaves. “Grassroots” justice meant the KKK and lynchings. Local autonomy has meant unpunished discrimination and police brutality. Not to mention the myriad federal programs without which the downtrodden would be even more destitute, without which science, education, the environment, public health, transportation and national security would languish, without which progress would be impossible.

A movie like Mockingjay will confuse naive young people. In it, a large proportion of the rebels are people of color, so as to make sure that we understand that the rebels are the oppressed people. Millennials could easily be seduced by the Tea Party’s anti-government siren song.

But such a scenario has no applicability to the US, where the central government is more likely to be a source of justice and progress than a source of oppression.

Its applicability elsewhere in the world is also questionable: In many areas, the need for security, stability, unification, economic justice  and pooling of resources outweighs the need for tribal purity under the guise of “freedom.”

This is not to denigrate the seriousness of governmental oppression in many parts of the world - from Syria to Myanmar, from Russia to Egypt, from North Korea to Sudan. But in Western Europe and in North America, talk of secession makes little sense, and is in fact a cover for the DENIAL of freedom to some.

© Tom Kando 2014

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