Monday, May 30, 2005

Thoughts On Freedom

Cruising in overdrive can turn the notion of freedom ugly
Being free to do anything is no justification for being totally irrational, writes Hilary Burden.
In the mouths of Condoleezza Rice and George Bush, the word freedom has taken on a bad taste. Using it as justification to invade countries and lecture undemocratic regimes, they have succeeded in turning freedom into a threat, as if to say, "You will be free only if you live by our rules and follow our example."
This standardised, centrally controlled, big brother version of freedom seems to advance that only an American sense of freedom is the right one, that US freedom is good, and anything that threatens it is bad.
This notion of freedom is an ugly monster, turning a good word into justification for just about anything, even if it may be totally irrational in a modern context: such as war without end. Or love over 40. Or having twins at the age of 57.
What was Tom Cruise thinking when he jumped on Oprah's leather couch last week to shout "I am in love, I am in love". He's a 42-year-old twice-divorced man with two young children, who's been dating a 26-year-old for four weeks - and should know better.
Yes, Cruise and actress Katie Holmes - the latest object of his love - have films to promote, but why embarrass yourself, your host who cringed, your exs, and everyone who knows you, by doing the lawnmower over your newfound love? It was neither wise nor admirable, and no one cares that much about the details of two people in love.
Cruise has always known this, having been a famously private and controlling person for many years. But even with a film to promote, his behaviour last week was cringe-worthy and weird. Most people in their 40s realise that love is not what it seems once you've married it. That companionship takes over.
Yet, with his knowledge of the principles of Scientology, with his LA-uber-superstar-access to self-analysis and psychotherapy, why did Cruise's behaviour lapse maniacally into an adolescent lack of control?
Maybe it is more a problem with freedom and power. When you're the biggest and most bankable movie star in the world, maybe the pressure to be the most superlative at everything is unavoidable. Like Bush, running the country with the psychology of a cowboy: if someone hits you, you hit them back. This is not strategy talking, its emotion as the First Amendment.
We seem to be losing the more grown-up Hegelian notion of freedom: that individuals are truly free not when they act on this or that arbitrary caprice, but when they have rational control over their lives.
Cruise's crazy love-fess was not rational. Bush's invocation of freedom as a threat is not rational. And whatever your views on the great-grandmother who at 57 gave birth to twins in Alabama last month, her choice cannot have been rational.
"I was feeling absolutely great, almost like I hadn't delivered," Rosee Swain told breakfast TV about the birth. Swain and her husband Jay did not want their youngest child, who is six, to grow up as an only child, although the couple have two adult children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. It is, of course, a private decision to have children, but you have to wonder whether Swain got carried away with the powerful realisation that she could (through IVF), rather than thinking more about the moral and social reasons why she should.
In this propagation of an American sense of freedom, we seem to be losing a notion of restraint, self-discipline and a choice we allow ourselves by not acting habitually and automatically on our first instincts.
A 40-year-old man should have experienced too much and developed a greater emotional intelligence than to behave like an 18-year-old in love. A 57-year-old woman should know it is highly likely her twins' children will never have grandparents. And Bush should know by now, with the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq, that starting a war in the name of freedom does not guarantee freedom.
Or, in the words of another famous American, Mark Twain, "It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practise either of them."
Not all freedoms are good, especially in the hands of the powerful.

Hilary Burden is a writer and broadcaster.

No comments: