The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity and dependence upon The Leader in foreign countries. The battlefield is also accordingly here--within ourselves and our institutions.
--John Dewey, "Freedom and Culture" (1939)
After centuries of struggles, man succeeded in building an undreamed of wealth of material goods; he built democratic societies in parts of the world, and defended himself against new totalitarian schemes; yet...modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton...
...we are proud that we are not subject to any external authority, that we are free to express our thoughts and feelings and we take it for granted that this freedom almost automatically guarantees our individuality. The right to express our thoughts, however, means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own; freedom from external authority is a lasting gain only if the inner psychological conditions are such that we are able to establish our own individuality. Have we achieved that aim, or are we at least approaching it?
--Erich Fromm, "Escape From Freedom", 1941
Reviewing Fromm's book "Escape from Freedom", published almost 70 years ago, helped me focus on some bothersome mental twitches I have been experiencing lately as I consider society's state of being as I observe it. These observations about personal freedom just before a world war that focused on taking down a couple imperialistic governments (Germany and Japan) are scarily similar in my mind to the mindsets of today. A majority of the world's citizens seem content to accept "business as usual" when it comes to their government's actions...or inaction in some cases...as their personal freedoms continue to get tromped on and living in a police state just accepted as the mode of the day. Its not hard to see how the majority of German citizens simply succumbed to Hitler's Nazi regime.
I still haven't got my arms around the paradox of first world governments spending billions every day on the "battle for freedom and democracy" while my experience and observations are that people are becoming less free on an almost daily basis. Freedom to travel is reserved for the "rich" or at best the middle class. If you don't have wealth, you cannot get a visa to enter most desirable countries. There is so much violence and guns in the streets of most of the world's major cities...you don't really have the freedom to travel freely within those cities when you get there. And government policies such as the USA's "Patriot Act" continue to overextend the boundaries of government rights into the private lives of its citizens. Institutions are using fear and intimidation to convince their constituents that "this loss of freedom is for the citizen's own good"...
The biggest barrier to freedom in my view is the lack of objective education for all. Most of the poor have no appreciable education and therefore have no real opinion on what is going on while most of the "rich" educate their children in religious or private schools that in many cases program the kids in their own religions, cultures or lifestyles...but don't necessarily provide objective, contrary viewpoints for the youth to consider. And lets face it, most people want and therefore accept "easy answers" as truth or reality. To have freedom of thought or a true objective opinion/viewpoint that someone struggled to arrive to is a luxury to find in discussion these days. We tend to be people of extreme labels. You are either right or left, liberal or conservative, of faith or not of faith...and we filter our listening or reading in the world to those imposed labels of one's viewpoints. Some people listen only to FOX news, others only CNN, while very few Americans seem interested in news from the BBC. The actual news itself is almost impossible to find without the taints and editorial comments from the news companies and their corporate owners. Where is there true freedom of objective information?
Most of us are so enslaved to the machinery of consumerism and careers...it is quite impossible to keep up on or care about major global issues like...climate change, terrorism, starvation, and growing totalitarianism throughout global governments. Its up to our governments, churches or other institutions to deal with those world realities while we pursue our own path of "freedom"...which in many cases is just "freedom from caring" or "freedom from pain".
Yep...it's costly and painful to be truly free. To be independent from our families, religions or government institutions...is terribly lonely, isolating and even risky. The masses who make decisions on whether you get jobs, contracts, or elected to public office don't REALLY want a strong, free thinking individual. They want "team players"...people who can be a chameleon and fit into any scene...and the last thing most people want is to be around people who make them feel inferior. So...if you are a superior, free thinking person with new ideas or originality...don't expect to be liked or accepted...unless you're truly entertaining and so outrageous that you just become the life of the party. But...you will not be taken seriously. We love and are entertained by "clowns".
So...it is no wonder that the masses go along with the status quo as "cogs in the wheel" of contemporary thought and motion. Image is status...status is power...and power is more addictive than money. Money just really keeps score of how you have played the game...but it doesn't necessarily guarantee freedom. Most of the wealthiest people I have known are not free to come and go...have to constantly defend themselves from leeches and thieves...and of course they spend a high percentage of their lives filling out forms and trying to beat the State's tax systems...that fuel the supposed pursuit of freedom and security for...you guessed it...the average citizen...cog in the wheel.
Its much easier being a cog...but oh so boring. And its definitely not what I call living "free". We might be well advised to read up on some old "Fromm" and other literature from earlier this century and ask ourselves if we are not simply repeating history in all its blood, gore and devastation. We might have very advanced technology and a few richer people than that era...but I'm not sure the human psychology towards accepting the responsibility of freedom has come very far in this modern age.