|Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on the Declaration (Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1900)|
But what does it mean to be free? This is a question considered deeply by the writers of the Declaration of Independence, and one we ponder as a society on almost a daily basis. When does my right to free speech impinge upon the rights of others? Why is freedom to assemble an important right? More often than guns and bombs, the true questions of freedom are decided every day in a thousand small ways and venues, from quiet, civil conversations to demonstrations to court judgments. And in fiction, these themes are explored and discussed, turned over and examined, in our ongoing attempt to understand what the concept of freedom truly means.
This question has become a standard of modern Young Adult fantasy, best exemplified in the skyrocketing popularity of Young Adult fiction. The debate between freedom and security—how much is too much safety? What freedoms are we willing to sacrifice in order to remain secure?—is a running theme in these novels. Suzanne Collins writes in The Hunger Games, “District 12. Where you can starve to death in safety,” a comment that epitomizes this new, ongoing debate. The world in Allie Condie’s Matched trilogy is one of health, safety, and moderation. Regulated food portions are delivered, pre-cooked and pre-portioned for each person, directly to the home at meal time. Exercise is regulated to ensure the optimum health of the citizens. People are matched to their jobs and to their potential mates. And the freedoms of choice and variety have completely been eliminated. Cory Doctorow’s seminal YA novel Little Brother riffs off of Orwell’s 1984 and questions the value of security and the meaning of freedom in a post-911 world. Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, James Dashner’s Maze Runner… and the list goes on.
When I discuss this trend in my university courses, I don’t ask the students why they think this upswing in depictions of strict government control and the desire for freedom is taking place. This is, after all, an theme as old as civilization itself. I ask my students, “why now?” And more importantly, “why is this an American Young Adult trend?”
One need only look at the news media for a simple answer. The debate over X-ray body scanners in airports. The 99% vs. the 1%. The Patriot Act. The long-standing argument between Democrats and Republicans about too much vs. not enough government control and intervention. There is a push and pull between government control and personal independence in our society that is as old as America itself, yet made more prominent by the tragedies and subsequent responses to 9/11. And at our core, we fear that our young people, those who have the power and responsibility to change our future, are just not paying attention.
Here’s the truth of it: they aren’t. And their parents aren’t, either.
With so much media handwavery—the Real Housewives, Jersey Shore, Cake Boss, Dawg the Bounty Hunter, the move from hard news to “reporters” exchanging sexual banter and wearing low-cut tops, the penultimate desire to just sit and be entertained—the debates about body scanners and elections and personal rights and freedoms seem so… unglamorous. It’s not fun to be informed, to debate, or even to think.
But here’s the thing: these YA dystopian novels, packaged as entertaining stories with strong, interesting characters, are dealing with powerful issues that challenge us all to do just that. They ask us to question whether we truly want to live in a world where we are completely safe, yet we cannot choose our own meals, when to exercise, whom to marry, or even when we die. They ask if we are willing to trade our freedom of speech and assembly for a “safe” world. They hold up a mirror to our decadence and our blindness about the realities of suffering. They ask if we are willing, as Little Brother asks, to allow the government to track everything we do online, where and how we travel, what we buy—all in the name of security. And, as all of these novels ask in the end, where is that line between freedom and security? How much government control is too much? Where does it all end?
On this Independence Day, it’s important not just to celebrate our freedom, but to continue questioning and debating, and above all, to keep fighting with our words, thoughts and ideas that war our forefathers started. As readers, writers, and thinkers, it is our patriotic duty.