Monday, July 2, 2012

The Value of Freedom

"Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” –Benjamin Franklin

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on the Declaration (Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1900) 
The anniversary of our nation’s declaration of independence is upon us once more. There will be barbecues, fireworks and celebrations. There will also be quiet moments of prayer and warm thoughts for those soldiers home and abroad, those who’ve touched our lives, and those lost in support of the value we Americans hold most dear: our freedom.

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.


Redbeard said...

I think one thing that's missing in in analysis isn't just whether the government should keep us safe, but whether corporations should do the same.

Some people who take the government to task on tracking people and what they do have no issues with private corporations who do the same thing. The government ostensibly has our well being in mind, but corporations are motivated by pure profit. In a fight between corporations and the government over who gets to track what, the people end up losing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Redbeard!

I think that's definitely a valid and important piece of this puzzle. Consumerism has an iron hold on our society on so many levels, which is a terrifying thought. From the influence of corporations on government to the influence of corporations on the consumer, we are not paying enough attention to that aspect of control, and corporate control over the average human life/ lifestyle has, in many ways, the potential for greater influence on the average American's daily life than even the government.

Now that I think about it, the dystopian novels haven't really delved much into this form of control, so I guess there's room there for new writers to swoop in! A great commentary on this actually appears in the Pixar movie Wall-E, which makes many powerful points about how the way we live today has the potential to affect our future. I show this "kids' movie" to my university classes, and it always results in engaging discussions about these ideas.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Kim!

This was a fun post -- kind of left me caught been a stirring a patriotic spirit, and a sudden desire to watch "V for Vendetta". ;)

Hadley Rille Books very own Christopher McKitterick wrote a wonderful novel TRANSCENDENCE, where corporations rule the world and control consumption habits -- including, most importantly, the consumption of war. It's not young adult, but definitely gets at the ideas put forward by Redbeard.

To be fair to "young people today", when I was in high school I thought about politics only enough to accept that my parents must have been right to despise Jimmy Carter and love Ronald Reagan. I think it's just not a period of life when we have the tools, perspective and information necessary in order to question the status quo, except, maybe, when it comes to fashion.

That being said, I read Animal Farm and 1984 in high school, as well as several Vonnegut novels, and probably a few other things that helped set the stage for a more critical mindset later on. So I totally agree with you that YA novels that tackle questions of freedom from a critical perspective are really important.

Oh, and I loved Wall-E. That's like one of the best movies ever. Okay, Wall-E and UP. :)

Terri-Lynne said...

Kim...I think I can hear strains of The Battle Hymn of the Republic whispering in the background.

Way back before dystopian was dystopian (1993), Lois Lowry wrote "The Giver." It is still, without a doubt, the greatest of its kind. What happens when the gov't chooses everything for you from your birthday gifts to your birthday, from your parents and siblings to your spouse, who is worthy of living and who should be "released," even what job you will hold in the community? When all choice is taken away for the good of the whole, the utopia hoped for becomes something sinister. It's chilling.

Great post, Kim!