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Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 31, 2010

America’s Founding Fathers doomed the nation in 1776, on the July day the Declaration of Independence was ratified. By reinforcing descent in the name of freedom, the historic document cultivated an overwhelmed and combatant twenty-first century society in which every principle sparks reproach. We live at odds, often squabbling over matters that are further argued as frivolous. Fight, we do. Conflict over clashing ideals is a prerogative.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

-United States Declaration of Independence

Modern existence has evolved into an endless competition for attention. Chants at assemblies, slogans on T-shirts, in addition to the bumper stickers that motor our roadways—they all jockey for position alongside bobbing protest signs, remarks written in comment sections and posts on social network walls. Causes challenge discordant causes, while the residual cross-talk between opponents blocks a coherent message from reaching sound minds.

The country does not stand united. Americans measure no similar than the casual badminton player matched against a heavyweight champ in the ring at Caesar’s Palace: Witness the calamity on pay-per-view and seize an eco-friendly bag of whole-grain chips to snack on before the first sucker punch is thrown. Upon the ding of the boxing bell at Round One, SunChips emerge a loser because they come in a new biodegradable package that makes bothersome noise when rustled. Foes protest the violation of innocent eardrums by the harsh crackle of the bag. Write-in campaigns and the customary media barrage promptly spur the maker, Frito-Lay, into damage control. The conglomerate bows under pressure, switching back to the previous, quieter—but pollutant—packaging, abandoning their high-minded composting plight for an indefinite time and joining the ranks of compromised dreamers. Look who is grinning now.

What tiny little heads up in those big fat SUVs!
My friends, you look insanely happy at the wheel!
And the Circuit City smiling of a hundred Kathie Lees!
A wall of Regis Philbins! I tell you I’m starting to feel

The commonwealth may nosh in harmony one day but not without defeat. Sacrifice lies buried in freedom.

Joey wished there were some different world he could belong to, some simpler world in which a good life could be had at nobody else’s expense.

Whether issue is taken with an aspect of the salty treats we eat, the car we drive, the way we dispose of garbage, the actions we take upon our bodies—the whatever we do or say—an unnerving fact runs through our choices. Personal values confront the counter sensibilities of someone else, who has the same right to follow independent presumptions. No belief prevails supreme. Moreover, defending individual convictions not only runs a risk of hurting the ones closest to us, but also, in another inconvenient truth, disentangles self-destructive spoils.

“It’s all circling around the same problem of personal liberties,” Walter said. “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.”

Emancipation imprisons the body politic. Differing opinions prevent neighbors from engaging in civil conversation; property lines map battlefronts. Family members reject one another, as children use parental enfranchisement against their custodians; miles separate great distances between mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Physical and mental health suffers in self-imposed bunkers, while any sense of joy languishes in ordained bombast. We strain free at last—disassociated and alone.

She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.

In our solitude—our independence—confusion hinders relationships, and we live in an albatross of moral complexity defying reasonable escape. Everyone is correct, even if blatantly wrong. Faulty logic tolerates judgment and requires due respect.

“But that’s because they’re free,” Joey said. “Isn’t that what freedom is for? The right to think whatever you want? I mean, I admit, it’s a pain in the ass sometimes.”

Around the table, people chuckled at this.

“That’s exactly right,” Jenna’s father said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass.”

John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and fifty-three other dignitaries hoped to build a strong republic over two hundred years ago, and indications of their success are undeniable. Recent history denotes that even foreign attacks are not powerful enough to abandon rule that has grown our homeland into a prospering sovereign in spite of dissent. Broad statements about the demise of America are admittedly reactionary. Our democracy grants promise like nowhere else.

The trivializing observation at the start of this diatribe was posed to illustrate how offhand remarks have earned a place in our world. Instead of a grand generalization about the fall of civilization, a truer tact would have been an expression that the Declaration of Independence requires a short amendment for clarification. Some would suggest a disclaimer or warning. What the article should specifically say is open to debate, even if the writing is already acutely chronicled on the page and, thereby, clearly written on the wall.

Her daughter was gazing with desolate self-control at the main college building, on an outside wall of which Patty had noticed a stone graven with the words of wisdom from the Class of 1920: USE WELL THY FREEDOM.

In order to remain diplomatic in the drafting process, though, we will need to agree on some things first.