Freedom

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The passage below, about freedom, a hard-won human condition, is taken from Memoirs of a Superfluous Man by Albert Jay Nock, published in 1943, beginning on page 313.

Like the general run of American children, I grew up under the impression that mankind have an innate and deep-seated love of liberty.  This was never taught me as an article of faith, but in one way and another, mostly from pseudo-patriotic books and songs, children picked up a vague notion that “the priceless boon of liberty” is really a very fine thing, that mankind love it and are jealous of it to the point of raising Cain if it be denied them; also that America makes a great specialty of liberty and is truly the land of the free.  I first became uncertain about these tenets through reading ancient accounts of the great libertarian wars of history, and discovering that there were other and more substantial causes behind those wars and that actually the innate love of liberty did not have much to do with them.  This caused me to carry on my observations upon matters nearer at hand, and my doubts were confirmed.  If mankind really have an unquenchable love for freedom, I thought it strange that I saw so little evidence of it; and as a matter of fact, from that day to this I have seen none worth noticing.  One is bound to wonder why it is, since people usually set some value on what they love, that among those who are presumed to be so fond of freedom the possession of it is so little appreciated.  Taking the great cardinal example lying nearest at hand, the American people once had their liberties; they had them all; but apparently they could not resist o’nights until they had turned them over to a prehensile crew of professional politicians.

So my belief in these tenets gradually slipped away from me.  I can not say just when I lost it, for the course of its disappearance was not marked by any events.  It vanished more than thirty years ago, however, for I have consciously kept an eye on the matter for that length of time.  What interested me especially is that during this period I have discovered scarcely a corporal’s guard of persons who had any conception whatever of liberty as a principle, let alone caring for any specific vindications of it as such.  On the other hand, I have met many who were very eloquent about liberty as affecting some matter of special interest to them, but who were authoritarian as the College of Cardinals on other matters.  Prohibition brought out myriads of such; so did the various agitations about censorship, free speech, minority-rights of Negroes, Jews, Indians; and among all whom I questioned I did not find a baker’s dozen who were capable of perceiving any inconsistency in their attitude.

According to my observations, mankind are among the most easily tamable and domesticable of all creatures in the animal world.  They are readily reducible to submission, so readily conditionable (to coin a word) as to exhibit an almost incredibly enduring patience under restraint and oppression of the most flagrant character.  So far are they from displaying any overweening love of freedom that they show a singular contentment with a condition of servitorship, often showing a curious canine pride in it, and again often simply unaware that the are existing in that condition.  Byron, one of the world’s greatest natural forces in poetry, had virtually no reflective power, but in the last lines of his poem on Bonnivard, who “regained his freedom with a sigh,” he displays a flash of insight almost worthy of Sophocles, into mankind’s easy susceptibility to conditioning.

I do not know the origin of this idea that mankind loves liberty above all things, but the American revolution of 1776 and the French revolution of 1789 apparently did most to give it currency.  Since then it has done yeoman’s service to an unbroken succession of knaves intent on exploiting the name and appearance of freedom before mankind, while depriving them of the reality.  Such is the immense irony of history.  The goddess of liberty, as she lay in the arms of de Noailles and Lafayette, was a beautiful and alluring figure; but after she had been passed on to the arms of Mirabeau, then handed on to the embraces of Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Marat, Barras, Carrier, and finally Bonaparte, she was left in an extremely raddled and shopworn condition.  “Good old revolution!” said one of my friends in a meditative mood, during the stormy times of 1936 in Paris. “Liberté, Égalité, Defense d’uriner.  They still keep the fine old motto posted up, I see, but it doesn’t seem to mean much more now than it did when Robespierre was running things.”

I might have witnessed some of the revolutions which occurred in my time, but having a pretty clear notion of what they would come to, I paid little attention to them.  Like Ibsen and Henry George, I have little respect for political revolutions, for I never knew of one which in the long-run did not cost more than it came to.  Beheading a Louis XVI to make way for a Napoleon seems an unbusinesslike venture, to say the least of it.  Passing from the tyranny of Charles I to the tyranny of Cromwell is like taking a turn in a revolving door; the exertion merely puts you back where you started.  If every jobholder in Washington were driven into the Potomac tonight, their places would be taken tomorrow by others precisely like them.  Nor have I any more respect for what the Duke of Wellington called “a revolution by due course of law” than I have for one of the terrorist type.  In this country, for example, unseating predatory and scampish Republicans to give place to predatory and scampish Democrats, and vice versa, has long proved itself not worth the trouble of holding an election…

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