I originally wrote this on my Social Capital Inc. blog during the height of the 2011 protests in Egypt. Reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was interesting in this context. Re-publishing here as the theme seemed fitting for the Fourth of July.
Quick–one word to describe what the prostesters in Egypt are seeking?
Good chance that you might choose the word “freedom”, a concept for which so many have struggled and in some cases given their lives. But it is also an idea that has many meanings (it can even be an adjective modifying a fried potato!), which makes Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom an interesting read at this time. This isn’t the place nor I the writer to discuss the book’s literary merits; rather, I’d like to share some of the concepts of freedom I thought about reading the book and how it relates to current events. Before launching into that theme, I would say that Freedom has a tight story line that keeps you moving through the 500+ pages; Franzen seems to be primarily concerned with telling a story and developing his characters as opposed to making a political statement (though he sprinkles them in!). It was simply a good launching point for me to reflect upon the idea of freedom, and is a worthwhile read for both entertainment and reflection.
Sometimes it is freedom from something that is sought. Freedom from oppression and injustice come to mind as freedoms that people are fighting for as I write. In the case of the novel, sometimes it is freedom from someone’s control–parental authority or a relationship that has gone bad. But when that freedom from something is realized, the characters must take up the question “Now what?” is to be done with the newly found freedom. Unfettered freedom without structure and goals does not go too well forFreedom‘s characters, something we certainly see in the real world–both for individuals and nations. We learned after the exhilarating changes in Eastern Europe some 20 years ago that stable democracy doesn’t easily follow by simply becoming free of a totalitarian regime. Presumably at some point relatively soon Egypt will thankfully begin to transition to democracy; the book’s themes can serve as a reminder that regime change is not the end game but the beginning of a lot of hard work to build democratic institutions.
President Clinton has invoked this line from Edward Gibbon a number of times when talking about national service: “When the freedom the Athenians wished for most was the freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.” Freedom to pursue one’s goals and to be a fully-engaged citizen with both rights and responsibilities is perhaps one of the most compelling versions of freedom. May more people both here in the U.S. and around the globe find such freedom.