Thursday, July 31, 2008

Discipline and Hope

Having no need to account for anything they have done, our politicians do not find it necessary to trouble us with with either evidence or argument, or to confess their errors, or to subtract their losses from their gains; they speak like the gods of Olympus, assured that if they say they are our servants anything they do in their own interest is right. Our public discourse has been reduced to the manipulation of uprooted symbols: good words, bad words, the names of gods and devils, emblems, slogans, flags. For some the flag no longer stands for the country, it is the country; they plant their crops and bury their dead in it.

There is no better example of this deterioration of language than in the current use of the word "freedom." Across the whole range of current politics this word is now being mouthed as if its devotees cannot decide whether it should be kissed or eaten, and this adoration has nothing to do with its meaning. The government is protecting the freedom of people by killing them or hiding microphones in their houses. The government's opponents, left and right, wish to set people free by telling them exactly what to do. All this for the sake of the political power the word has come to have. The up-to-date politician no longer pumps the hand of the prosperous constituent; he offers to set him--or her--free. And yet it seems to me that the word has no political meaning at all; the government cannot serve freedom except negatively--"by the alacrity" in Thoreau's phrase, "with which it [gets] out of the way."

. . . Free men are not set free by their government. Free men have set their government free of themselves; they have made it unnecessary. Freedom is not accomplished by a declaration. A declaration of freedom is either a futile and empty gesture, or it is the statement of a finished fact. As I understand it, freedom is a personal matter; though we may be enslaved as a group, we can be free only as persons. We can set each other free only as persons. It is a matter of discipline. A person can free himself of a bondage that has been imposed on him only by accepting a bondage that he has chosen. A man who would not be the slave of other men must be the master of himself--that is the real meaning of self-government. If we all behaved as honorably and honestly and industriously as we expect our representatives to behave, we would soon put the government out of work

-Wendell Berry "Discipline and Hope," 1971

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