Fighting for freedom..?

Today is the day I celebrate my Freedom

Operation Enduring freedom – Afghanistan. Operation Freedom Falcon – Libya. Operation Iraqi Freedom – Iraq. Fighting [pause] for freedom [pause].

I just came back from an assignment in Pakistan, where in every step I took I felt my freedom endangered. The Pakistani government forbid me to travel, Islam forbid me to drink a beer after a day’s hard work and – if I would be a woman – society would forbid me to play cricket in one of the squared parks. In case the state, religion and broader society were okay, there was always my employer to forbid me to walk 2 minutes to the corner shop, forced me to stay at home or ordered me to inform them about my whereabouts, day and night [pause].

Now I am back in “the free West” [pause], but surprisingly my West doesn’t seem all that Free to me. I mean, do people really wear the same clothes, drink the same drinks and have the same working hours out of free will? And it goes further than these futilities, even the thinking is not as free as you’d expect. Yes, we discuss endlessly about minor details, but the mainstream thinking seems predetermined. A blind belief in democracy, market power and control mechanisms prevails. The room for nuances seems small; you are expected to choose the side with the majority’s opinion. Kiev and Kurds are okay while separatists and Islamists are barbaric. At the daily circus of work, a mere repetition of the morning newspaper will suffice to make you appear smart and eloquent.

In the meantime William Wallace’s dream almost became true: Scottish freedom since 307 years. Free Catalonia, Kosovo and Bavaria are a matter of time. Soon Europe will be made of free city states, dukedoms and little kingdoms again… [laughing].

Image credit: Reece Lodder

A warm welcome to you all, ladies and gentlemen.

Today, ladies and gentlemen, today I am officially celebrating my freedom. [pause]. Not that there are flowers to commemorate a heroic past liberation. Nor do I wish to make a statement about today’s wars and geo-political games. I don’t want to make a point about what you should do or not do in the future and the shops are open like any other day. [pause] I am just celebrating my freedom because for me it is has become one of the most important values in life. You may listen or not, that is up to you. You are happily invited to join my celebration, but are not obliged to do so. Nevertheless, freedom deserves to be celebrated and I am happy you are here to listen to this speech. [pause]

In this speech I would like to challenge you to think… think for a moment about ordinary freedom. What is it? How do you define it? What does it mean? Is it something to take? To have? To be? [pause] Is it something to fight for? Is others’ freedom something to fight for? For what kind of freedom then, are we fighting? [stress bold words].

Are we fighting for a freedom that is:

  • instant news on your smartphone.
  • a house with a swimming pool.
  • a clean toilet?

These things certainly do not define freedom. If we look at it from the exact opposite, freedom could as well be:

  • not having access to information to worry about.
  • to move whenever you want, instead of cleaning your pool on your “free” Saturday morning.
  • and peeing in the bushes, that certainly feels like freedom to men.

Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski.

There is always a line for the women’s toilet. [ask the crowd] Could you therefore reason that in a way men in “the West” are by nature and cultural norms freer than women are? This might sound silly, but I am dead serious. What exactly, are we talking about? [pause and look around]

My truth –and I deliberately refer to my truth- is that freedom is all of the above. It is mobility, information, time, expression, communication, property, (in)dependence, technology and rules. What is free for one is suffocating for the other, all of the mentioned aspects are just dimensions on how to look at freedom.

Looking deeper, what is true for all of us is that freedom is yours, it is now and it is a feeling. Like the well-known philosopher Nina Simone ones said [semi-singing]: I’ve got my boobies, I’ve got my heart, my soul… I’ve got life! [hum-hum], let’s just say that this sticks better than a quote from Erich Fromm [laughing]. It might seem a contradiction, but Pakistan made me realize that one is not per definition freer than the other. There is no amount of freedom you can count, just the dimensions to look at it. Blindly following another frees you from doubt, a military dictator frees you from the responsibility to choose the right government, lack of information provides freedom to make up your own mind. [pause]

In short: freedom is not about democracy, an independent state or doing what you want. But it is very much yours and now and it is a very, very nice feeling. That is why you cannot take it, have it, provide it or be it. Allow me to try to explain why it is worth celebrating, why it might even be worth to fight for…

For one, freedom is YOURS.

It is not the birds that take away your freedom, neither are it trees or rivers. More importantly, it are not borders, governments and religion who determine your freedom. Only people can take away your freedom, because only people can tell. Tell others how to act, think and feel. Only people force. Force weaker counterparts to act against their will. Only people rule. Create rules, fines and sentences. Think about it, only people know verbs like you “need”, “must”, “have to” and “oblige”. Only people can make a promise [pause] And only people can break that same promise.

  Northern Exposure

This is, however, not the full story. It would be too easy to externalise freedom to ‘the other’, as others are unable to spoil my freedom celebration. The full story is that people are also able to not listen, to disobeys and break rules. Do not get me wrong, I am not an anarchist. I do know concepts like society, consequences, negative externalities and private property. I am just illustrating that by obeying to those rules, fitting to social conventions and fearing force, you let other people take away your own freedom. You give them the opportunity to do that, because it is your freedom.

[Crescendo] As a matter a fact, if you feel bounded, limited or restricted it is ultimately you who is responsible. “Rules are not rules” FUCK IT, rules are a means, and hopefully to a good end! [silence] Point is, that despite the consequences, it is ultimately up to you to decide to break them.

[Softly spoken] But it is also up to you to obey. To take care of your old grandmamma, to drive sober, to lower the music for your studying neighbour. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the same beauty of freedom.

My second point: freedom is not only yours, it is also NOW.

It does not exist in past or in the future. It is a present of the present [nice huh?], a gift of the contemporary, a choice you can enjoy only in the moment. Why celebrate yesterday’s happiness or tomorrow’s possibilities instead of today’s beauty?

To be conscious of your options is to live today. Nina Simone has ‘got life’ today, because tomorrow she could be dead and yesterday she would “had”, not “have”. You can quit your job, run away as a parent, [quicker] you can cheat, lie, betray, refuse to pay, waste, flee, fight, steal and ruin. You can. [pause]. Now. Just as you can love, work, play, enjoy, sing, admire, build, learn and care. Today. [pause]. You can change the course of history now, but you cannot change history in itself.

That is why worrying and regret are strange -almost alien- words to me. Maybe I could have been world champion of Formula 1, but obviously I am not now. Maybe judgement day starts tomorrow, which is all the more reason to live today. Like the famous philosopher Baz Luhrmann says: “Know that worrying is as effective as chewing bubble-gum”. Insuring is something you do for today, investing is something you do for today, mourning is a feeling of today and expectations are made today.

In short: you are free to go now. But if you decide to stay, there is one last point I’d like to make.

And that final point [pause] , that final point is that freedom is a FEELING.

Suppose you are the richest man in the world, you own the government. On top of this, every day is a new day without any obligations. Now suppose that all goods are at your service. You can teleport yourself to tropical islands or mountain peaks and you are in good health. [pause] You can choose whatever you want, say whatever you want, do whatever you want. Now I ask you, would that make you free?

[longer pause]

No. Not per definition. Countless fables and fairy tales are teaching our children all over the world exactly this point. Greedy kings and wolfs are facing peasants and turtles lacking mobility, finance or choice. Despite their limitations in one of the dimensions of freedom, the peasant and turtles are still the winners. Strange. [short pause]

True, there may be things which limit you in one way or the other. More true, however, is that these limitations are completely irrelevant. Irrelevant, because they only set the scene. Irrelevant, because they do not tell us who is the villain and who is the hero. Irrelevant, because freedom [pause] exists only as a feeling.

To research if Pakistan is less free then the West, I would first have to go into a person’s mind and then compare it with another’s mind. Obviously, I cannot. I cannot because freedom is yours, it is now and -above all- it is a feeling.

So, let’s get back to where we started: is freedom something to fight for?

I started this speech by listing some military operations and today there is fighting for freedom in many places: from Mali to Waziristan, From Luhansk to Kenya and much more smaller fights we don’t even know about. Fighting for equal rights on the streets, for justice in courts, for economic wealth in boardrooms and for beliefs in parliaments. [pause]

Yes, I truly belief that freedom is worth celebrating and even worth fighting. Yet we shouldn’t fight to impose our own definition of freedom upon others. That would be a contradiction in itself.

However, we could and should, celebrate and fight, for the freedom [pause] to be free.

Floris de Roy is a writer and economist, based in The Hague, Netherlands.