although you’re older — and white —
and somewhat more free.
“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes
The iconic aliens of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five marvel at the idealistic delusion of the human race when challenged by Billy Pilgrim about free will:
“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” [Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (Kindle Locations 1008–1010). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.]
In the American character, “free” remains a powerful and corrupt term and concept.
It is uttered like an incantation, but in fact, the use of “free” has sullied both the role of government (socialism) and the so-called free market (capitalism).
Nothing of the government is free — not highways, public schooling, the military, the judicial system and police force, and certainly not the bare-bones social services so demonized.
All government structures and services are publicly funded, a powerful and important term that highlights that public funding provides a foundation on which a free people can remain free.
Despite the animosity among many Americans about the damn government (who is us), there would be no free market without essential and publicly funded structures and services; think about how any business could exist in the U.S. without the highway system.
But we sully capitalism as well with promises of “free” — free internet with our hotel room, buy one to get one free.
But, alas, there is nothing free in the free market. The truth is that all products and services are paid for by the customers.
Internet may be included with the price of a room, and two products may be included with the usual charge for one product — but nothing is free, including freedom.
Writing in 1946 specifically about bigotry, English educator Lou LaBrant asked: “Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings? (p. 323).”
LaBrant was confronting the power of words and the need for teachers of language to stress the importance of using words with care; what we say, how we label and name — these human acts define, shape, and create the world.
But to name does not make truth, LaBrant warns:
A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of any thing. Children do not understand this; nor do all adults. (p. 324)
As with “free,” LaBrant would argue: “These abstractions tend to become vague and therefore misleading….Frequently the speaker uses them with apparent assurance that they have meaning, and yet could not for his[/her] life explain what he[/she] means” (p. 325).
This carelessness with language, with words, LaBrant calls “word magic” — and with our slipshod use of “free,” it is a black magic that sullies everything it touches.
Free will hangs before the human grasp like an apple forbidden by the Creator.
Tempting, yes, but is it delusion?
Nothing’s free, including freedom, and so, “free” can only be cherished if used with the care it deserves.
Feel free to take such care.