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Notes on Freedom and Culture: What Culture? Whose Freedom?

03/06/2013 11:50 am ET | Updated May 06, 2013

It was one of those times. Stuck in a hotel on rainy day. Why not take in a movie? A comedy would be about right, and we chose "This is 40." The cast looked good and it promised to be harmless - about a couple reaching 40 and facing into it (or not) with their two daughters. My wife and I weren't expecting anything deep but we were soon exhausted by its shallowness. OK for a skit on Saturday Night Live or a segment on The Daily Show, but not for a full length movie. The 40-year-old parents (going on 15) are affluent but suffering financially -- a large house, a BMW and a Lexus. The two kids are what you would expect: alternately obnoxious and endearing, with cell phones and the usual paraphernalia of social networking. Sex had become routine and boring and what there was of sexual activity was of the candy-store variety -- casual and surface. I lost count of the use of the "f" word. It becomes numbing after a while. It had its good moments. A nice cameo performance by John Lithgow (always good value) and a hysterical meeting with a motor-mouth mother. The script had echoes of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," but without the sense of the absurd, without the talent.

It was a terrible movie with an occasional worthwhile moment. It made me think about our culture or absence of it and the fact that our "culture" is seen all over the world. We wonder why many on the planet are horrified by what passes for American culture. One part of me feels defensive. The crappy culture is the price we pay for freedom and our freedom is a central value for us. We put up with the shallowness and sleaze (and the plain dumb) because we would lose something precious if we exercised voluntary let alone legislative restraint. Another part of me screams "foul" at this specious piece of reasoning. Freedom isn't license and no society can flourish and survive without voluntary restraint.

So what about our national discussion about our freedom -- not least about our love of conflicting freedoms? What does it mean to be free? Most of us labor under a particular conception of what it is be free as being centered on the autonomous self, doing what it pleases without the restraint of priest or monarch. I have my inviolable truth, which can neither be contradicted nor restrained. I am a free-floating agent and any relations I have with others are merely and purely contractual.

Now, imagine a young boy, 16 years old, in prison for resisting the Nazis. He asked himself the question, "How should I demonstrate my freedom?" This is what he did. He tore off a piece of brown paper from under his mattress and wrote down, with a blunt pencil he had cadged from a guard, all the Latin words he could remember. This was the way he demonstrated his free spirit. He was Ralf, Baron Dahrendorf, known as a defender of liberty. Writing down Latin verbs was his way of expressing his freedom. "In the preservation of liberty," he wrote later, "we have the weapons we need, our minds." He presumed that we have well-furnished ones in the first place. It seems to me that in our culture we have a dearth of well-furnished minds. A little bit of elitism in this direction might be a good thing.

It's hard to imagine any contemporary American giving such an example of the free spirit. Or take the story of the idealist left-wing students in Paris who in 1968, drunk with the possibility of a new political beginning went to the old Marxist philosopher Alexandre Kojève to ask his advice. "Learn Greek!" he told them. They were confused and dumbfounded. This was the last thing they expected. They were hoping for something like, "Demonstrate! Occupy a building! Overturn and burn a few automobiles! But learn Greek? What the hell for?" The response! You want to be free? All right! Learn Greek. Write down all the Latin words you can remember. If you do, you might bump into a different vision of freedom from the one where you get a high from following your appetites and instincts.

Freedom? It's a key word in the American lexicon, and on the surface most of us think we know what it means. We need to use the imagination to throw us off balance and make "freedom" appear strange and unfamiliar. In the words of G. K. Chesterton, "The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange." The fact that there's something playful about this approach shouldn't blind us to the fact that the game of freedom is a very serious one indeed. Freedom isn't doing what we damn well please. Yet at its crudest, this do-as-I-please view of freedom is at the heart of much of populist rhetoric. In short, freedom is often a scarcely veiled nihilism.

David A. Hollinger's book, "Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism," points to the fact that

"Much in American culture is passionate, ugly, violent, committed. Americans like it that way; it is part of their sense of self ... The Scarsdale housewife with a gun in her handbag, the Southerner with a Confederate flag on his lawn, the Jew in Brooklyn wishing death to the Palestinians, the Minnesota feminist reviling men as potential rapists, the black professor chanting anti-Semitism -- these are not candidates for membership in urbanely voluntary affiliations. These are angry people, who want to keep their share of anger."

Freedom to be angry, very angry, is a key element of the package.

We need a new national conversation about the culture that produces both lousy and great movies, about a culture that embraces violence as the necessary price of freedom, about the kind of human beings we are becoming.