The paradox of freedom

The classicist E. A. Dodds, after a detailed examination of ancient behavior, concluded that, during times of stress, humans retreat from rational thought into magic. “Vulgar magic is commonly the last resort of the personally desperate, of those whom man and God have alike failed,” Dodds wrote. He pointed out that this was true throughout history, including his time (mid-20th century) which was marked by Europeans desperately clinging to dictators. In desperate times, many people reject rational thought, especially in the form of science, in favor of magic.

I notice these days that the one common theme running through the right-wing frenzy about masks, vaccinations, QAnon, conspiracy theories, Pizzagate, attacking the Capitol, gun violence, on and on, is the concept of freedom. People are desperate for personal freedom, they say, even if it leads to the spreading of disease or criminal behavior.

“Freedom” may seem easy to define, but it is not. We encounter the words “freedom” and “liberty” most often as verbal abstractions, yet I am convinced that real freedom lies in the deed not the word, and that the limits of freedom are narrowly defined. For example, a very large portion of our lives have already been determined at conception, when we inherited the genes of our two parents: bodily configuration, intelligence, aptitudes, susceptibility to disease, and so on. At birth we are constrained again, by nationality, social class, the quality of our parents, even geographical region. We are not as free as we claim to be.

When I view the actual behavior of those who are desperate, it is clear that they have chosen slavery while imagining that they have gained freedom. They chain themselves to FOX News and stare compulsively at their electronic devices, abandoning critical thinking and the work of making good judgments in favor of clicking on this and clicking on that. This is our modern form of magic: Turn it on, start clicking and the truth is revealed.

Magic is a form of deception, which we call magic “tricks.” Electronic magic is similar. Most of us don’t know how it works, but we are enthralled by the results. And it is easy; we can do so much without the least effort! Thus people uncritically enslave themselves to some anonymous source in some distant location. In fact, one can claim that these sources are not spatial and do not exist in time as normally experienced: magic. In their desire to be free, many people have abandoned their freedom, placing themselves in the control of whomever runs the electronic show. This adoption of a kind of magic corresponds precisely with the rejection of science. We all live in a world that has its material foundation in science, yet many are somehow anesthetized to that fact. They are capable of sitting in an airplane at 35,000 feet, going 500 miles per hour, and simultaneously imagine that our elections are controlled from Venezuela or that vaccines contain computer chips.

I do not mean to imply that electronic slavery is confined to the right-wingers, though it is obvious that that is where the poisonous falsehoods have their greatest impact. Nor do I mean to imply that electronic communications are useless: I submitted this essay electronically, and the information two paragraphs down came from an internet search. But there is a difference between usefulness and passive submission.

Ignorance cannot make you free and magic cannot save you, including the magic of ivermectin. And that raises another question: Since right-wingers are making health decisions based on magical beliefs instead of knowledge, and since they are also making health decisions based on politics, does that mean that magic and politics overlap? Apparently everything is now political, even disease. And, as has been the case with other issues, the political right-wing is where I find most of the noise comes from.


I mention here a group who in actual fact and deed insisted on their freedom: the Continental Army in 1776. Gen. George Washington mandated inoculations against smallpox among all troops on Feb. 5, 1777, and all were inoculated by the end of the year (about 40,000). Washington himself was already immune, because he had already contracted the disease and knew how bad it was. The inoculation was called “variolation,” a relatively crude predecessor of vaccination that followed the same principle as vaccination but involved cutting the skin rather than using a needle. It was more dangerous than modern vaccinations and caused more discomfort, but it worked the same way and the troops did it, even when they were suffering at Valley Forge.

So, if you think that wearing a mask and getting vaccinated is a burdensome hardship that violates your freedom, think about what our political ancestors did. Real freedom does not resemble infantile behavior. We revere our political ancestors for their courage and their clarity, not for childish fussiness.

The right-wingers who behave this way, such as disrupting public meetings in the cause of “freedom,” define freedom negatively. They feel free to shout, to insult, to threaten; to place other people at the risk of contracting disease; to slander fellow members of Congress; to spread outrageous lies; or, in the case of the Capitol attack, to commit mayhem. Let’s remember that throughout the 20th century, an age of dictatorships, every dictator used a department of propaganda to control “information” sent to compliant populations, which often resulted in mob violence. A recent president who needed to constantly send messages on Twitter could accomplish the same goals much more efficiently.

However we define freedom, we are much better off to define it positively. Freedom begins with free thought, which includes the ability to think critically, including the ability to accurately assess information, and to reject falsehood in favor of truth; to be moral, as in helping to keep our fellow citizens free of disease; to allow people to vote without harassment, and to honor electoral outcomes; to behave with dignity. Free to reject electronic magic.

Clarence Crawford is a retired teacher and a retired wilderness guide, as well as the author of the book “Sunlight North: The Wisdom of the Arctic Wilderness.” He has lived in Alaska for several decades.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.