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Fate and Freedom


I have long mulled the distinction between fate and freedom, words that seem to capture the mind of the Middle Ages and the world after the French Revolution. Fate had to do with the fixed hierarchies of Europe, with the king on top, the nobility as the gene pool of royals just below, followed by the Catholic Church, which certified that the king bore a thimble full of divine blood, and below that, the lesser gentry, landowners of all sorts, the military, and the mass of serfs and domestics. Fate derives from the Latin fatum, one meaning of which is that which is decreed by the gods. Only a god could assign one’s fate, as in the case of most Greek tragedies. If you tried to escape from it, you would invoke the wrath of the gods and die miserably. You didn’t question your fate when you came of age and realized you were the son or daughter of a swineherd, and would slop the pigs for the rest of your days, as did your ancestors before you.

The French Revolution beheaded the king and the nobles, destroyed as much of the Church as it could lay hands on, and declared equality, fraternity, and liberty for all. The Middle Ages were over in the space of a few months. But the task was made easy by the fact that most monarchies of the time were rotten. Louis XIV saw it coming when he remarked, “Apres moi, le deluge.” After me, all hell will break loose. He was the last absolute monarch of the line, as close to being a god himself as any mortal could reach. The sun did not rise, figuratively speaking, until Louis was awake and fed and dressed for the day, the ceremony of the levant. There were specially trained servants for this ceremony, who knew precisely how to treat the Sun King in order for there to be a day at all over France. And the Church was solidly behind the man, offering its seals and certificates to vouchsafe it was the will of God that he should reign.

There are twelve remaining monarchies in Europe, if you count the Vatican, but while the royal families are rich and privileged, they are at best symbolic of an age gone by. Coaches are taken out of mothballs to roll a prince or princess to a wedding, or a newly crowned king or queen to the coronation. Otherwise, the gilded wagons are stored away, seldom used for any other occasion. That seems to be the remains of fate in the modern age. Even a few dynasties among the Rockefellers and Duponts don’t add up to much; nor do the political dynasties of the Kennedys, Bushes, and perhaps Clintons suggest any sort of return to monarchic ways. Money is not fate, it is influence. One doesn’t assume that any god will provide assistance to Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush to get to the White House. And the rise to power is only for four years, near the end of which is a ritual murder in the form of a lame duck period, followed by the rise of a replacement. If anything, presidential power seems more like the life of Diana’s guardian in the sacred wood at Nemi – he keeps his job until someone else can kill him and take it over.

Freedom has replaced all the fixity of the universe. It is a fluid thing, in which modern life tosses about like corks on the sea. Nothing is assured or possessed for long, not even great success. The moment one is crowned the greatest, the descent down the dark side of the mountain begins. Journalists can’t wait to say Roger Federer is finished, an old man; Tiger Woods’ back is all stove in with gnarled vertebrae from all those reckless swings of the driver. All eyes were on Michael Schumacher, who won seven Formula One World Championships, wondering when he might crash or lose his nerve. Instead, he hit his head while skiing. There were rumors for years that Lance Armstrong was on drugs to win seven Tours de France; then his cycle mates began to rat him out to the authorities, and his honors were taken away, his winnings seized. In freedom, no one stays at the top for long.

Freedom is a kind of nausea of uncertainty that makes life meaningless for many. It prompted Erich Fromm, the political psychologist, to write Escape from Freedom (1941) just as Hitler rose to power and began to expand the reach of Germany across Europe. The appeal of Hitler to many was the return of order and authority, the assurance that each citizen would not be alone in the world, but would be part of the seductive notion of a “Fatherland,” a return to medieval Teutonic monarchy. No longer would the ordinary person be alone before God and the cold, indifferent world of capitalism; a leader would embrace him or her, and make slaves of everyone else. This was the liquor that Hitler distributed free to his people, an elixir to relieve fear and alienation. And it worked wonders, for about four years. Fromm understood the existential dilemma perfectly. The title of his book in England was Fear of Freedom. And instrumental to Hitler’s success was the sanctification of uniforms at all levels of society, and the importance of flags, banners, arm bands to identify the masses who had been dumped out into the universe at the death of fate.

Ever since the end of the Middle Ages, the political imagination has tried to conceive a principle of belonging that might work alongside individual freedom. Capitalism divides the masses into competing factotums, and the work assigned to most of us is nothing we can own or personally identity with. I remember my farther coming home from his job at the State Department one day with a small pasteboard box containing a few photographs, a pen stand, and the brass name plate from his desk. He had retired and this was the sum total of his thirty-odd years of work for the government. Otherwise, his energy was distributed like thin cosmic dust over endless reports and summaries of investigations, most of them anonymous. He had lived and sweated and exerted himself to his limits within the mechanical hierarchy of federal order – none of which could possibly bear the old medieval inscription, me fecit, I made this. He had worked but he had never been a real part of what he worked for. But belonging is dangerous – it calls up the notion of cults, secret societies, sinister groups working outside the law, or syndicates that bear the stamp of conspiracy and danger to the state.

American doctrine argues that freedom should be pure and uncompromised, without affiliations of any kind. When Jack Kennedy was getting ready to campaign for president, he had to overcome a massive handicap – his Catholicism. It suggested an alignment to papal authority and hence, the despised superstitions of a faith associated with Italians, Spanish and Irish immigrants. He vowed not to take any measure that was not completely separate from all other conditions but the good of the nation. That had to satisfy most of his detractors, but not all of them. He had to be alone, a man at the cliff edge facing the winds of the Atlantic, without the consolation of any other voice but his own.

The government embodies the will of post-revolutionary western life, and is the champion of equal rights, freedom for all, even in the face of racism, dread of homosexuality, and the suspicion that women were too close to nature and domesticity ever to be trusted with leadership, influence, or the conduct of their own bodies. The more government insisted on equality and universal suffrage, the more it stirred the unarticulated fears of freedom itself, its potential mayhem and anarchy, its destructive urge to rid the world of any form of obligation or relation. The left was the torchbearer of this philosophy, and the right slowly but surely began to align itself with evangelical Christianity. The South provided a waiting mass of citizens fearful of further disintegration of the old order, who fell into the hands of Republican ideologues, many of them ministers of orthodox churches, who provided them with the chance, once more, to belong and to work against a common enemy, identified as progressive government. It wasn’t long before the Tea Party emerged from bases within the Old South, and whose power to organize was fueled by increasing hatred of liberal governance.

The appeal to a new sense of fate in the post-revolutionary era is strong. Wherever capitalism has liberated old monarchies and tyrannies, it has left large populations without beliefs. Consider the work of oil wealth in Arab culture, which has pitted individuals against tribal culture. The rise of a few oil magnates has come at the expense of the power of imams, chieftains, the integrity of tribal culture and its greatest virtue, belonging. The rise of terrorism has turned the Middle East into a cauldron. But the New South and its allies in the southwestern states have made the Republican party a potent enemy of government. Stalling the Senate, and turning the House of Representatives into a center for counter-reformation legislation are the means by which many have found a way to belong once more – to a faith, and to a government that would roll back its freedom to choose for women, and to prevent the further disintegration of Christian custom in the face of gay marriage. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked the point at which freedom had reached its peak of expression in America, and set in motion the fierce energies of a return to fate and belonging for all those who feared what freedom might become.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen