I'm still free
by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on December 30, 2004.
"Take my love, take my land / Take me where I cannot stand / I don't care, I'm still free / You can't take the sky from me."
I was going to write about run-off voting this week. But the holidays put me in a playful mood. It would be cool if Colorado legislators implemented run-off voting, but right now I'd rather think about something else. The meaning of life, say. What awaits in 2005?
I plan to bring in the new year among friends watching a marathon of Firefly -- the best damn television show ever made. The lines above are from the Firefly theme song. It's a space show, but don't break out the Spock ears. Firefly is about having your dreams crushed, then finding the will to carry on with life and create the human bonds that sustain us. It's the American frontier in space: stories of courage, challenges to tyranny and, naturally, smuggling.
What is it about the frontier that beckons? Robert Zubrin, Colorado space geek and President of the Mars Society, wrote about this in The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must: "Certainly we see around us an ever more apparent loss of vigor of our society; increasing fixity of the power structure and bureaucratization of all levels of life... the proliferation of regulations affecting all aspects of public, private and commercial life; the spread of irrationalism... the loss of willingness by individuals to take risks, to fend for themselves or think for themselves... Without a frontier from which to breathe new life, the spirit that gave rise to the progressive humanistic culture that America has represented for the past two centuries is fading..."
Just imagine when the first humans are born on Mars or in space. Then imagine when the off-planet population exceeds that of Earth. In a couple thousand years, they'll consider 2005 the pre-dawn of human civilization.
I don't agree with all of Zubrin's claims. Cultural renaissance is possible given the right intellectual trends. Yet there's something to this notion of the frontier. The next big thing. The place to start over. Where nobody tells you what to do. Where everybody knows your name. (Wait -- wrong show.) Where everything is possible, nothing is safe and lives are lived with fire.
The same feeling arises with the archetype of the noble smuggler. The worse the politics of a culture, the finer the line between an outlaw and a freedom fighter. Some of America's greatest heroes are outlaws, whether they defied British taxes, smuggled slaves to freedom or refused a legal order to give up a bus seat.
Ayn Rand's pirate Ragnar Danneskjšld said, "If they believe that the purpose of my life is to serve them, let them try to enforce their creed. If they believe that my mind is their property -- let them come and get it... [W]hen robbery becomes the purpose of law... then it is an outlaw who has to become a policeman."
So what is this force that drives free spirits to the frontier, that compels the best of men in the worst of circumstances to stand against the churning tracks of oppression?
Rand thinks the foundation of ethics is the individual's life. There's a lot to this, yet I've long thought it a problem to claim that the purpose of living is life. Yet when I suggest the purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness, I'm confronted by the philosophers with the happiness machine. If you could plug into a machine that would absolutely convincingly simulate a perfectly happy life, would you do it?
Hell no. Why not? The answer has something to do with the need to live authentically. It's not enough merely to feel happy. The human soul needs a sense of purpose, a sense of self-direction, a radiance.
That is why I hate Social Security -- along with Bush's mandatory, regulated accounts. How dare some idiot politician in Washington, D.C., seize 12.4 percent of my earnings because I am deemed too stupid and irresponsible to prepare for my own retirement and watch out for my own grandmother. It's my life -- mine! -- and I don't need your "help."
Jeffrey Friedman, the editor of Critical Review, argues that freedom cannot be an end in itself -- it is only a value insofar as it is necessary for the achievement of more fundamental values. In a sense, he is correct. Americans tend to waste their freedom on mind-numbing diversions (not that all diversions are bad). Liberty permits the vile. Yet freedom is integral to goal-directed action. Freedom of action demands and inspires freedom of consciousness -- and vice versa. The initiation of political force is repugnant to the free mind.
I endorse run-off voting because it allows greater individual expression in one small arena. Run-off voting allows voters to rank their choices of candidates when three or more people are running. It thus eliminates the "wasted-vote syndrome" along with the risk of throwing the election to one's least-favored candidate. This is a marginal improvement. However, though I'd like more secure and more expressive voting, I also want severe limitations placed on democracy. The will of the individual ought not be suppressed by the tyranny of the majority.
So this is what inspires me: political liberty and great achievements of noble souls. You can't take the sky from me.