Freedom… from what?

During this COVID-19 madness many governments in many countries are imposing unprecedented limitations on the civil liberties. In Ukraine, for example, citizens are not allowed to be in public spaces without a face mask, and without ID. One cannot take a walk in the park except with a dog or with a child. Freedom of assembly is out of discussion. Groups of more than two people will likely be approached by the police. Subways are closed. Public buses cannot take more than 10 passengers. Those passengers must have an ausweis that they work for an “essential business”. A mother has been fined for letting her child to play on a playground. People are effectively confined to their residences. Children are not allowed to attend schools. Religious assemblies are banned.

Unprecedented, unimaginable government oppression. The people should revolt. Right? Not quite. The public reaction to this oppression is also unprecedented. Most people comply. Many ask for more restrictions. Many criticize the government for not imposing them sooner and not enforcing them stricter.

What happened? Why did the Western societies so easily gave up their political and civil liberties and allowed the government to intervene into everyone’s personal life in such a huge way? The answer is simple. The definition of freedom has changed. A few weeks ago most people would want freedom from the government intervention into personal life. Now most people are more concerned with freedom from disease. And this redefinition happened because of mass fear instigated by a massive media campaign.

I am not promoting any conspiracy theories. I am not saying that COVID-19 is not deadly or that the news of overcrowded hospitals and dying people are fake or that we should not stay home. I’m simply describing what is happening and trying to answer the questions that many people ask: “Are we over-reacting as a society?” “Are these huge sacrifices justified by the fear of the disease?” “Will the remedy be worse than the problem?”

A few years ago, I have read an essay by Maurice Cranston, an English philosopher and a professor of political science. The web site where I found the essay has since disappeared, but it can still be found on

Cranston does a great job explaining why the meaning of freedom is so elusive. It is because the word is meaningless unless we clearly specify, freedom from what. Here are just a few meanings I got from an image search by “freedom from“: freedom from fear, freedom from religion, freedom from want, from addiction, from choice, from shame, from the government, from sin, from discrimination, even freedom from expression.

One cannot be free without knowing from what just as one cannot be prepared without understanding to what.

I encourage you to read the essay yourself. The text was written in 1953, but it is especially relevant today. I find especially relevant the distinction between Romantic and Progressive freedom. Romantic freedom means freedom from the restrains of civilized society — government and social institutions, laws and rules. The way to achieve Romantic freedom often means living “close to nature” which comes at the expense of dependence on its whims. Progressive freedom means freedom from restrains of nature — from hunger, from disease, from the effects of the elements. The way to achieve Progressive freedom, to the contrary, is to embrace the restrains of society — laws, rules, and regulations, government and social institutions. This distinction is at the core of most political struggles of today.

I think it is important to understand what we want to be free from and find a compromise for ourselves and with others.

A Fine Example of Civilized Behavior

Among the few things making humans different from animals is clothing.  No animals clothe themselves.  People who don’t use clothes are often looked down upon as savages.  I also thought that teenage boys would normally show more interest for unclothed women than for fully clothed ones.  Apparently, these stereotypes become outdated.  There is a fierce debate in France on the issue of whether bathing suits fully covering women’s bodies (a. k. a. “burkini”) are acceptable in a civilized society.  The debate is not new, but it was rekindled by this brawl on a Corsican beach:

Witnesses say the brawl began after the Muslim families objected to photos being taken by a tourist. When a local teenager, with a group of friends on the beach, also took a photo the brawl erupted. Stones and bottles were thrown… Soon about 40 men from Sisco arrived to defend the youths, witnesses said, and one of the men was slashed with a harpoon blade.  According to Le Figaro newspaper (in French), some of the older men in the bathing party had attacked the teenagers with hatchets. Villagers allegedly then set alight cars belonging to the bathers.

So, what does the government do?  Do they punish the disturbed obnoxious teenagers taking photos of fully clothed women instead of watching photos of naked ones on their computers?  Do they send a message that men should not attack each other with hatchets and stones?  No.  They call the burkini “profoundly archaic” and “outdated ideas” and ban them from public beaches…

Wait a minute here.  So, if a woman shows up on a beach fully clothed rather than naked, she risks being called barbarian. She will be surrounded by tourists and troubled teenagers trying to photograph her like a wild animal.  This world is, definitely, changing.  This is quite weird. Not only direct sun rays are shown to cause skin cancer, but I also find burkini quite beautiful.

And the last, but not the least point in this story.  The brawl over burkini erupted between men.  Look at the pictures and videos in the news articles.  How many women do you see?  Men tell women what they must or must not wear believing that this somehow protects women’s rights.  But strangest of all, they persecute women for being oppressed.  Makese sense, doesn’t it?  Ahem…, gentlemen,… I understand the eagerness to free the women from oppression, but, maybe, we can ask the ladies what they want to wear?  Perhaps, women have other reasons to dress or undress than to impress or please the men?  Just a thought…


The Shackles of Freedom

I was recently reading Richard Stallman’s Personal Site.  Richard Stallman is a legendary software activist who promotes the idea of Free Software.  He is most famous for his GNU project, Emacs text editor, Free Software Foundation, and GNU General Public License (GPL).  His ideas are interesting and highly influential.  GPL, for example, grants people freedom to run, distribute, and modify software under the condition that the modified and distributed software is shared under the same license.  Ability to change implies Open Source Software (OSS).  The word “free” does not mean “free of charge”.  It means freedom to do anything with the code and fully examine and understand what the code does and how.

Richard Stallman tries to live according to his own principles.  He refuses to use any non-free software.  Thus, Windows, Apple, and Google with its Android, Gmail, Maps, Google Drive, and a host of other useful things are off-limits for him.  He believes these companies are unethical and exploit their users in a most outrageous way.  He also does not use Amazon, Facebook, Skype, and Spotify because these companies snoop on their customers.  Any website (such as this one) running complicated JavaScript code is an abomination and a stench in Richard Stallman’s nostrils. He abhors  ebooks as ebook distributors dictate the users what they may and may not do with their book copies.

Richard Stallman is very careful (I’d say, paranoid) about things requiring his identification:

I am careful in how I use the Internet.

I generally do not connect to web sites from my own machine, aside from a few sites I have some special relationship with. I usually fetch web pages from other sites by sending mail to a program (see git:// that fetches them, much like wget, and then mails them back to me. Then I look at them using a web browser, unless it is easy to see the text in the HTML page directly. I usually try lynx first, then a graphical browser if the page needs it (using konqueror, which won’t fetch from other sites in such a situation).

I occasionally also browse unrelated sites using IceCat via Tor. Except for rare cases, I do not identify myself to them. I think that is enough to prevent my browsing from being connected with me.

I never pay for anything on the Web. Anything on the net that requires payment, I don’t do. (I made an exception for the fees for the domain, since that is connected with me anyway.) I also avoid paying with credit cards.

I would not mind paying for a copy of an e-book or music recording on the Internet if I could do so anonymously, and it were ethical in other ways (no DRM or EULA). But that option almost never exists. I keep looking for ways to make it exist.

How I do my computing

Stallman avoids any services requiring his personal identification: Uber (perhaps, for good reason – Uber does seem unethical), Amtrak, Netflix, Airbnb.  Apparently, he flies airplanes occasionally as he visited China, Greece, and Israel among other countries.  It’s hard to travel overseas anonymously. I wonder why he does not object being identified and searched in the airports.  I personally consider it humiliating to take off my shoes to go through stupid gates and being searched by TSA officers. He does not seem to be against filing income tax returns as he has scorned the “shared economy” companies (Uber, Airbnb) for using offshore tax havens.  This is another inconsistency as many people believe income tax is unconstitutional and a great infringement on multiple constitutional freedoms.  (Disclaimer: the author of those writings, Irwin Schiff, has died in prison in 2015 where he was put by the federal government, technically, for not paying taxes).  It would be interesting to find out how Richard Stallman reconciles flying airplanes and filing income tax returns with his principles.

I read all this and thought “Wow!  Is there a limitation that one would not be willing to impose on himself for the sake of freedom?”