I’m going to say something sacrilegious in American mythology: Our prevailing national conceptualization of “liberty” is archaic, false, and pernicious. A truer notion of liberty, one that means more freedom to do more things and enjoy more opportunities to explore more experiences and realizations and enjoyments and connections, is wonderful and sublime, but our prevailing notion of liberty, which came from a historically specific experience relevant to a specific historical context and currently increasingly anachronistic and out of sync with our increasingly subtle and sophisticated understanding of reality, is not that and does not serve that. Instead, it provides cover for predation while being rooted in a false narrative of reality.

We are not, most fundamentally, individuals; we are most fundamentally expressions of a larger social whole, interdependent rather than independent. The languages we speak and think in, the values and beliefs we hold, the religions we adhere to, the concepts and technologies we utilize, the institutions through which we operate, are all the product of our collective existence over time, somewhat uniquely combined but only extremely marginally modified within each of us in our slight individuation of that larger whole. It is very similar to our biology, which is genetically far more similar to than different from other mammals in general, let alone other human beings.

Not only our minds, but our very existences are an expression of our interdependence. Forget the norm for a moment, a norm in which each depends to a very high degree on others for every aspect of their survival (food, shelter, etc.) and everything beyond survival (entertainments, comforts, etc.); let’s consider the extreme instead. The most rugged and self-sufficient survivalist, at the very limit of self-reliance, one who goes off naked into the wilderness with nothing but their own resources on which to depend, still survives by virtue of human interdependence, because the skills they utilize to do so are skills they learned from other human beings. There is no escape from the fact of our interdependence; it is the fundamental fact of our existence.

An ideology that downplays that, that at best grudgingly acknowledges it while emphasizing a counter-narrative that is marginal in comparison to it, is not a wise ideology, is not an ideology that is navigating the subtle and complex nuances of our shared existence deftly and wisely, is not an ideology to which we should subscribe.

And American “liberty” has always been steeped in the toxin of exploitation. Our Founding Fathers wrote eloquently about their love of liberty while owning other human beings, because their conception of liberty was too narrow and too self-serving. We should not be embracing the same conception today. It is not hard to see that those who most ostentatiously do so are also those who are most willing to continue the legacy of oppression and exploitation and injustice that we have long indulged in and suffered from.

The brilliant antebellum Southern statesman and philosopher John C. Calhoun summed it up most eloquently in his insistence that the abolition of slavery would be an infringement on the liberty of slave owners by depriving them of their property. His quintessentially American notion of liberty was one that easily adapted to his desire to deprive others of theirs, as it continues to today.

Noting this is not advocacy for some Leviathan to which we must submit as willing slaves. This binary notion is just one more of the tools that American “liberty idolatry” has relied on to perpetuate itself. In fact, the alternative to this ideology is not our enslavement, but rather our greater liberation. If anything, the American authoritarian-tainted notion of liberty is not devoted enough to true liberty, the liberty of the spirit, the liberty to thrive, the liberty to use our collective genius and its artifacts to our collective benefit without presumption that doing so is preempted by a narrower and less enlightened notion of what serves our liberty.

Our liberty means nothing except as the expression of a larger social whole of which we are a part. There is nothing liberating about being left devoid of the legacies of our interdependence, unable to speak or think in language or use ideas produced by others over the course of human history, and so we should not treat that interdependence as a threat to our liberty; we should treat it is the foundation of our liberty. Nor is it any less absurd to treat the subtle and sophisticated social institutions that have evolved over time to facilitate our prosperity and well-being as being inherently antagonistic to our liberty; they are tools that can be used more or less beneficially and justly, but are tools nonetheless, tools indispensable to the ever greater realization of our truer liberty to prosper and thrive and live lives with a greater range of opportunities and enjoyments available to us.

Similarly, there is nothing liberating about continuing to rationalize the exploitation of some by others by virtue of a distribution of opportunities created by the legacies of historical injustices. We should seek to transcend such follies, not embrace and perpetuate them. And, ironically, it is through the continuing refinement and utilization of the very same institutions (governments, modern economies, etc.) that formed through and in service to such injustices that we can do so, because that is the quintessential nature of human history.

It’s time to stop being slaves to our own ideologies, our own rousing marshal marches, our own jingoistic symbols and emotionally manipulative mythologies. It’s time to embrace liberty in a higher form, liberation from such shackles and from the temptation to shackle others, the freedom to be wise and kind and imaginative and cooperative, and to create institutions which facilitate our humanity. THAT is the liberty we should aspire to.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

(The following fictional vignette explores some aspects of “mental diversity,” a term I coined while helping a friend start up a non-profit dedicated to a more holistic approach to mental illness. For some expository discussion related to it, see, e.g., Individual & Society: Conformity v. Accommodation, The Variable Malleability of Reality and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change. For related fictional narratives, see The Wizards’ Eye and “Flesh Around A Whim”.)

My parents began to worry when I first started speaking. Initially, everyone thought it was cute, the way I spoke only in verbs and adjectives and adverbs and prepositions and conjunctions. But when I turned three and still hadn’t uttered a noun, the visits to doctors began, specialists of all kinds poring over me to find and fix whatever was broken.

I didn’t perceive them as others do, of course. I didn’t perceive them as distinct things, but rather as swirls in the stream, thoughts and beliefs and routines and even the physical stuff through which they flowed itself flowing, coming into this eddy or that and out again to enter another. I couldn’t express all of this, of course, at least not in words. I could only see it and feel it and know that it not only was real but was more real than what others perceived. And that’s why they were so intent on curing me!

Many of the experts I was sent to at first believed that I was suffering from developmental retardation, because I had not developed any sense of “self” and “other,” or any ability to identify discrete objects or people around me. All I saw were colored streams and rivulets flowing in unbelievably complex patterns and sub-patterns, similar yet different, across endless scales and creating endless ephemeral forms.

I sensed that these patterns could be tweaked and altered by acts of will, by undulating frequencies of vibrations launched into them, by complex sequences of movements in response to combinations of localized and dispersed messages flickering across chains of internal and external pathways, the whole reconfiguring around every new variation injected into it, and every new variation emanating from the coherence of the whole. I wanted to reach out and pluck the polychromatic threads dancing around me, but to do so required my will in interaction with the will of others and the will of nature itself; I could not do it alone.

But I could see that a single will, channeled through the right vibrations and mobilized by the right cascades of signals within and without, could affect other wills, could mobilize them in desired ways, or cause unintended and undesired reactions; and that, by doing so, this moving tapestry surrounding and permeating me could be altered in varying ways and to varying degrees, requiring varying amounts and kinds of force, using varying types of tools (themselves the product of previous pluckings of these threads); changing the trajectories of these interwoven threads and the patterns they formed, altering history on scales large and small, sometimes rippling outward in cascades of accelerating change, sometimes petering out as a small detour into oblivion.

I learned to write but initially used little punctuation, and when I did only commas, semi-colons and question marks. Obviously, since then, I’ve learned to conform to accepted modalities, using nouns in both speech and writing, using periods and exclamation points. I even have come to appreciate their convenience, enabling me to say little inadequately in abbreviated and easily digested form, rather than anything truly meaningful which requires at least a lifetime to utter.

For instance, it’s so much easier to say “people,” one word for all occasions, than “interconnected by talking and writing and mimicking and imagining,” or “passionately striving, exploiting, and manipulating” or “fearful and hopeful and feeling and yearning,” along with all of the other various ways to express that moment of energy, that swathe of the cosmic dance as it manifests in various contexts and circumstances.

I’ve always understood why people become angry with me when I try to speak their language (they just are uncomfortable and walk a wide arc around me when I speak my own): I offend them by saying something rather than nothing, opening the mind to the torrent of reality rather than helping to stack the verbal sandbags against it. I’ve always understood but lamented it, because that torrent liberates rather than harms. Fortifying against it is the construction of one’s own prison from within, and yet that is exactly what we generally use our words to do.

Though the world and I danced in ways that sustained me on multiple dimensions, that fed my physical and spiritual whirlpools, I could not tweak the fabric of reality alone, at least not as substantially, and certainly not enough to truly thrive. Very few can; none, if by “alone” we mean not just without human cooperation, but also without nature’s cooperation. And I could not control the torrents of human emotions and their physical expressions that swirled around me in response to my strangeness, that swept me up and whisked me away. So, without others accepting what I had to offer, and offering what they had in return, my insights meant nothing, and my survival was always tenuous.

My teachers, for instance, were beside themselves (or, as I saw it, made more turbulent by my presence). I was quickly diagnosed as ADHD, psychotic, and just plain nuts, put on an “individualized education plan,” and assigned a special education teacher who slowed things down so I could keep up. Unfortunately, that just made it even harder for them to keep up with me.

Soon, certain kinds of swirls (tight, contained, buffered) were causing things to be introduced into the swirls that comprised me, things that were supposed to make me vibrate and flow in more manageable ways, to help me “focus” and then sleep, to “stabilize my mood,” and, I suspect, to just make me as much like everyone else as possible. In our society, people preach tolerance for others of different ancestry, religion, color of skin, and sexual orientation…, just as long as they, as individuals, don’t dare actually be different in any less superficial way.

What we as a society don’t tolerate, are unwilling to tolerate, is any actual variation of perception and understanding. That is a threat that must be squashed.

Now, I’ve been cured. I see the world as others do, speak and write as others do, am dulled and reduced even more than others are. The pills I must take keep me up at night, cause me all sorts of physical problems, have made it hard for me to think and function at all, though to the extent that I do, I do as others expect me to. Yes, now I’m cured….

I was an eddy in the stream, unique and beautiful, interesting and integral, but they’ve removed everything that distinguished me from the undifferentiated flow, everything that made me who and what I am. Now, I use nouns and periods, and say little in inoffensive ways. Now, I have been reduced to the blandness that others demand, in service to their convenience or their fears, and that impoverishes us all. That is the triumph of civilization, conquering me rather than flowing around and through me as I am, as I was, preserving the treasure of my individuality and, by doing so, enriching the mind and soul that we share.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards