Too Much Freedom

I’ve been piecing together something recently, or rather I’ve been doing it very passively for the last few years.

There’s something I took from a controversy from years ago. It was during the conversation that was happening about the voice of Apu (first started through the documentaryThe Problem With Apu, then followed by a rather wilting Simpsons episode in response). I don’t want this particular controversy to necessarily be a centrepiece of what I’m trying to get out, and yet it might be so that’s why I don’t want to jettison it entirely.

The thing I took was from a response by Matt Groening to the suggestion that Apu’s depiction was outdated and/or even racist. “[…] I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” (link to larger USA Today interview).

I’m not sure what Matt Groening’s technical role description is today, but in the beginning he was counter-culture. All you need to do is look at some of his Life In Hell strips to get that picture. He knew how to tweak the nose of authority with a deeply humanistic empathy for the severe consequences that come with authoritarianism and fascism. The Simpsons gave him a larger canvas, first as an experiment/time-filler on The Tracey Ullman Show, then when it had its own TV slot, which it proceeded to…well, it’s such a ubiquitous cultural product that any summary seems trite, doesn’t it?

I was deeply disappointed by Groening’s dismissal at the time, and something about it has been eating at me. It was a mark (if not a casual philosophy) of a type of individual who was speaking from a place of disproportionate comfort: money, power, influence, achievement, cultural impact. And what he was suggesting was that we were the ones with too much: accommodation, choices, ideas. And that by virtue of this we were the thin-skinned ones. He might as well have said — and I swear that Groening did say this, but I must’ve inserted it into my memory because it’s not part of any response of his at the time — that this was a case of “too much freedom”.

There’s a great irony to this dismissive sentiment, and it’s something I largely see perniciously emulated in right-of-centre cultural criticism: these people [children, racialized individuals, the systemically disadvantaged, etc] have it easy, and maybe if they worked harder they would shut up and enjoy their life. And I guess this is where I’m doing some mental wrestling because I actually feel there is too much freedom, but, rather instead of it manifesting in some nightmare of political correctness (waiting for that any day now btw), I’m seeing it in the form of the anti-vax movement, the so-called “freedom convoy” movement, the indisputable rise of far-right militarism under our noses, denial of climate catastrophe and people who demonstratively don’t understand what 5G is.

I’m tempted to ask: are these just two sides of the same “too much freedom” coin? If so, what’s on the other side, because it feels like a bullshit piece of bothside-ism to frame it as such. Is the answer truly you can’t have any progress towards a more just society without a carte blanche allowance for the worst of humanity also?

Separately — just sayin’ — supposing we could, how would we go about lessening “freedom”…without that being a flaming giant untenable nightmare-in-the-making [insert ghost of Stalin]?

I’m tempted to ask: are these just two sides of the same “too much freedom” coin? If so, what’s on the other side, because it feels like a bullshit piece of bothside-ism to frame it as such. Is the answer truly you can’t have any progress towards a more just society without a carte blanche allowance for the worst of humanity also?

I’d be happy to live in a society where my neighbour is a conspiracy freak. To each their own. But when the conspiracy freak starts vandalizing public infrastructure and sowing wider social chaos for beliefs that — political ideology aside — are unfounded or delusional, then part of me sometimes wonders whether there is too much freedom. I’m not talking about being inconvenienced by traffic due to a protest. I’m talking about something like Jan 6th. I’m talking about not just freedom to be stupid, but an enabling of stupid, a metastasizing of stupid as freedom gives it more license. I can’t help but want to tie this into what I think a big part of the problem is: where we get our information, and who/where we get it from. The thought being not that there’s a central source of misinformation/distortion that needs to be regulated (or vanquished), but rather — yes, you saw this coming — social media.

Anyways, I need to leave and come back to this … I’ll either tack onto the end or start something later…

[quick insert] But here’s the thing: social media is just a messaging service; McLuhanism aside, within the context of what I’m talking about, the social medium isn’t the message(s). I also want to avoid a reductionist approach that is hyper-focused on seeking a singular villain, and leave room for complexity and randomness, the stuff that keeps us from convincing ourselves that patterns, just because we notice them, have to be something (causal, intentional) outside of themselves.

(to be continued)


Is It Not Ironic


1. The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.

2. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning.

3. A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect.

4. Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs: “Hyde noted the irony of Ireland’s copying the nation she most hated” (Richard Kain).

5. An occurrence, result, or circumstance notable for such incongruity.

I’m not a language fascist, however if there is one word which has been cataclysmically abused to the point where the government should step in with tasers, it is the misuse of the word “irony”.

In case your eyes glazed over the definition posted above, allow me to further define the word by demonstrating what irony is not. First, let’s start with the most common misperception. Irony is not coincidence – no, not even a sad coincidence, as boldly defined by Alanis Morissette in her song, “Ironic”:

An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late
And isn’t it ironic… don’t you think

Actually, I don’t think that’s ironic. Because it isn’t. What she’s describing is a series of unfortunate circumstances. Mind you, renaming the song “Unfortunate Circumstances” wouldn’t work – doesn’t have much of a ring to it.

The thing is, I can excuse Alanis for this. I can do this because she’s a musician and not someone whom I should, by her profession, necessarily hold in high regard as regards the use of English language (lest I use the same linguistic measuring stick against Led Zeppelin and Muddy Waters).

Not, say, like a nationally broadcast television journalist. Say, like the anchor of CBS Evening News, Katie Couric:

[September 13th, 2007]
COURIC: And now this sad footnote from Iraq. Two Army paratroopers who recently wrote an article that was critical of the war effort were killed this week. Staff Sergeant Yance Gray and Sergeant Omar Mora were part of a group of seven who authored a piece entitled “The War as We Saw It,” published in The New York Times last month. The group wrote that for Iraqis, quote, “engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act.” Now, ironically, Gray and Mora were killed along with five other soldiers not in combat, but when their cargo truck overturned during a routine trip in western Baghdad.

It goes without saying that this is tragic, but it’s not irony, unless Ms. Couric believes being stationed for combat in Iraq was not foreseen as being dangerous in the first place. I’ll let the folks at Media Matters question this last point.

Speaking of Iraq and bad communication, after 9/11/01, we were told – and I don’t know who was the first to coin this, not that it matters, because like so much that has happened since then, everyone just bent over and agreed to it like submissive pets – that it was “the end of irony”. And while I hope this daft phrase will be preserved as an example of world-class naivety, it seems we’ve never gotten a handle on this word, which is sad. It’s sad because I feel that this proclamation, made just over seven years ago is yet another example of the phrase, “the first casualty of war is truth”. To pronounce that any word or behaviour is no longer valid abdicates a necessary freedom of communication.

Conspiratorially, I wonder sometimes if irony, a formidable weapon when used knowledgeably, hasn’t had it’s meaning and usage watered down intentionally. Why? Well, we seem to be very prolific at being ironic and affecting irony in our popular discourse without ever troubling ourselves to actually identify it (or for that matter question our dependence upon it when it comes to things we care about). Indeed, sometimes it seems we are incapable of showing reverence for anything without irony poisoning the well. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of irreverence when it is used to desaturate those things in life we take too seriously – but if everything portrayed on television, in films, in our books, becomes increasingly ironic (without the audience bothering to know what irony is, or worse still, without an opinion – reverent or not – to begin with) then does that not somehow conjure the image of a society that is becoming more wilfully deluded?

I hate ending things with a question, so I’ll just say that I try to hope for the best, knowing that – in the long run – when it comes to understanding the great frustrations of humanity, you are often left on your own to figure out the truth. And even then, sometimes there’s nothing that can be done for anyone other than yourself.