Thursday, April 01, 2010

Emancipate Yourself

It's Pesach, time to think about what the hell freedom might mean. For my shul's Social Action Committee, I put together a flyer about modern-day slavery. An odd project for me, I don't usually write things for the collective voice, let alone a prayer. Most of the text was cobbled together from activist sites, but I added some of my own language and tightened it up.

When the committee was discussing this, there was some tension between people who wanted to focus on literal slavery (which is quite real but rather remote from the daily life of most of us), and those who wanted to connect it to wage slavery, "mental slavery", people close at hand with various physical or social disabilities that limited their scope of action. I was in the former camp, if only for reasons of focus. But now I'm not so sure I was right. What is the purpose of religion, the thing it can do that nothing else can do, if not to point a way to individual freedom, a concept that makes no sense from a materialist point of view? And where else can it start but with an individual unshackling themselves from various unseen, internal, insidious forms of self-enslavement?

My relation to religion is complex and I have trouble articulating my feelings about it...but among its functions, it seems to be an institutional home for a wide variety of values, ideas, activities, etc that are central to life and don't have any other place to live. Freedom is one of them. It collapses to nothing in the secular world, or at best to a sort of market-based form of choice, where freedom consists of the ability to buy granola or Wheaties, drive a Ford or a Lexus, where you are as free as your bank balance permits. Yet obviously freedom is important, too important to not have a way to talk about it.

We are, objectively, material creatures whose behavior is just as ruled by the causal structure of our nervous systems and the environment as a beetle, just as much caused by physics as the waves in the ocean. Freedom makes no sense, and that's why we need religion in order to think about it.


jlredford said...

re: slavery flyer - horrific mining practices in the Congo seem like a very small part of the overall issue of slavery, but at least it's one that a boycott might help to solve. Is that the kind of "focus on literal slavery" that you'd like to concentrate on? I'd agree that it's important not get into the somewhat vague territory of mental slavery.

The flyer mentions, though, that "as many as 17,500" people are brought in as slaves to the US. I think that number has too many significant figures, but if that's even vaguely true, it should be a lot easier to address than issues in the Congo.

mtraven said...

Yeah, I picked the coltan issue because it has special resonance for us tech types.

Most of the US slavery is sex slavery, which I glossed over because this was for a family seder. Like any distributed underground economy, that is pretty hard to eliminate. Coltan at least has a few major choke points, namely the big device manufacturers.