With Jon Stewart’s satirical/heretical/fantastical rally now in the books – and with memories of Glenn Beck’s own DC fiesta still a recent memory – I’ve been wondering what, if anything, these two cultural events have in common. As I do, I keep thinking about Erich Fromm’s 1941 classic Escape from Freedom, and how both men seem to be wrestling with the same tension Fromm explored in his psychological exploration of modern man – namely, our dialectical relationship with freedom itself, and what that relationship tells us about ourselves and the societies in which we live.
Fromm’s book appeared just as the Second World War was intensifying (and years before the full weight of human depravity would become universally known). His thesis was that before we can understand the dynamics of any society’s social processes, we must first explore the dynamics of the psychological processes operating within the individual.
Central to all modern societies and individuals, Fromm wrote, was man’s relationship with freedom itself, which he defined as “the fundamental condition for any growth.” Since the structure of modern society and the personality of modern man first began taking shape – beginning with the end of the rigid social structures and limitations found in the Middle Ages, and accelerating after World War One – we have become freer to develop and express our own individual selves and ideas. At the same time, however, we have become freer from a world that gave us, precisely because it was proscribed, more security and reassurance. “The process of individuation is one of growing strength and integration of the individual personality,” Fromm wrote. “But it is at the same time a process in which the original identity with others is lost and in which modern man becomes more separate from them.”
So what does any of this have to do with the Stewart and Beck rallies? I think both events were either intentionally or unintentionally appealing to us based on which modern need we are likely to seek more acutely – “freedom from” or “freedom to.”
In either case, the dilemma of modern society and how it impacts us is the same: it has given us more space to develop as individuals – and it has made us more helpless. “It increased freedom,” says Fromm, “and it created dependencies of a new kind. The understanding of the whole problem of freedom depends on the very ability to see both sides of the process and not to lose track of one side while following the other.”
The danger, Fromm cautioned, is if we forget that “aloneness, fear and bewilderment remain; people cannot stand it forever. They cannot go on bearing the burden of ‘freedom from’; they must try to escape from freedom altogether unless they can progress from negative to positive freedom. The principal social avenues of escape in our time are submission to a leader, as has happened in fascist countries, and the compulsive conforming as is prevalent in our own society.”
Because of this anxiety – and this willingness to submit to someone who will do the thinking for us – our capacity to think critically has dulled over time. Ironically, however, this gradual numbing of our critical capacities doesn’t mean we feel more uninformed. On the contrary, the constant barrage of messaging so indicative of modern society tends to be designed in such a way as to “flatter the individual by making him appear important, and by pretending that they appeal to his critical judgment, to his sense of discrimination. But these pretenses are essentially a method to dull the individual’s suspicions and to help him fool himself as to the individual character of his decision.”
This tendency to submit has been widely written about – accurately, I believe – with regard to Glenn Beck. The same could be said for the followers of other right-leaning hucksters, like Rush Limbaugh, whose followers proudly and tellingly refer to themselves as “Dittoheads.” In what ways is the situation most markedly different with Stewart? What distinguishes his power and the mindsets of his followers, who descended on the same stretch of land where Beck’s minions gathered just two months prior?
Here’s one area where I think Beck and Stewart clearly diverge: whereas Beck seems to use parts of Fromm’s thesis as his own playbook for exploitation, Stewart seems equally intent on waking us up from our stupor, and realizing that democracy “will triumph over the forces of nihilism only if it can imbue people with a faith that is the strongest the human mind is capable of, the faith in life and in truth, and in freedom as the active and spontaneous realization of the individual self.”
Understood in this light, it makes sense that Comedy Central and Fox News, as opposed to, say, Bravo or CNN, are the TV stations with personalities possessed of the power to organize massive rallies on the mall. Fox, after all, is the standard-bearer in a line of programming that exploits modern man’s dialectical relationship with freedom to the fullest. From Bill O’Reilly to Sean Hannity to Glenn Beck, Fox’s leading voices fit the description of what Fromm calls the “magic helper.” The reason we follow them is the same reason we seek freedom from our own ideas – “an inability to stand alone and to fully express our own individual potentialities.” By contrast, Comedy Central is the station where the most powerful tool of all – satire – is employed daily to lay bare the “play within the play” that is modern democracy, and shame us into both individual and societal improvement. In a world where all is not as it seems, wit is our most powerful weapon.
The thing is, if we’re not careful, we Daily Show-watching, NPR-listening, organic grocery-shopping denizens can make Jon Stewart a “magic helper” as well. This is partially why I think so many feared the ramifications of a rally that would, at some point, need to become more serious than sardonic.
In 1941, Fromm was writing about a world where freedom had reached a critical point. “Driven by the logic of its own dynamism, it threatens to change us into its opposite.”
The same danger exists today. And the future of democracy depends on our developing the capacity to empower people to make meaningful and responsible choices with their freedom, and to help support the fuller creation of a society in which the growth and happiness of each person is our primary aim – and not to acquire fame and fortune, but to discover meaning and purpose.
So here’s to the spirit of today’s rally, alongside a healthy dose of skepticism, humor, and hope.