Theme Discussion: Libertarianism in Popular Culture (Part 1)
What is liberty? What is freedom? What is its opposite, tyranny? Questions like this can get an easy dictionary or textbook definition, but to truly understand such things, experience really helps, as do metaphors, which we see in fictional stories. Through heroes who strive for freedom, we can better understand the concept as it relates to our own lives.
The United States is founded around the concept of liberty, as defined as individual freedom from excessive government coercion. Therefore, it only makes sense that many of our fictional narratives center around the theme of liberty, where hero main characters work to fight against tyrannical governments. It makes for a handy villain in the all-powerful leader, and follows the all-so-American "root for the underdog" trope because anyone living with their head bowed to an oppressor is the underdog by default.
But, this is not always done well or right. The best ones, in my opinion, address how and why the tyranny happened in the first place, and not only what everyday life is like under it, but it should also describe in detail the mechanisms by which the dystopian society controls the public. There's usually some kind of resistance movement, but it's hard to do this well also. Why were they not successful before? Why is the protagonist important to the movement's success? What do they need to succeed? Who are they and why did they go from loyal citizen of the dystopia to resistors? These questions need to be answered in a way that makes sense to the audience/readers. A good liberty-themed story should also have a good conclusion. You can go with the horror of having the dystopia continue and the dictator live, but most stories prefer going for a heroic triumph. In the latter type of story, against impossible-seeming odds, the hero and his or her fellow resistors beat the dictator as crowds cheer.
We as Americans love these kinds of stories, I think, because they remind us that we seek to topple dictators and promote democracy in the real world, because of our origin as a former imperial colony that rebelled against its tyrant, King George, establishing a democratic republic in a world where monarchy was still the norm. But since the desire for self-determination and autonomy seems to be nearly universal, the theme carries over to non-western media (and this is me so I'm going to also talk about anime, but later).
Something need not be a dystopian story with an evil dictator bent on control to have libertarian themes and issues. For example, superhero comics and House, M.D. deal with vigilantism and medical paternalism, respectively. Vigilantism says that justice can be carried out by individuals affected by crime themselves, not by government-approved law enforcement professionals, who are seen as too incompetent to help victims or rendered impotent by rules and procedures. The anime Death Note also deals with the theme of vigilantism.
House M.D. and medical paternalism is about how much autonomy doctors should have when it comes to making decisions on behalf of the patient. Since Dr. House sees himself as exceptionally brilliant, he sees himself as above ethics and rules designed to keep doctors from mingling in the private lives of patients or controlling them. But, in the show, House's pragmatic, "screw the rules, I'm saving the patient" mentality usually works.
So, even shows about everyday life can center heavily on dilemmas within libertarian ethics. In House, for example, the freedom and rights of the patient are weighed against the freedom and rights of the doctor who wants to do anything they can to save them, even if the patient doesn't like the methods.
Even My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic centers in on a liberty vs. tyranny debate in a recent episode. A mare is ruling a town where the cutie marks, marks on the hindquarters of a pony that indicate his or her special talent, are all forcibly made the same. Therefore, no pony is considered "better" or "worse" than any other at anything; they live in a small, close-knit community that has outlawed specialness, individuality, and competition. At first, everyone seems happy, but soon it becomes clear that some of the ponies want their cutie marks and the individualized talents that come with them back. While Equestria, the main country in which the show takes place, is a monarchy, it still is a culture that values individual creativity and cherishes the uniqueness of every pony's personality.
So, here is my list of various examples of fictional stories I enjoy that deal with the theme of liberty in different ways.
Much like Jean Valjean from Les Miserables or, maybe closer to Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, Walter White aka "Heisenberg" from Breaking Bad can be described as someone who commits a crime for good reasons. He's not really trying to merely pay for his medical treatments, as the common meme/myth suggests; but to leave behind money for his family after his inevitable death from lung cancer. To do so, he uses his knowledge of chemistry gained from being a high school chemistry teacher to cook meth, which he sells by partnering with a former student.
The interesting thing about Breaking Bad artistically is the way it juxtaposes the calm, "normal" middle class suburban life with the gritty, often disturbing underbelly of the same society experienced by the poorest and most miserable of people. While the middle class life is all about "church niceness" and keeping up appearances, druggieland is full of characters who, while often brutal and disgusting, appear to the audience as more human and authentic. The almost soul-crushing mundanity of Walter's everyday life is in some ways more painful to watch than the pulse-pounding, but often terrible, action of the world he finds himself in when he "breaks bad".
This is where the concept of freedom enters the picture. Walter's real motivations aren't financial, and pretending it's for his family probably isn't giving us the entire picture. I think mainly he chooses to cook meth to exercise his free will, to escape from a society, and a marriage, that constantly makes him feel belittled and trapped in his own existence. He is rebelling against society's pressure on him to be a good little domesticated man, like many men who take that proverbial red pill (more on that later when I talk about The Matrix). While initially Walter may be claiming to do what he does out of love for his family, it's clear that it also serves as a way he can free himself from his wife's nagging and controlling tendencies.
Breaking Bad also deals with the important libertarian issue of drug legalization. Does the government have the right to tell us what substances we can and cannot put into our bodies? We all know the drug war is a failure, a costly one at that, and that prohibition actually makes many of the problems associated with drugs (gang violence, cop violence, impure drugs, etc.) worse. So Breaking Bad asks us, why are we spending so much money and causing so much suffering based on policies that don't even do what they intended to? If we legalized many of the more harmful drugs and simply used the money to make rehabilitation available to recovering addicts, we would probably save money and have less drug usage. But for that to happen, maybe it's good to be bad.
Game of Thrones
In another hit TV Show (this one being based on an even better series of books, the Song of Ice and Fire series), Game of Thrones reminds us how great democracy is, by reminding us how awful it was in medieval Europe, when tyrannical little shit princes could become kings when their scheming whore mothers poisoned their fat, bloated, drunken, philandering fathers. And the kicker, this was all supposed to be the way things were, ordained by God (or, in the Game of Thrones universe, the Seven gods). Pah! Not an ideal situation for anyone.
Almost everyone suffers in the world of Game of Thrones, and without the slim hope sometimes offered by supernatural entities, there's almost no hope whatsoever in that world. Just like in real life, people could die at any moment, often dying when they least expect it. To make up for the uncertainty the world throws their way, various characters often get caught up in the titular "game of thrones", thinking that if they support this claimant to the throne or other they will be rewarded, peace will be restored to the Seven Kingdoms, and justice will reign forever. The only truly happy characters are those like Littlefinger who are smart enough to know better, who play the game for their own interests alone, valuing themselves and their own power above anyone else. It's an eat or be-eaten world, with no place for people attempting to be heroic.
What does this have to do with freedom? Well George R.R. Martin, the author of the books and some of the episodes of the show, is American, and is clearly satirizing the concept of monarchy here. The story shows the problems with hereditary rule in a brilliant, irreverent way. The hope in this story really doesn't lie with having the right ruler sit on Swordy Chair, but with the people becoming free of kings and lords altogether.
This story shows how the game of thrones means only war, starvation, and oppression to the people, whether they're high or low born. Perhaps in future episodes, the people of Westeros will take lessons from the "free folk" as they flee south of the wall. Another hint that freedom is a major theme in Martin's mind? The Essos stories primarily focus on it; whether it be Danearys freeing slaves, or feeling like she herself has become a slave to the traditions of the cities she has conquered. Even kings and queens are slaves in an unfree system, they just get to wear prettier collars.
The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games is much less subtly about freedom than many other things on this list. In it, teenage everygirl protagonist Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take part in "The Hunger Games" on behalf of her sister, who is chosen to participate. Two "tributes" from each district in a post-apocalyptic America-like country called Panem are chosen to participate in these Games, which are a bloody, but glamorously televised, fight to the death. The purpose of these games is to punish the districts for rebelling against the Capitol a long time ago, to remind the districts of their loss in the rebellion and their powerlessness against the government. The concept is influenced by Roman gladiator combat, which often involved vanquished foes being chosen to become gladiator fighters. Like the Hunger Games, the gladiator combat was a large spectator event where the privileged enjoyed watching people kill one another as a sport.
In both cases, the idea of human blood sports is the mark of a twisted, oppressive, dehumanizing society. In The Hunger Games, the wealthy citizens of the Capitol enjoy luxury unheard of anywhere else, and all of it is provided for them by the under-compensated labor of those in the districts. As Katniss goes from unlikely victor of the Games to the symbol that unites a revolution, she can become a handy sort of anthropomorphization of the concepts of freedom and equality.
While Voldemort is the iconic arch-villain of this show, the enemy towards the end of the Harry Potter series is the Wizard world's government, the Ministry of Magic. Corrupted by Voldemort, the Ministry becomes a threat to the rebels, led by Harry, the Weasleys, and other major good characters. Therefore, the central conflict is not just Harry vs. Voldemort, but also Harry's freedom fighters vs. Voldemort's followers in the government.
Even early on though, notice that many of the "bad guys" happen to be authority figures, often teachers at Hogwarts. In The Sorcerer's Stone, the villain turns out to be teacher who's been possessed by Voldemort. Therefore, right from the start, the message is, "don't trust authority". Harry and friends soon learn to look past appearances, and they learn that finding sneaky ways around school rules is often necessary to protect the school itself, as well as the educational values it represents.
This is a series, so stay tuned for the next two parts of this article!
- Star Wars
- Ender's Game
- The Giver
- The Matrix
- The Uglies Trilogy
- The Watchmen
- Attack on Titan
- Kill La Kill
- Neon Genesis Evangelion
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