Freedom is a state of mind

One Thing No. 3

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One Thing this week is about freedom. It’s complicated.

1. First Thing

“Give me all your love, give me all you got.”

Start here:

2. Press Freedom

I’m part of a group of journalists who signed a letter sent last week to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, to complain about “deteriorating conditions for press freedom in Turkey.” That’s putting it mildly. Journalists there have been jailed and intimidated, newspaper offices attacked, and last week, days before national elections, Turkish police raided and shut down television stations owned by a vocal critic of Erdo?an.

The story in Turkey is amazing, eerily similar to what’s happened in Russia under Vladimir Putin, except Turkey is a member of NATO, a military ally of the U.S. and western Europe.

For most of us in most of the world, it’s a far off and ancient place, a Muslim-majority nation with ethnic issues and borders with Syria and Iraq.

It’s also, for anyone anywhere, an uncomfortable reminder that freedom may be fleeting, imaginary or faked.

Am I free? Are you?

You can read the full letter here. I know, a letter. How quaint.

The Turkish election was this past weekend. Erdogan’s party retained control of the government.

3. Insults

Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam,” was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov human rights prize last week. He received the first 50 lashes in January.

More via BBC.

4. State of mind

Freedom seems cut and dry. You either have it or you don’t. You are jailed, attacked, threatened, educated, informed, lashed, silenced, crippled by fear, debt, poverty or the circumstances of your birth; or not.

But freedom is also like music. Its meaning, purpose and value is hard to explain. Everyone doesn’t experience or understand it the way you do, and when you do, you don’t have to explain, defend or define it. You don’t have to “use” or “do” anything with it. You assign the value.

Journalists, politicians, lawyers and activists talk about freedom in terms of laws and principles, like human rights. Freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and the right to petition the government “for a redress of grievances” are in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; freedom of expression and opinion are in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Wars have been fought, human rights defended and atrocities committed by men who called themselves freedom fighters.

Despots, control freaks, bureaucrats and purveyors of fear all find fault with various kinds of freedom. But then so do most of us. Laws, ethics and cultural conventions restrain us. People who reject those limits are outlaws, outcasts, artists, visionaries, dictators and sociopaths.

Freedom is a state of mind. I’ve felt it, sometimes for the briefest of moments before it disappeared; sometimes just a little longer; but never forever. It ebbs and flows.

I associate other states of mind with freedom, including: happiness, empathy, solitude. They are a knot of entangled emotions, perceptions and interpretations of well being and my place in the universe.

Freedom is a kind of euphoria, an irrational sense of harmony, peace, synchronicity and independence; and also of bearing, effortlessly, the weight of the world. I’ve felt these things while listening to music, playing music, losing myself in a story, watching movies, writing, painting, shooting photos, daydreaming, talking to people, watching and not talking to people, hiking in forests, resting on mountains, driving a car late at night. I’ve felt it with my family. I’ve felt it alone. Laughter is a kind of freedom.

Imagination is the domain of absolute freedom. Maybe that’s why children seem so free. It’s not because they’re too young to understand the world. It’s because their imaginations know no limits. They seem free because they are.

The musician and writer Amanda Palmer seems free when she gets naked in public. I don’t do that. I’m not that free. Are outgoing, uninhibited or attractive people more free than introverts, or than those held back by social conventions, discomfort and shame? Or are they enslaved by different forces? My hunch is yes and yes. But it’s only a hunch. See: Amanda Palmer

Freedom is one of the core dilemmas of western philosophy and science. Do we have free will, or does physics, biology, nature, the environment, divine will, dark matter, the multiverse or something else beyond our perceptions define and determine everything about us, everything, even how, when and what we think about freedom? Will a detailed map and understanding of the brain reveal how we think, or how we’re programmed to think we think?

Maybe my idea of freedom, the feeling of freedom itself, is a plant, a kind of false memory defined by forces beyond me. Maybe something pulls our strings. Maybe we are artificial intelligence. Maybe we are robots.

Some people see death as a kind of freedom.

Freedom, like writer William Gibson’s future, is not evenly distributed. I’ve felt free while men, women and children suffered in prison, slavery, poverty, hunger, cold, abuse, anxiety and terror. These are the things of history, and the present, an endless stream of inhumanity. How can freedom co-exist with that?

I live in a country that imprisons more of its people than any other, as a percentage of the population. The land of the free is the land of the imprisoned.

This leads to an awkward realization. Freedom, even if it is a universal right, is a completely selfish state of mind.

An organization called Freedom House puts out an annual Freedom of the World Report that ranks countries in terms of political rights and civil liberties. For the past nine years, countries with declines in freedom have outnumbered those with gains.

The world has become less free.

The Freedom House ranking measures what seems impossible. With mobile, social, digital everything everywhere, with the power of ideas and communication in so many hands, how is it that something seems off, not quite right, that while Mark Zuckerberg became a gazillionaire by connecting people to each other through Facebook, the world became less free?

I used to think the World Wide Web was a force for freedom – and that this was, by definition, a force for good. It was. I’m sure it was. It must have been. How could it not? But things change. Now the web, little w, is also a tool for surveillance, censorship, control, repression and deception.

Freedom ebbs and flows.

Is getting a lot of likes on Facebook a sign of freedom, or a consequence of slavery?

“Will you choose freedom without happiness, or happiness without freedom? The only answer one can make, I think, is no.” – Ursula K. LeGuin in Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Place

I heard the quote at the end of an 18-minute video, which I enjoyed, about a group of women hackers, artists, thinkers and journalists who met a year ago at Carnegie Mellon University to think about how and why the web seems less good, less hopeful and certainly less utopian than it was when it was simply a way to link one file on one computer to another on another, when it was simply a way for knowledge to flow from one human to another. It’s become something else. It’s still an astonishing achievement, a way to share knowledge, ideas, information, wealth, love and creativity with everyone. But it’s complicated.

Watch: Deep Lab

5. Short Story

Secret Stream by Héctor Tobar. It’s about drought and love in L.A.

via Electric Literature

6. Other things

You’ll find some at

7. Work things

I spoke this week about digital publishing, influence and “engagement” at a NetSquared event for nonprofits in Washington, DC.

I consult, create, collaborate, write and speak at events around the world. More about all that at

8. Last thing

A style overlord concluded “Best” is a terrible way to sign off an email. I liked this response in The Guardian: “I don’t mean to sound vulgar and lazy, but WTF?”

The end

Photo credit: Server room, screen grab from the video Deep Lab by Deepspeed Media.

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