Just Finished Reading: Free to be Human – Intellectual Self-Defence in an Age of Illusions by David Edwards (FP: 1995)
After reading ‘The End of Average’ and ‘Stand Firm’ recently (and enjoying/being stimulated by both) I was really up for making it 3 for 3. The title certainly had me interested and I imagined that it would be right up my street. But then I started reading and alarm bells started going off almost straight away. My first warning sign was the author’s seemingly obsessive focus on Noam Chomsky. Now this in itself isn’t a problem. I’m aware of Chomsky and know that he is a harsh critic of Capitalism and the American system. I know that he’s on the fringes of academia but I can’t really say much more than that as I’ve yet to read anything by him. What bothered me (more and more throughout the book) was the obsession that Chomsky had somehow found ‘the answer’ to it all and that if only we bought this idea that we’d be free. Of what you might ask. That would be the Framing Conditions and the subsequent Filter that, Matrix like, is pulling the wool over our eyes.
These Framing Conditions immediately rang a bell with me – as they would with anyone familiar with 19th Century political philosophy. What he was describing was Marxism. He essentially said, as if it was any great revelation, that the underlying conditions of any civilisation (the Framing Conditions) determine everything else about the culture involved. They determine good & evil, the kinds of things we think about and even the way we think about them. In Marxist Theory the substructure or means of production (in this case Capitalism) determines to a very large extent the superstructure or as we call it our Culture. In other words the books you read, the TV you watch and the newspapers that inform our views are largely determined by the Capitalist system we live under. This idea is hardly new to anyone who has been paying attention. Yet the author presents us with it as some kind of revelation – from Chomsky no less – and then goes on to show in great detail how it all works in order to prevent us from seeing the truth – a truth that Chomsky has somehow discovered and the author desperately wants to pass on to us to make us free. You can probably tell from my ‘tone’ that I was less than impressed by all this. The vast majority of this (thankfully short) book then offers up examples of how people are manipulated to accept the conditions that maximise profits (whilst destroying the world and any kind of reasonable humanity) keeping people distracted with the bread and circuses/smoke and mirrors we call ‘the Media’. This is known by the technical term: ‘Stating the Bleeding Obvious’. Anyone who has spent more than 20 minutes studying how the Media operates knows that its primary functions are to keep people distracted (entertainment) and placated long enough to take your money (advertising) in order to keep the wheels of industry turning and the profit train rolling. This is not exactly news. What his overarching plan fails to address, as all overarching plans do, is exactly how dissent not only exists (in the margins he maintains) but can, from time to time either radically change the system and sometimes (if rarely) overthrow it in its entirety. Under the authors system dissent is a minor activity of little consequence and rebellion (never mind revolution) is impossible. Personally I would suggest he read less Chomsky and read more history. Or even see in the streets countless examples of personal rebellion in the way people dress, behave and live their lives. Even a population living within the bubble of Capitalism as we are do not appear to be the mindless, oppressed and slavish drones he makes us out to be.
The final nail in the coffin was the author’s final chapter which promised ‘A Chest of Tools for Intellectual Self Defence’. This, like much that had gone before, boiled down to a single rather weak and obvious idea. To counter all the forces aimed at you by the Capitalist system and its tame manipulating Media the only thing you need is….. to remain Sceptical. That’s it. Really. After a little over 200 pages of essentially repeating himself he says that we should become Sceptics and not just believe everything we’re told. At that point I didn’t know whether to burst out laughing or grimace in disgust. So it ended up as a kind of laughing disgust or a disgusting laugh. Something like that anyway.
I think that deep down there could have been a good book in there somewhere. What I think stopped it being something that I could actually recommend was the author himself. I think at some point before putting finger to keyboard he had needed an excuse to turn his back on an unsatisfying life in the cut and thrust world of commerce and in order to justify himself to himself (and others I guess) produced this book as some kind of cathartic explanation by projecting his personal dilemmas onto the rest of the world to say ‘Hey, I learnt the truth and it set me free. Now you can do that too!’ Because if other people follow his path he must have been on to something in the first place, right? I might be wrong about his justification for producing this deeply flawed work but that’s how it came across to me – the attempted universalisation of a very personal journey. I’m sorry to say that, despite cluing in to various aspects of life in modern Capitalism, this book really didn’t do much for me. Disappointing and, therefore, not recommended.