Freedom, Sebastian Junger

A very brief – with the text clocking in at only 133 pages, the 13 additional pages of ‘Sources and References’ are fully 10% as long – riff on the nature of freedom, structured as memoir of a 400 mile hobo along railroad rights of way from Washington DC to western PA, just shy of Pittsburgh and the Ohio border.  In the company of a varying group of old friends (who appear to be, or at least include, combat vets, hence the nickname ‘the Last Patrol,’), Junger seems to have embarked on this journey in search of something about simplicity, slowing down, the essence of frontier and a different side of America than he (and his readers) experience in ‘regular,’ daily, modern life.  While the narrative follows the geographic and chronological path of the walk, Junger’s musings are super-structured into three parts – Run, Fight and Think – representing his idea of the components of freedom. 

Run – To be free, one path is to escape those who would enslave them.  In early history, humans were well-suited to this, being among the greatest endurance machines of any land animals (birds and sea mammals, of course, out-class us by geometrical proportion).  Interesting to note that mechanized transportation, despite making travel fast and easy, has actually done more to decrease that freedom, by requiring we buy into an economic and social system to acquire and afford any slim possibility of moving faster or farther than our oppressors.

Fight – the earliest human conflicts being physical and between individuals, freedom was province of the largest, strongest and/or most ruthless fighters, who casually subjugated the rest (women being, by that definition, the least free of all; though Junger’s discussions are pretty much anthropocentric, women being mentioned now and then, almost as a sidebar).  Deeper examination, however, reveals that the biggest man does not always win. Whether in individual combat, where a smaller, quicker or more enduring man may best a big, slow opponent, or in war, where a small grass-roots insurgency can almost always win over a large mechanized, formalized army, the outcome is never so simple and rarely so certain.  This, he points out is why we have any hope of freedom – if it were always true the strongest would dominate, conflict would suicide and disputes end as soon as it became clear who was the stronger. (To an extent, that is the case; except that ‘stronger’ is a complex enough characteristic that it may take a battle to determine to whom it properly applies.)

Think – here our guide considers some less- obvious indicators of Freedom.  Having little or nothing to lose, he points out, makes his band of walkers more free than those whose homes and communities they pass (kudos to Kris Kristofferson and Bobby McGee for keeping us all mindful of that one).   By relieving them of dependence on a larger social structure or economy, it further enhances the illusion of freedom, though Junger points out that no one living an existence more developed than that of individual hunter-gatherer is ever that free (and a purely individual hunter-gatherer is doomed to extinction, so…).  There is always trade-off between belonging to a social unit and having the freedom to do whatever one wants. Always.

Different styles of leadership though, result in more or less freedom.  Hierarchical organizations, by allocating resources and authority in unequal measure, result in far less freedom for most of their members.  Non-hierarchical structures, where resources are shared and authority is earned and maintained by casual action and consensus, allow for greater freedom at all levels -and tolerate a greater level of disorder, as result.  The Irish and American battles for independence are referenced here, and also employed as lead-in to the one section that more-deeply acknowledges female contributions, pointing out women’s roles in keeping the community alive while men fight over it.  And also, at crucial moments, making public the moral or immoral bases for actions, sometime even shaming the men of one side or the other into acting more justly. Sometimes.

It is fitting then that the tale winds to a close by considering labor battles, just as he nears Pittsburgh, Youngstown and the industrial centers of the mid-west, a region identified in the public mind with both a vociferous defense of freedom cast as patriotism and a simultaneous lack of freedom under the stifling supply/demand market for lesser-skilled labor and the power of capital and market domination.

One other through line is Junger’s appreciation for the many lost and wild places still remaining in what is generally considered a densely-populated part of the USA.  Railroads, he points out, are both a source of such (the buffer lands either side of long-distance tracks being prevented from despoilation both by their often-rugged geography and the danger, noise and disruption they would inflict on any other activity placed beside them) and by law – theoretically off limits, yet practically un-policeable, as this tale proves.  There is still an American frontier, Junger suggests, room for exploration and room for freedom, of a sort, if one is willing to put down the trappings of belonging and comfort and take up the hard work and simple satisfactions of other places, other eras, other ways of life.

Having listened to and considered these worthy ruminations, perhaps the final word is to read the author’s notes on the book jacket and learn that Junger “…lives in New York City with his family.”   Freedom, it seems, is what one chooses it to be.

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