David Foster recently wrote about a letter to the New York Times which echoed sentiments regarding Iraq that appear to be commonplace in certain circles:
While we have removed a murderous dictator, we have left the Iraqi people with a whole new set of problems they never had to face before…
I’ve often written about the tradeoffs inherent in solving problems, and the invasion of Iraq is no exception. Let us pretend for a moment that everything that happened in Iraq over the last year went exactly as planned. Even in that best case scenario, the Iraqis would be facing “a whole new set of problems they never had to face before.” There was no action that could have been taken regarding Iraq (and this includes inaction) that would have resulted in an ideal situation. We weren’t really seeking to solve the problems of Iraq, so much as we were exchanging one set of problems for another.
Yes, the Iraqis are facing new problems they have never had to face before, but the point is that the new problems are more favorable than the old problems. The biggest problem they are facing is, in short, freedom. Freedom is an odd thing, and right now, halfway across the world, the Iraqis are finding that out for themselves. Freedom brings great benefits, but also great responsibility. Freedom allows you to express yourself without fear of retribution, but it also allows those you hate to express things that make your blood boil. Freedom means you have to acknowledge their views, no matter how repulsive or disgusting you may find them (there are limits, of course, but that is another subject). That isn’t easy.
A little while ago, Steven Den Beste wrote about Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union:
About 1980 (I don’t remember exactly) there was a period in which the USSR permitted huge numbers of Jews to leave and move to Israel. A lot of them got off the jet in Tel Aviv and instantly boarded another one bound for New York, and ended up here.
For most of them, our society was quite a shock. They were free; they were out of the cage. But with freedom came responsibility. The State didn’t tell them what to do, but the State also didn’t look out for them.
The State didn’t prevent them from doing what they wanted, but the State also didn’t prevent them from screwing up royally. One of the freedoms they discovered they had was the freedom to starve.
There are a lot of people who ended up in the U.S. because they were fleeing oppression, and when they got here, they were confronted with “a whole new set of problems they never had to face before.” Most of them were able to adapt to the challenges of freedom and prosper, but don’t confuse prosperity with utopia. These people did not solve their problems, they traded them for a set of new problems. For most of them, the problems associated with freedom were more favorable than the problems they were trying to escape from. For some, the adjustment just wasn’t possible, and they returned to their homes.
Defecting North Koreans face a host of challenges upon their arrival in South Korea (if they can make it that far), including the standard freedom related problems: “In North Korea, the state allocates everything from food to jobs. Here, having to do their own shopping, banking or even eating at a food court can be a trying experience.” The differences between North Korea and South Korea are so vast that many defectors cannot adapt, despite generous financial aid, job training and other assistance from civic and religious groups. Only about half of the defectors are able to wrangle jobs, but even then, it’s hard to say that they’ve prospered. But at the same time, are their difficulties now worse than their previous difficulties? Moon Hee, a defector who is having difficulties adjusting, comments: “The present, while difficult, is still better than the past when I did not even know if there would be food for my next meal.”
There is something almost paradoxical about freedom. You see, it isn’t free. Yes, freedom brings benefits, but you must pay the price. If you want to live in a free country, you have to put up with everyone else being free too, and that’s harder than it sounds. In a sense, we aren’t really free, because the freedom we live with and aspire to is a limiting force.
On the subject of Heaven, Saint Augustine once wrote:
The souls in bliss will still possess the freedom of will, though sin will have no power to tempt them. They will be more free than ever–so free, in fact, from all delight in sinning as to find, in not sinning, an unfailing source of joy. …in eternity, freedom is that more potent freedom which makes all sin impossible. – Saint Augustine, City of God (Book XXII, Chapter 30)
Augustine’s concept of a totally free will is seemingly contradictory. For him, freedom, True Freedom, is doing the right thing all the time (I’m vastly simplifying here, but you get the point). Outside of Heaven, however, doing the right thing, as we all know, isn’t easy. Just ask Spider-Man.
I never really read the comics, but in the movies (which appear to be true to their source material) Spider-Man is all about the conflict between responsibilities and desires. Matthew Yglesias is actually upset with the second film because is has a happy ending:
Being the good guy — doing the right thing — really sucks, because doing the right thing doesn’t just mean avoiding wrongdoing, it means taking affirmative action to prevent it. There’s no time left for Peter’s life, and his life is miserable. Virtue is not its own reward, it’s virtue, the rewards go to the less consciencious. There’s no implication that it’s all worthwhile because God will make it right in the End Times, the life of the good guy is a bleak one. It’s an interesting (and, I think, a correct) view and it’s certainly one that deserves a skilled dramatization, which is what the film gives you right up until the very end. But then — ta da! — it turns out that everyone does get to be happy after all. A huge letdown.
Of course, plenty of people have noted that the Spider-Man story doesn’t end with the second movie, and that the third is bound to be filled with the complications of superhero dating (which are not limited to Spider-Man).
Spider-Man grapples with who he is. He has gained all sorts of powers, and with those powers, he has also gained a certain freedom. It could be very liberating, but as the saying goes: With great power comes great responsibility. He is not obligated to use his powers for good or at all, but he does. However, for a good portion of the second film he shirks his duties because a life of pure duty has totally ruined his personal life. This is that conflict between responsibilities and desires I mentioned earlier. It turns out that there are limits to Spider-Man’s altruism.
For Spider-Man, it is all about tradeoffs, though he may have learned it the hard way. First he took on too much responsibility, and then too little. Will he ever strike a delicate balance? Will we? For we are all, in a manner of speaking, Spider-Man. We all grapple with similar conflicts, though they manifest in our lives with somewhat less drama. Balancing your personal life with your professional life isn’t as exciting, but it can be quite challenging for some.
And so the people of Iraq are facing new challenges; problems they have never had to face before. Like Spider-Man, they’re going to have to deal with their newfound responsibilites and find a way to balance them with their desires. Freedom isn’t easy, and if they really want it, they’ll need to do more than just avoid problems, they’ll have to actively solve them. Or, rather, trade one set of problems for another. Because with great freedom, comes great responsibility.