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Friendship and Freedom

Over the carnage rose prophetic a voice, Be not dishearten’d, affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet, Those who love each other shall become invincible, They shall make Columbia victorious.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Friendship lives uncomfortably in American public life. For one thing, bonds of affection and loyalty among the people threaten the powers that be, even in a democracy full of theoretically sovereign people. Nations are jealous gods.

Suspicion of friendship and enforcement of an alienating loneliness are not limited to nations or governments, of course. Possessive parents do it. Even neurotic, controlling "friends" demand first fealty, destroying bonds among those they would control.

The paranoid style of corporate management is driven in part by an intense fear of employee friendships. Many corporate barons discourage socializing among employees. Some big companies force employees to move frequently so no subversive bonds among neighbors or co-workers can develop.

Authority’s hunger for the absolute and undistracted loyalty of its subjects is never sated. That ugly hunger has as much to do with anti-union zealotry as the monstrous greed that corrupts the hearts of the profiteers.

There’s also a suspicion, shared by many liberal humanists, that democratic politics and friendship don’t mix. Friendship, in this view, is best kept to private life. Democracy depends upon equality. Everyone should be treated the same. But friendship is all about treating one’s friends differently than others. In other words, affection for one can lead to indifference toward others.

Alexander Nehamas recently pointed out that most modern moral theory urges us "to give the same respect and the same consideration to everyone in the world independently of their status, gender, class and everything else." Friendship is different. The values of friendship "are the values that distinguish us from one another, that make us distinct and interesting individuals, the values that differentiate one person from another."

Here is the thing: the pursuit of friendship and the pursuit of equality are not contraries. They are complementary. As Aristotle reminds us, "friendship is said to be equality." Equality of class, income or education is not a prerequisite of friendship, although proximity and chance can make them seem so. Friendship challenges inequalities as it respects difference.

Friendship produces equality. That is, of course, why authoritarians and anti-egalitarians fear it.  A person is most free, most unique and distinct, in reciprocal relations of affection with others. And if empathy, affection and friendship are critical to freedom, they cannot, without damaging consequences to our nation and ourselves, be excluded from our political lives. True friendship is much more than a private matter.

"One is neither to claim uniqueness for oneself nor to deny it to others," wrote Stanley Cavell. One day I would like to be able to say I lived up to that advice. It suggests an ethical practice that could rescue friendship from its exile in private life and return it to an important role in our political life.

In her book, Perfecting Friendship, Ivy Schweitzer writes that in the colonial and early national eras in America, friendship was far from a private matter. It was an essential part of American political vitality.

The Industrial Revolution, modern philosophical convention, a nation of immigrants’ paradoxical fear of immigrants, a bloody century of world wars and genocide, the development of a mass audience and a culture of hyper-consumerism changed all that.

Tales of our distance from one another are ubiquitous. In 2006, a study by Duke sociologist Lynn Smith-Lovin (pdf) and others said Americans were becoming ever more isolated from one another. We have fewer friends; the number of people who said they had no close confidants had tripled since 1985.

Many, like social network expert Barry Wellman dispute this finding (pdf). Our connections with others are actually strengthening and increasing in number, he says.

I think both sides are right. How can that be? I have no doubt that the Internet is having a wondrous impact on our abilities to form and maintain friendships. The social networking generation is slowly taking over from the battered and bruised boomers. But I also think that the new friendship phenomenon remains limited. And I think our damaged psyches need more caressing than the Internet alone can give.

I’m going to be writing a lot more about friendship. I believe a truly progressive revolution will, in the end, depend upon a revived role for friendship in public life. As Whitman said, affection will solve the problems of freedom yet.

What this means is we must make the strengthening of our friendships a political priority. We must become what the authoritarians have always been afraid we would become:  a world of friends whose self-reliance is fulfilled through one another, not in competition with or in isolation from one another. A people like that can be damned hard to fool, and even harder to oppress.

It is troubling — and strange — that when friendship was exiled to private life, government intrusion into our lives came with it into our homes and bedrooms. By making friendship a public, political priority, we might just bring an end to that authoritarian control of our bodies and our choice of friends and lovers.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith