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Column: Balancing freedom and control

Recent revelations about government spying on citizens provide insight about changes our country is undergoing that challenge the nature and fundamental beliefs we celebrate on this day.

When the signers of the Declaration of Independence affixed their signatures to this revered document 237 years ago, there were no metropolises, strong centralized government, income tax, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or Affordable Care Act.

There were no cars, superhighways, trains, airplanes, televisions or computers. And women, blacks and indentured servants were not allowed to vote. There were 2.5 million people living in the colonies in 1776 and just under 4 million at the time of the first census in 1790.

Our country has undergone enormous social and cultural changes since then — changes that simultaneously enrich and imperil our lives, and they are related to size. The larger and more diverse we get (and there is no turning back) the greater reliance on rules and regulations and large organizations to provide the goods and services we crave to order our lives.

With 81 percent of our population living in urban areas, the vast majority of us depend on a network of production, communication and transportation to provide the necessities of life. And with more than 314 million residents, with widely varying customs, traditions and behavior, we have increasingly come to rely on an intricate network of law enforcement to guard our security from internal and external threats.

Increasing size also creates anonymity. Many early residents lived in small rural communities and knew one another. Later, life in the cities provided work and afforded people the opportunity to melt into society, like the 12 million people who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. Anonymity not only allowed people from diverse ethnicities to move into mainstream America, it strained traditional values and laws because people were less constrained to conform once they were afforded the freedom to move about unhindered by prior customs and traditions.

While some people pine for the "good old days," it is unlikely that the majority of our society could survive in rural settings, and few would be willing to forgo their materialistic lifestyle for a pastoral, ascetic existence. The fact remains, we are living in a complex interdependent nation and world, one fraught with challenges that daily intrude into our consciousness — not the least of which concern our relationships to one another, our leaders and government.

A recent CBS poll revealed that only 27 percent of the public trusts their member of Congress and 11 percent trusts the CEOs of large businesses. Small wonder, in view of revelations about government and corporate excesses. From Enron to Bernie Madoff, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, mythical weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the IRS scandal, Wiki Leaks and the NSA's PRISM program, we are learning that privacy and truth have been sacrificed on the alter of greed, power, safety and security.

This phenomenon is referred to as the paradox of freedom versus control. It is expressed in our desire to live unfettered by rules, regulations and laws despite the necessity for external (governmental and organizational) intervention to maintain order. The tension between these dynamics is apparent in the conflict over Second Amendment activists' passion for guns and the calls of others for more stringent controls to protect the population from the proliferation of weapons.

These tensions regularly surface and will become more salient as our society diversifies and pressures from global friction increase (terrorists, global warming, depletion of natural resources, economic inequality, political instability). They are complicated by technological innovations that simultaneously improve our lives and threaten our privacy.

Complicating and confusing our attempts to maintain a semblance of both freedom and control is our awareness of the assault on truth — what seems to be an inexorable erosion of sacred values and honesty, and with them the anchor that grounded us to our past.

Yet, the beauty of our society is that we still have the ability to discuss the pros and cons of these heady issues, and while technology can be used to encroach on our freedom, we have the liberty and responsibility to use it to be informed, protect our rights, and reach a balance that our forefathers sought so long ago.

H. Roy Kaplan teaches courses on racism at the University of South Florida. His latest book, "Conflict and Change," will be published this fall. He wrote this essay exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Balancing freedom and control 07/03/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 9:47pm]
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