Some musings on freedom

A cartoon drawing: a white man in a fancy suit with a bowler hat and a cane stands next to a black girl wearing a pink shirt. In the background are many boxes with different-coloured labels.

“You don’t know how lucky you are,” the man in the bowler hat said to the little girl, “you have freedom!”

“What’s freedom?” the little girl asked.

“Freedom means being able to do what you want.”

The girl’s eyes lit up. “I can do whatever I want?” she asked.

“No, no,” the man said hastily, “not whatever you want. But look here.”

The man lifted his walking stick in one gloved hand and used it to point at the computer on the desk.

“You are free to look at any website you please,” he said, “with your parents’ permission, of course. And you are free to say what you like without fear of persecution. If you write a blog post or a status update that is critical of the government, you can rest assured that you won’t be arrested or beaten up or carried away in the dead of night never to be seem or heard from again.”

The little girl said: “I’m glad I won’t be arrested or beaten up or carried away in the dead of night never to be seen or heard from again, but it seems to me that that is a very low standard. It seems to me that freedom should mean more than just that.”

The man in the bowler hat tucked his cane smartly under his arm and removed one of his white gloves.

“Now see here, young lady,” the man said, and he snapped his fingers. In the blink of an eye, the two of them were magically transported into a supermarket. Around them were rows upon rows of brightly packaged products.

“Look around you,” the man in the bowler hat said grandly, “so many products! So much freedom! So much choice!”

The little girl’s eyes grew wide. “You mean I can have whatever I want?” she asked.

“Young lady, that’s exactly what I mean!” declared the man in the bowler hat. Then, without any warning or introduction, he burst into song, singing:

Look at all this wonderful stuff!
You can have whatever you want.
What joy! What fun! Woo-hoo!
You can have whatever you want.

He had quite a good singing voice, and his voice carried to the furthest corners of the supermarket. The shoppers paused from their shopping and gathered around to watch.

The man in the bowler hat continued his song:

Look at all this wonderful stuff
you can have whatever you want
no government rations in a plain brown sack
Oh no! No sir! No thanks! No way!
You can have whatever you want.

You can have Snacky-O’s or Cinnamon Puffs
you can have Twirlibobs or Twizamastics
you can have Crispy Corn Crunch or Crunchy Corn Crisp
there’s a flavour sensation for every inclination
why, just try these sour cream and bacon cereal bars
they’re really very good.

The man took a box from a shelf and handed it to the little girl.

The girl looked at the box dubiously. “I’ve heard the people who make these aren’t paid very much,” she said, and she handed the box back to the man in the bowler hat.

“Why, you are a young lady of conscience,” the man said brightly, “wait right there, I know just the thing!”

He took another product from the shelf and handed it to the little girl with a flourish. She looked at it curiously. The label said ‘Fair Trade’ in big, green letters, and there was a picture of a family of indigenous peasants on their farm, with fields of corn and a bright blue sky with a yellow sun, and a cow with a bell hanging from its neck. The people on the box were all smiling, even the cow.

The man took up his song once more:

Whether you are 8 or 84
I guarantee you’ll be catered for!
Would you like some sensible Wheatie Flakes?
Or, if health is your thing, a Breakfast Nutri-Blast
Or are you the type that would like
artisanal sun-dried whole grain muesli
made to an ancient recipe?
Or would you like to try an ethnic authentic breakfast experience
from the mountains of darkest Peru?
So many lovely things to choose from, oh!
You can have whatever you wa-aaaaa-ant!

The man finished his song and, to the amazement and delight of the shoppers who had gathered to watch, he launched into a tap-dancing routine. The dancing was frenetic and impressive. It lasted only a minute or so, for the finale the man spun around, then fell to his knees just in front of the little girl, and took off his hat with a flourish.

The people who had gathered to watch burst into applause, and the man stood up and took a modest little bow. Then the man dusted himself off, and as it became clear that there wasn’t going to be any more singing or dancing, the people drifted away and returned to their shopping.

The little girl was still holding the product that the man had handed her.

“Well, young lady,” the man said, “shall we take that to the till?”

“I don’t know,” the little girl replied, looking at the box in her hands, “how do I know the people who made it really were treated fairly?”

“You can see right there on the label,” the man in the bowler hat said. “See? It says right there, ‘Fair Trade’.”

“But how do I know it really is fair?”

“It says on the label,” the man said patiently, “look, right here.”

“But how do I know?” the girl asked. “Just because something is written on a box doesn’t mean it’s true.” Then an idea came to her. “I should talk to the workers myself and ask them if they were treated fairly. That way I’ll know for sure.”

“There’s no need to go to all that trouble,” the man said, “all you need to do is look for the ‘Fair Trade’ mark on the box, that shows the product was fairly traded and the workers’ rights were respected.”

“You don’t understand,” the little girl said, annoyed. “I want something that really was produced fairly. I don’t just want something that says ‘Fair Trade’ on the box.”

“We could call the company’s Customer Care Number,” the man in the bowler hat suggested, “they should be able to answer all your questions.”

“No, I don’t want to talk to the customer service people, I want to talk to the people who make the products. I’m going to look them up on the Internet and send them an email.”

“You can’t do that,” the man in the bowler hat said.

“Why not? I’m free to talk to people, right? I’m free and the people who make the products are free, so we can talk to each-other if we want to.”

“Companies don’t let their employees talk directly to members of the public,” the man in the bowler hat explained.

“Well, that’s really bossy!” the little girl said crossly, “they shouldn’t be allowed to behave like that.”

The man in the bowler hat laughed and shook his head. “Young lady, you have no understanding of that world of business,” he said.

“That may be so,” the little girl replied angrily, “but you have no understanding of freedom!” She spoke with such force that the man in the bowler hat took a step back, aghast.

She continued: “You think freedom just means being able to choose between a bunch of things, but without being able to make the things yourself, and without being allowed to find out how the things were made, and without even being allowed to talk to the people who made them so you can try to figure out a better way to do things. What kind of crappy freedom is that?”

Without waiting for an answer the little girl turned and stomped out through the sliding doors of the supermarket’s main entrance.

The man in the bowler hat watched her go, his expression forlorn. Even after she was gone he still stood there. After a few moments he said quietly to himself: “I… I don’t understand. I sang for her and danced for her and everything. What does that little girl want?” He looked as if he was about to cry.

A shop worker came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, sir? Sir? Are you going to buy anything? You can’t just stand there in the middle of the aisle. This is a supermarket. If you’re not going to buy something, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”