(This is a continuation of the Sixteenth Year of Obama Series - A Scientific Romance of the Year 2024. The first part can be found here under The Isle of Endless Education.)
The moonlight shone gently down on the solar-powered train resting on a bridge between two government islands. Inside, Marc and Julie, a young couple typical of the over educated upper class of the United States of North America and Europe, drowsed fitfully on the recycled plastic benches, their sleep interrupted by the whirring noises of nearby windmills generating power from the occasional breezes wafting between the islands.
Glancing around, Julie could not help but notice that the Isle was ringed by barbed wire and tall guard towers brooding over the deserted harbor. "I wonder why the security is so heavy."
Immediately a speaker mounted on a nearby elm tree sputtered to life. "Wait here."
The young couple waited uneasily until eventually a golf cart rolled up. Inside perched a wizened man in a loud t-shirt bearing the slogan, "Power to the People."
"Welcome," he shouted to them, "welcome to the freest place on earth."
They waited while he caught his breath, tossed aside a crumpled beer can, and gasped out, "This is wild, isn't it!?"
It seemed safer to agree with him, so that was what Marc and Julie did.
Good morning, good evening and good afternoon," the elfin man exclaimed, donning a pair of oversized sunglasses. "I'm the Director General of Freedom. But you can call me Steve. And did I hear you asking a question."
"We didn't mean any harm by it," Julie said.
"Harm? Question?" The Director General of Freedom threw out his arms. "Here on the Isle of Freedom we absolutely encourage everyone to ask questions. It's the essence of freedom. That's why we made it mandatory for everyone to ask at least ten questions a day."
The young couple said nothing, while he glared expectantly at them. "Well, you're ten questions short, and it's already eleven in the morning."
"I just noticed how much security there is," Julie said haltingly.
"That's because freedom is very precious," the Director General said. "More precious than gold. Everyone wants freedom, so we have to protect it from them. Do you know what the going price for freedom is outside these walls?"
"What kind of freedom?" Marc asked.
"Any kind of freedom," the Director General said. "You name it, there's a price on it. Illegal newspapers can be had for ten nudollars a roll, illegal churches go for ten thousand, and illegal firearms are somewhere in between. You name a freedom and I can put an exact dollar and cents value on it."
"But Director-General," Julie said.
"Steve," the Director-General said. "Call me Steve."
"Steve, but these are all just government buildings."
"And where else does freedom come from but the government?" the Director General demanded. "Does freedom grow on trees, does it condense from the air or rain down from the sky? It's the government that provides freedom and there can be no freedom without the government. Since freedom comes from the government-- the essence of freedom is government."
"So to protect freedom is to protect government power because it's the only way we have our freedom?" Marc said, slowly puzzling it out.
"But isn't freedom supposed to be free?" Julie asked.
The Director-General cracked his knuckles. "That's what they used to think in the dim dark ages, twenty years ago, before we developed an exact scientific and rational methodology for defining freedom. Back then they thought freedom means the freedom to do things, but as our moral sensibilities evolved, we understood that true freedom is in not having to do anything."
"Freedom from freedom," Marc said.
"Exactly," the Director General said. "What kind of freedom do citizens truly want? Freedom of speech or the freedom not to work? Freedom of religion or free health care? The right to bear arms or the right to have someone from the government take care of all your problems?"
The little man got back into his golf cart, waved them along, and they trotted after the cart. "Do you know what is in all these buildings? Freedom. The freedom not to work, not to think, not to assemble and not to do anything at all. These are the buildings that provide welfare, propaganda, policy and free things for everyone. Here is the birthright of every man, woman and child in the USNAE. Freedom from freedom."
Behind them two women cloaked all in black passed, their manner self-effacing and withdrawn. "What about them?" Julie asked.
"My dear, they are the essence of the Isle of Freedom. After all, freedom means nothing if it is not the freedom to have no freedom at all. That is the freedom that encompasses all other freedoms."
The golf cart rolled on until it reached the opening of a granite building, where they were once again obligated to pass inspection by another man in a brown uniform. Only after that were they allowed to ride in the elevator upstairs to a high floor in one of the buildings of the Isle of Freedom.
As soon as they exited the elevator, a second elevator, much more lush and spacious, opened next to them, and the golf cart, with the Director-General, rolled out. Surrounding them on all sides were men and women busily bent down to their computers. The Director-General swerved back and forth, looking over their shoulders, and making encouraging and discouraging sounds out of the side of his mouth, suggesting changes and adjustments too low for them to hear.
"What freedom is this?" Marc asked.
Swiftly the Director-General rolled back to them. "This is the watchdog of democracy. The most magnificent freedom of freedoms without which a free society would be thoroughly lost. This is the freedom of the press."
Around them, the men and women continued clicking their keyboards, heads bent down, without looking up from their work.
"Are all these all the reporters?" Julie asked.
"Reporters," the Director-General sniffed, "you're a decade out of date. We don't do reporters anymore. They're too much work. Besides what's the use in having reporters if we already know what they're going to report. It's a shameless waste."
"So what are they?"
"Rewriters. When the government issues its bulletin explaining what happened or what it expects to happen, they rewrite it in an appropriate way for every media outlet," the Director-General said, pointing at one huddled figure, then at another. "That man is rewriting a bulletin for Scientific American, the woman beside him is rewriting that same report for the New York Daily News and the man next to her is rewriting it for Le Monde. That way the public is assured a range of perspectives on every issue."
"But it's all the same thing," Julie said.
"Of course it is. Imagine the chaos if we had 10,000 reporters all writing different things. Some would disagree with the government. Others would stir up riots. It's safer this way."
"But how is it a watchdog?" Marc asked.
"You're at eleven questions," the Director General said, "that's one over the limit, but being that this is a weekend on the Isle of Freedom, I'll allow it. The press is a watchdog of democracy, protecting the government from the people, and the people from the government."
"And how does it do that?"
"Twelve," the Director-General sighed, and rolled up to a side desk where a bearded man was furiously banging out a news report. "Take Herve here, rewriting a classified report on riots in Brussels. The rioters are demanding lower taxes, which would require the government to crack down on such treasonous talk. But we are rewriting the report to say that the protesters are rioting in favor of even higher taxes. Now they're patriots, and everyone reading the report is safe from subversive thoughts."
Herve looked up momentarily to glare at them, as if he suspected them of being subversives, and then went back to banging out the report, while cursing fluently in three languages. The Director-General tossed his dark glasses onto the desk and then rolled back toward the elevator in his cart.
"Wait," Julie called, "but what about the news?"
"There is no more news," came the reply, as the elevator doors closed. "The news ended sixteen years ago with the revolution. So did education, science, democracy and a thousand other things. We are living at the end of history. There is nothing more to report, nothing more to discover and nothing more to learn. Everything is over."
Marc and Julie got back in the elevator and waited until it opened on another floor. There were no windows here, and the walls were thickly covered in black padding. Heavy black doors closed off compartment after compartment on all sides. As they watched, a young woman opened the door to one and closed it behind her. A middle-aged man entered another.
"Can't you see how beautiful it is?" the Director-General of Freedom asked. They jumped, not having heard him roll up behind them. A tear slowly trickled down one cheek as he watched the black doors.
"What is it?" Marc asked.
"Freedom of speech," the Director-General said. "After the conflicts of the third term and the civil unrest that followed, we were forced to temporarily retire free speech, because the people, with their habits of engaging in irresponsible speech could no longer be trusted with it. But we have slowly been experimenting with bringing it back."
"In those rooms?" Julie said.
"Exactly," the Director-General said. "Each of those rooms is private and sound-proofed. No one can eavesdrop on what goes on in them. Not even us. Only one man or woman may enter at a time and then say whatever is on their mind without being able to influence anyone else. They can curse the government, denounce the authorities or complain about taxes. Anything."
"Anything at all," Marc wondered speculatively.
"The problem with free speech in a well-regulated society is that it influences others, but here in our black rooms of freedom, there is absolute darkness, absolute silence and absolute freedom of speech."
"Silence?" Julie said. "Is it really so quiet?"
"Oh yes," the Director-General chuckled. "We have sound-proofed it and installed noise-cancelling equipment. In the black rooms of freedom, you can't hear your own footsteps or your own heartbeat."
"But what about the sound of your voice?"
The Director-General smiled. "Of course you can't hear what you say in there. That wouldn't be freedom. What if you negatively influenced yourself with your own words? There is complete and absolute silence. No one who exercises their constitutionally protected freedom of speech can hear a thing they say. And they have no obligation to turn themselves in for incitement to extremism."
"But then what good is it?" Marc asked haltingly.
"It's a right. We have to give you the freedom to speak, but that doesn't mean we also have to allow you the freedom to hear." The Director-General turned around his cart and rolled back toward his elevator.
One black door opened, and the middle-aged man stumbled through with a dazed look in his eyes, but a smile on his face.
"See, there," the Director-General said, "he doesn't quite know what he said, but he knows he said something. That's the catharsis of freedom for you. Almost as good as the real thing."
The elevator doors closed, and Marc and Julie left the black cells of freedom of speech behind. A long ride followed that seemed to go on forever, until the doors opened at last on the top floor. Here the walls were lined with gold and glittered on all sides. A pile of sacred objects from different religions lay at the feet of the golden statue of the Leader.
"This is freedom of religion, isn't it," Marc said.
"Oh yes," the Director-General replied. "This is the final freedom. The great task of our great society has been to resolve the conflicts between individual freedom and the rule of the enlightened ones. Religion, like so much else, has been split by conflicts, but in this room, we have resolved all the conflicts. There are many religions, but only one god."
"But don't religions have different gods?" Julie asked.
"That's a misconception," the Director-General said. "It was once thought that way, but we have resolved that too. There are many gods, but all of them are aspects of the same thing. What is religion really but a path to peace and universal social justice? The essence of religion is a better world, and we have brought that better world into being."
"So he's god?" Marc said, his eyes traveling up the length of the golden statue, up to the dome that enclosed its head and prominent ears.
"That's a heresy," the Director-General said. "He is the incarnation of our god. Our god has many incarnations. But our god is more than one man. Our god is government."
"Government?" Julie asked.
"There is no god but government then," Marc said slowly.
"And I'm his prophet," the Director-General said cheerfully.
Marc hesitatingly turned his back on the golden statue filling the room and took the elevator down, his stomach rushing up, as the massive edifice of the government buildings of freedom hummed around him with a terrible efficiency. He felt hopelessly lost amid all the activity of the inscrutable clergy of government serving the golden god that guided their lives.
The young couple thoughtfully walked back toward the train, the rays of the afternoon sun shining down with a fierce heat, like an attentive government.
"Thank you for this tour, Director-General," Julie said.
"Steve," the Director-General corrected her, swerving around and raising a cloud of dust that hung in the air long after he was gone.
The young couple boarded the train and waited as it slowly rattled down the bridge and toward the next stop on their destination. The Isle of Industry.