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Author Maggie Nelson's New Book Examines The Meaning And Rhetoric Of Freedom


Politicians and pop stars often come back to the same refrain.


JANIS JOPLIN: (Singing) Freedom is just another word for nothin' left to lose.


GEORGE MICHAEL: (Singing) Freedom - I won't let you down. Freedom - I will not give you up. Freedom...


BEYONCE: (Singing) Freedom, freedom, I can't move. Freedom, cut me loose.

SHAPIRO: The writer, Maggie Nelson, is the latest to tackle the subject. In 2015, her memoir "The Argonauts" was a massive international hit. And her new book is called "On Freedom: Four Songs Of Care And Constraint." It's a work of criticism exploring what it means to be free in our interconnected world.

Maggie Nelson, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MAGGIE NELSON: Thank you. I'm thrilled to be here.

SHAPIRO: So much has been said and written about freedom. This book is dense with references and quotes to other people's observations and opinions about the subject. What made you decide to add your voice to this conversation about what freedom means?

NELSON: Insanity, clearly, but...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

NELSON: ...No. I - there are so many ways into this. I think it has a biographical route. I was born in 1973 and grew up in San Francisco, kind of in the detritus of a lot of the civil rights movements and women's liberation, you know, kind of, you know, all around me. And I just was very curious as to, you know, this narrative that we'd had these liberation movements, but they'd failed. And now we were kind of oppressed by neoliberalism or what have you.

SHAPIRO: Well, and early on, you kind of draw a contrast between the mantle of freedom that civil rights activists and other progressive marchers wore in the '60s with the present day when freedom is most often claimed by people who say, you know, I don't want to wear a mask to protect others from the coronavirus because it's my freedom not to wear a mask. It's been taken over by the other side of the political spectrum.

NELSON: Yeah. I mean, this is - that's a very long, you know, centuries-long split, you know, the kind of division in the United States of rhetoric around freedom that relates to emancipation and abolition and then the kind that is related to more individualistic movements, you know, "Don't Tread on Me" kind of a thing.

SHAPIRO: Early on in the book, you argue that the idea of absolute freedom is a straw man. And in the introduction, you write, the question is not whether we are enmeshed but how we negotiate, suffer and dance with that enmeshment. And so is your exploration of freedom just necessarily really kind of an exploration of freedom's limits and the idea that, like, we have to start from a place of acknowledging that in order to be free, we have to restrain ourselves and others to a certain extent?

NELSON: Yeah. I became very interested early on in how even slogans like "Don't Tread on Me" rely upon a relation. Like, they address somebody else. You say, don't tread on me. You're already talking to somebody, you know? And I'd be...

SHAPIRO: Right (laughter).

NELSON: I was very obsessed with - you know, by saying, your body has nothing to do with my body, you're talking to somebody else's body who's ostensibly right there with you. I mean, you know...

SHAPIRO: So even an assertion for freedom on your own is acknowledging that that's going to limit someone else's ability to do something.

NELSON: I don't know if I would say to limit. I would just say it's in a dance with.

SHAPIRO: So the book looks at freedom in four areas. There's art, sex, addiction and climate change. And I would love to talk about how the idea of freedom applies to climate change because when you look at the impact that human actions are having all around the globe, what do you think freedom means in that context? Like, is it freedom to burn fossil fuels and contribute to mass extinction?

NELSON: Yeah, I mean, I think that that chapter is concerned with - and hopefully, it has a generous cast to it. And I think it's concerned with the way, you know, like the same 250 years that we have really produced an enormous discourse about human freedom in - at least in the West - have been commensurate with the years of burning fossil fuels that are unprecedented, you know, especially in the last 60 years' pace. You know, the book is very against calcified notions of freedom that we hold on to so tightly (laughter).

SHAPIRO: If the answer was simple, it wouldn't fill a book.

NELSON: Yeah, but they would - that they become death wishes. Someone's quoted that The Heartland Institute - saying, like, you know, you'll pull this thermostat out of my cold, dead hand. You know, like, that kind of literal image of, you know, holding on so tightly to our use of fossil fuels, you know, I mean, it kind of has a comedy in it if you think about it just like air conditioning or the remote control because it sounds so petty. But it's also, to me, more indicative of a kind of addiction to a certain notion of freedom, the freedom that we've come to know, which is implicated with fossil fuels, like, we want to go. We want to drive. We want to connect via Zoom easily and quickly via the batteries of these computers. We want to do all these things. And yeah, I talk about in that chapter how some restraint - like the restraint to leave the remaining fossil fuels in the ground.

SHAPIRO: Many people would think of constraint as the opposite of freedom, but it seems like in your understanding, constraint is sort of a necessary component of freedom. Like, it is a prerequisite.

NELSON: Yeah, I mean, I think - and this is really clear in the chapter I write about sexual freedom, that, you know, all of our choices have constraints built into them. You know, sometimes, they're legal constraints. Sometimes, they're physical constraints. Sometimes, they're ethical constraints, you know, and that the practice of the interplay between what we want to do and what others want to do and those constraints is in fact, you know, the practice of ethics. You know, to be an ethical human and - is to engage with freedom and constraint both, you know?

SHAPIRO: I'm curious. Having spent years working on this book - I mean, you say you started it before "The Argonauts," your international bestseller, even came out. How do you view freedom now when you hear it in the context of a pop song or a political ad or a catchphrase that has none of the nuance (laughter) of the labor that you've put into this?

NELSON: Yeah, it's sad in a way because it takes something so interesting, and it's - it works as a very blunt tool, you know, a weaponized tool, so it makes me sad. But I also feel - I feel grateful to have spent this time getting at it because when I hear the word in pop songs or even in political discourse, I know the writhing, subterranean, you know, issues at hand, and I hear them. And, you know, hopefully, if people read the book, they can enjoy some of that (laughter) exploration as well.

SHAPIRO: Well, Maggie Nelson, it's been great talking with you. Thank you very much.

NELSON: You too. Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Her new book is "On Freedom: Four Songs Of Care And Constraint."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
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