Is feeling free more important than staying safe and secure? "Give me liberty or give me death!" Patrick Henry famously declared according to those who heard him address the Second Virginia Convention more than a year before the American colonies issued the Declaration of Independence. Throughout history rebels have risen up against oppressive regimes, and yet throughout history people have also permitted those in authority to whittle away their rights. As previously addressed in this column, psychologist Erich Fromm tried to make sense of why people he had known for years relinquished freedoms and let the Nazis come into power. As Fromm (Escape from Freedom, 1941) saw it, “modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton.” His speculations about this led him to develop his ideas on the conflict between freedom and security, which goes to the core of his theory of personality.
After two years of adventures and encounters on the road on Syfy's zombie apocalypse series Z Nation, the character Alvin Murphy (played by actor Keith Allan) has grown tired of letting others tell him which way to go and what goal he should pursue. Vaccinated against the zombie virus (episode 1-1, "Puppies and Kittens"), Murphy finds that he can control zombies, turn others into zombie/human "blends," and control those he bites. Now, instead of letting scientists keep experimenting on him in order to develop a full vaccine, he decides that the people of the world should become "blends" who will be under his control and free from fear. Rather than help him achieve this goal, the scientist who originally vaccinated him instead lets a group of zombies kill her (episode 3-4, "Escorpion and the Red Hand"). Murphy cannot fathom why she would rather die than help him (episode 3-5, "Little Red and the Wolvz").
Before she dies, the scientist helps a character called 10K (actor Nat Zang) free himself from Murphy's control and run away from Murphy's growing cult. One of Murphy's followers, Will Chaffin (actor Aaron Trainor), pursues and catches 10K. Will expresses his dismay: "Murphy offered you peace, freedom, but you ran away from that. You like fear? Is that what it is?" As they walk, they talk.
Will: "Somehow when Murphy says something's gonna happen, it happens."
10K: "That's what I'm afraid of."
Will: "Yeah, fear. That's what attracts the zombies. That's how this whole thing got started, but Murphy's cure, it fixes all that. How could you not want to be part of that?"
10K: "You don't know him like I do."
Will: "Look, all I know is that my daughter's still alive and me, my wife, my baby girl for the first time in years, we're actually safe."
10K: "You're only saying that because he bit you."
Will: "I asked him to. I begged him to, actually. And it was the best decision I've ever made for my family."
10K: "So you traded your freedom for safety. Do you remember what you were before he bit you?"
Will: "Yeah, afraid. That's what I was, but not anymore. You wanna talk about freedom? That's freedom."
10K: "That's brainwashing."
Did the writers name the character "Will" for this issue of free will?
Will Chaffin's amazement that Murphy has a plan for restoring electrical power and plumbing is reminiscent of an old claim about fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini, that "Mussolini made the trains run on time." There are few simple answers when weighing issues of liberty and safety. 15 years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we're still debating the PATRIOT Act's repercussions. Fromm considered the conflict of freedom vs. security to be "the basic human dilemma" that never ends. Outside North America, his classic book Escape from Freedom is often titled instead The Fear of Freedom, which goes straight to the heart of 10K's disagreement with Will.