Study Guide

Freedom Visions of America

By Jonathan Franzen

Visions of America

And that's what I find so refreshing about the Republican Party. They leave it up to the individual to decide what a better world might be. It's the party of liberty, right? That's why I can't understand why those intolerant Christian moralists have so much influence on the party. Those people are very antichoice. Some of them are even opposed to the worship of money and material goods. (3.1.84)

Richard's sarcastic diatribe in his interview with Zachary commends the Republican Party for its rhetoric that praises freedom. Here he questions the alliance in the modern Republican Party between social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and neoconservatives.

"I was still halfway OK as long as I was in St. Paul, but I kept having to drive all over the state for the Conservancy, and it was like having acid thrown in my face every time I passed the city limits. Not just the industrial farming but the sprawl, the sprawl, the sprawl. Low-density development is the <em>worst</em>. And SUVs everywhere, snowmobiles everywhere, Jet Skis everywhere, ATVs everywhere, two-acre lawns everywhere. The god-damned green monospecific chemical-drenched lawns." (3.1.252)

This passage recalls the one that opens the chapter "The Nice Man's Anger," in which we get our first real glimpse of Walter's boiling rage. Fittingly, in both cases, he's behind the wheel. Reading this, we imagine him looking back on his twenty-plus years of environmental activism, and realize that not only has he <em>not</em> made a difference, things have noticeably gotten much worse.

Walter handed him a laminated bar chart. "In America alone," he said, "the population's going to rise by fifty percent in the next four decades. Think about how crowded the exurbs are already, think about the traffic and the sprawl and the environmental degradation and the dependence on foreign oil. And then add fifty percent. (3.1.273)

…And here, instead of thinking about the past, Walter is projecting into the future, and realizing the utter hopelessness of his position. No wonder he's so angry.

He spoke of the "new blood libel" that was circulating in the Arab world, the lie about there having been no Jews in the twin towers on 9/11, and of the need, in times of national emergency, to country evil lies with benevolent half-truths. [...] He referred to members of the president's cabinet by their first names, explaining how "we" had been "leaning on" the president to exploit this unique historical moment to resolve an intractable geopolitical deadlock and radically expand the sphere of freedom. In normal times, he said, the great mass of American public opinion was isolationist and know-nothing, but the terrorist attacks had given "us" a golden opportunity, the first since the end of the Cold War, for "the philosopher" (which philosopher, exactly, Joey wasn't clear on or had missed an earlier reference to) to step in and unite the country behind the mission that his philosophy had revealed as right and necessary. "We have to learn to be comfortable with stretching some facts," he said, with his smile, to an uncle who had
Mildly challenged him about Iraq's nuclear capabilities. (3.2.374)

Hmm, does that sound right? But what proof does the philosopher have that his philosophy is correct? Or, more to the point, if his philosophy were indeed right, then why would he still need to stretch the truth? Lastly, if the public keeps its eyes covered for decades at a time, how in the world can it expect to see straight once it removes its hands?

"And what are your other plans? Are you interested in a business career the way everybody else seems to be these days?"

"Yes, definitely. I'm thinking of majoring in econ."

"That's right. There's nothing wrong with wanting to make money." (3.2.403-405)

What does Jonathan's father mean by "these days"? How would he describe things as being different in the past? And then he describes Joey's decision as "fine," suggesting there's a much better option. What would he consider a more constructive career path? Political science? Philosophy? Public policy?

Sitting with Blake in the great-room, the dimensions of which were more modest than he remembered, he watched Fox News's coverage of the assault on Baghdad and felt his long-standing resentment of 9/11 beginning to dissolve. The country was finally moving on, finally taking history in its hands again, and this was somehow of a piece with the deference and gratitude Blake and Connie showed him. (3.5.95)

Joey identifies the obstacles in his personal life with a display of overwhelming American military force. Does this seem strange or unusual? Or common and understandable? What does it say that an American boy would find satisfaction in such an event? How do we understand these parallel events in terms of national and personal freedoms?

He became another data point in the American experiment of self-government, an experiment statistically skewed from the outset, because it wasn't the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn't get along well with others. (3.6.2)

Whoa, ouch. Does that sound like you and the people you know? Or your parents, or your grandparents? Does that explain American racial strife and partisan gridlock? And, if this is true (that America is founded on "self-government"), why in the world would the States have United in the first place? Maybe we should just have 300 million little miniature states. ("We hereby claim this land for New Shmoopington!")

After his retirement, in the 1950s, he began sending his relatives annual Christmas letters in which he lambasted the stupidity of America's government, the inequities of its political economy, and the fatuity of its religion [...] Though an entrepreneur himself, Einar detested big business. Though he'd made a career of government contracts, he hated the government as well. And though he loved the open road, the road made him miserable and crazy. (3.6.4)

Franzen seems to be poking fun (well, OK, really it isn't much "fun" – just "poking" maybe) at the double standards many of us hold in our political views. For example, everyone hates taxes, but we sure do like many of the things they pay for (roads, schools, the fire department).