Our cherished friend Liberty reveals herself as a naked lie

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was possible to buy soft-porn postcards of a girl clad in a bikini or wearing a dress; but when you moved the postcard a little bit or looked at it from a slightly different perspective, the dress magically disappeared and you could see the girl’s naked body. This is parallax at its purest: the apparent change in an object caused by a shift in the observational position that allows you to see it in a different light. And, perhaps, we need a similar parallax shift to deal with the political and ideological conundrums facing us today.

In Amish communities, there is a practice called rumspringa (from the German herumspringen , to jump around): at 17, Amish children (till then subjected to strict family discipline) are set free, allowed to go out to learn and experience the ways of the world around them – they drive cars, listen to pop music, watch TV, get involved in drinking, drugs and wild sex. After a couple of years, they are expected to decide whether they will become members of the Amish community or leave it and turn into ordinary North American citizens. Far from this allowing the youngsters a truly free choice, giving them a chance to decide based on full knowledge and experience of both sides, such a solution is biased in a most brutal way. It is a fake choice if ever there was one. When, after long years of discipline and fantasising about the transgressive illicit pleasures of the outside “English” world, the adolescent Amish are thrown into it all of a sudden without preparation, they cannot but indulge in extreme transgressive behaviour, “testing it all” and throwing themselves fully into a life of sex, drugs and drinking. And, since they lack any inherent limitations or regulation, such a permissive situation inexorably backfires and generates unbearable anxiety. It is a pretty safe bet that, after a couple of years, they will return to the seclusion of their community. No wonder 90 per cent of Amish children do exactly that.

This is a perfect illustration of the difficulties that accompany the idea of “free choice”: while Amish adolescents are formally given a free choice, the conditions they find themselves in while they are making that choice make it unfree. For them to have real free choice, they would have to be properly informed of all the options. But the only way to do this would be to extract them from their embeddedness in the Amish community, to make them “English”.

[Extract. Appeared in Times Higher Education on March 24th 2006.]