The Liberty of the Ad Lib

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Did you see what I did there?

“Liberty”…

“Ad Lib”…

Get it?

OK. I have to admit. It is a bit of a stretch. At least from a literal standpoint. The “lib” of “ad lib” doesn’t stand for “liberty.” It’s actually the short form of the Latin phrase ad libitum.

Ad libitum literally translates to “at one’s pleasure.” There’s no “liberty” in it at all. Our word “liberty” derives from the Latin word liber. In Latin, liber and libitum mean two different, albeit not wholly unrelated, things.

The Latin liber means “free” or “unrestricted.” You can easily see how we get “liberty” from this word. Just to confuse you – as if all the different decinations aren’t enough, the Latin liber (from the genitive of libri), also means “book” or – get this – “the inner bark of a tree,” from which we get the word “library.” But we’ll skip this branch of the Latin tree.

The Latin libitum, (the perfect passive participle of libet, which means “it is pleasing”), on the other hand, translates to “pleased” or “one’s pleasure.”

I know what you’re thinking: “Won’t you derive pleasure from being free and unrestricted? So, aren’t liber and libitum really the same thing?”

Believe me, this is the kind of question that has vexed libertarians from before our country’s founding. Indeed, the libertarian philosophy seems to have two competing heads.

The first can be traced back to 17th century England and the writings of John Locke, who has been called the Father of Liberalism. Locke’s work (primarily his Natural Rights philosophy of “life, liberty, and property”) attracted the attention of America’s Founding Fathers. You may recognize Thomas Jefferson’s adulation of Locke in the phrasing he used within the body of the Declaration of Independence (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). (For Founding Father aficionados, Jefferson’s change of the third item represents an homage to Aristotle.) Let’s call this the liber part of libertarianism.

The second head of libertarianism – perhaps you might refer to it as “The Dark Side” – seems to have its roots in the French Revolution. (For those with a scorecard, Thomas Paine represents a key link between the American and French Revolutions.) Many cite Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thoughts on the intersection of morality and freedom and the springboard to the part of libertarianism that speaks to anarchism. Let’s call this the libitum part of libertarianism.

But we don’t want to judge the word libitum too harshly. After all, it’s a critical part of the phrase ad libitum, which, in turn, gave us the term “ad lib.”

And “ad lib” is a good thing.

Ad lib gives us the personal freedom that defines liberty.

But that might represent too great a leap for the casual reader. Let’s start where many of us experience ad lib to our great delight: the arts.

If you like jazz (or the Grateful Dead), then you’ve experienced the joys of ad lib. These musical journeys often allow free ranging instrumentation. While at least a single band member is tasked with keeping the tempo, one or more of the musicians have the freedom to play at their pleasure. (There you go, again. A combination of liber and libitum.)

Still, with skilled players, the average concert-goer might not recognize when the music veers from the score. There’s another stage, however, where the audience knows for sure they’re experiencing a purely unscripted event: improv theatre.

Here, comedians will ask the audience to throw out a few random nouns and verbs. The troupe then makes a coherent (and hopefully humorous) story out of those words and phrases. In this case, the audience derives pleasure (libitum) from the comic’s unrestricted use of the elements presented them (liber).

The beauty of ad lib is often captured for all to see in major cinematic releases. This requires very talented actors who are well-versed in improvisational comedy. In fact, when you place several qualified actors like this in the same movie, you have the recipe for a comedy classic… or a complete dud.

You don’t remember the duds, but you do remember the classics. I had the pleasure (libitum)to attend “An Evening with Chevy Chase” at the Kodak Center last Friday. They brought the 75-year-old comedian on the stage for an hour of, well, an old Chevy Chase. There were snippets of his wit, but, when the audience had to finish his sentences for him, well, you know, you’re free (liber) to interpret that any way you’d like.

Except for one thing. Before ol’ Chevy sauntered onto the stage, attendees laughed through a full presentation of the uncut version of the movie Caddyshack.

The comedy, an acclaimed classic, started as a completely scripted coming-of-age movie. Most of that script, however, ended up on the cutting room floor. (After filming, the first edit of the movie clocked in at 4½ hours long.) When the editors finished, what was left was mostly a series of ad lib performances by Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Rodney Dangerfield. These were just too good to cut. Audiences agreed.

The final cut (a run time of only 98 minutes) features a story that was created in post-production. In a sense, these ad lib comedians represented such a powerful force that only an ad lib final edit could do it justice.

And it did.

But at a cost.

While Caddyshack boosted the careers of its well-known stars, it soured the career aspirations of its younger actors. Quite a few quit the business as a result of the anarchy that ruled the set. In fact, the movie was filmed in Florida just to avoid the watchful eyes of its Hollywood overseers. (It was pitched to the studio as Animal House on the golf course. Little did they know…)

The production set was less about making a movie and more about having a party – for some. When the set broke, half the crew didn’t want to leave while the other half couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

It’s been said freedom isn’t free. The actors who created such an iconic movie had the freedom to do so. Our cinematic canon is all the more valuable for their efforts. While not originally scripted, some of the lines have found their way into our language, etched into the culture of (at least) the generation that grew up with Caddyshack.

Yet, there was collateral damage. Most of us will never see it, and it does take a certain amount of energy to dig up evidence of this damage. And why should we? The trade-off we derive as a society for this masterpiece – how it has enriched our lives (it morphed from a coming of age story to a Marx Brothers morality tale) – makes it worthwhile.

After all, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Wow. That doesn’t sound very liberating at all. How about this:

After all, without the ad lib, you’d never be able to realize your own Cinderella Story.

Declaration of (Italian) American Independence

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“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus/When he said the world was round…” So begins the lyrics of Ira Gershwin for brother George’s 1937 composition “They All Laughed.” The Gershwins wrote the song for the movie Shall We Dance, starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Frank Sinatra famously included the tune in his masterpiece Trilogy album, where he sings the closing lyrics “Who’s got the last laugh now?” with a knowing wink.

From Christopher Columbus to Frank Sinatra, it’s clear that Italians and Italian-Americans have had a tremendous impact on America. Over the next three weeks, we’ll focus on those names history books seem to have neglected.

Did you know Italian-Americans played a prominent role in the founding of America? For example, three of the first five American warships were named after Italians. These were Continue Reading “Declaration of (Italian) American Independence”

A Confession from a Hypocrite: Alas, I, too, am a Free Rider

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It was the most regrettable thing I had ever done in my entire life. At the time I thought it was a giant step forward, a statement that, because of who I was, because of who we were, would make a difference.

Organizing the protest had other alluring advantages. Our teacher encouraged us. We respected her and she respected us. She treated us like adults. We liked that. It presented us with the ultimate reward: greater self-esteem. In addition, the entire class participated. That meant we could be with our friends, and all the social rewards that brings. Finally, only our class was allowed to participate. It was a reward for getting our schoolwork done in a timely fashion. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment to fill the soul with self-confidence.

Of course, it helped that we hooked our wagon to a national movement. It was the first Continue Reading “A Confession from a Hypocrite: Alas, I, too, am a Free Rider”

How to Declare War

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the November 29, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259What the Constitution says: The Constitution of the United States of America clearly states only Congress can declare war on another nation. Our founding fathers correctly determined the impropriety of putting an entire nation at risk as a result of one person having too much authority. Though naming him Commander-in-Chief, they astutely forbade the President from declaring war.

Constitutional scholars call this juxtaposition the separation of powers. The separation of powers between the three major branches of government creates a very durable system of Continue Reading “How to Declare War”

American Egalitarianism

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the October 25, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259Is America equal?

We immediately respond with a resounding “Yes!” As youngsters, we begin learning the lessons of the American saga. A free and open democracy – like that in the United States – implies and demands a society of equals. Our founding fathers’ forged the idea of “one man, one vote.” (Most of us forgive our ancestors, who took nearly 150 years to add “one woman, one vote” to our forbears’ edict.)

Yet, can a society in which less than 1 percent of the population owns more than 20 percent of the wealth truly be considered egalitarian? Can a nation where some people own two or more houses as others drift homeless be thought of as egalitarian? Can we all be equal when some of us have well stocked freezers while some of us wait hungrily in soup kitchens? Kind of makes you wonder…

Is America equal?

Since the writings of Adam Smith, (i.e., well before the phrase became fashionable), the United States has lived a creed of social Darwinism. We view many aspects of life (economics and business in particular) as zero-sum games. This means “some gotta win, some gotta lose.”

Whenever and where ever possible, we tried to make sure those that had to lose lived in a foreign country. Still, socio-economic classes existed in America well before the revolution which severed us from the political (and economic) tyranny imposed by King George. They continue to exist today and some would say the gap between the richest and the poorest has widened dramatically.

For more than half a century now, our government has tried to address economic inequalities with a series of social programs. Today, Congress devotes greater than a third of the annual budget to social spending. Yet we linger no better off than we did before Lyndon Johnson introduced us to The Great Society. Even Daniel Moynihan, a principal architect of that plan, admits it failed.

Is America equal?

For a variety of reasons, America possesses many inequalities. In part, these inequalities derive from the doctrine of American Egalitarianism. This tenet differentiates the American experiment from almost any other modern culture. Its existence provides the very reason why, despite so many inequalities, the United States has and continues to prosper in a politically stable climate. The promise of American Egalitarianism not only satisfies our own countrymen, but it perpetually draws immigrants to our shores.

We can define the end result of American Egalitarianism in a phrase – social mobility. For many, the real chance for a better tomorrow – whether for ourselves, our children or our grandchildren – overcomes the pain of sacrifices today. Though our nation has social classes, we do not find them “caste” in stone. America spawns the Horatio Alger story which captivates the yearnings of every citizen of this world.

Is American equal?

No. For American society to consist of over 200 million identical drones runs contrary to our nation’s spirit. Genuine equality imposes too many limits. Most of all, it eliminates failure. Experience shows many of the most sparkling successes have come only after a succession of failures.

Anyone who has determined to climb a mountain recognizes and accepts the fact that climb will leave most people on the flat earth below. America breeds mountain climbers. It exalts men and women who go beyond the call of duty. It glorifies those who put service above self. It boldly applauds the explorer who has tackled unchartered terrain.

Must society induce equality upon these superstars? Should we shackle them with the chains of parity? Does any one person or group of persons have the right to deny another person’s zest? In America, we immediately respond with a resounding “No!”

Is America equal?

Yes, unequivocally. American Egalitarianism means, as Thomas Jefferson eloquently declares, the inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Every American citizen retains the equal right to live life as he or she pleases (provided they don’t violate any other person’s rights). Each American owns an equal and undeniable right to personal freedom. Finally, every man, woman and child in this country has a fair and equal chance to seize upon opportunity to improve their own standing.

These equal rights insure that America will forever be equal.

Next Week #82: Penalize Colorado! – Ethics Begins on the Football Field (originally published on October 18, 1990)
Next Week #84: The Environmental Bond Act – Why People are Voting “No!” (originally published on November 3, 1990)

[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]