Six Books on Compassion and Freedom

Birth Without Violence by Frederick Leboyer

The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost by Jean Liedloff

Free at Last: the Sudbury Valley School by Daniel Greenberg

For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence by Alice Miller

Death by Government by R. J. Rummel

Tibetan Portrait: the power of compassion by Phil Borges (Photographer), Dalai Lama, Bstan-Dzin-Rgya-Mtsho, Jefferey Hopkins (Introduction), and Elie Wiesel  

At first glance these six may seem odd choices, but each has something important to say [see below] about the nature of the human world. Taken together they represent an unusual but compelling thesis: First, that freedom and emotional health are not merely linked, but in the long term require each other, and second, that “sensitive dependence on early conditions” is as true of humans as it is of any other complex system.

These six do one thing more: They introduce perceptions of reality so different from the norm as to astonish, delight, shock, and sometimes horrify. Every one of these books demolishes entrenched assumptions. The world may never look the same after you’ve read them.

That is important, because real change will require perceptual shifts of such magnitude. The approaches which have been tried for creating a better world – and in particular for ending evil via politics, religion, education, etc. – have failed, utterly, despite all the hard work, despite the earnest activism, despite genuinely good intentions, despite the many small victories, and despite the astonishing success we have had in areas such as technology. Here at the dawn of the third millennium, the world is still run nearly everywhere by tyrants (elected or otherwise), hundreds of millions are starving needlessly, torture and other atrocity is commonplace in many nations, and the sorry list of such symptoms is nearly endless.

Prediction: Traditional efforts to end evil and tyranny in this world will continue to fail. They will fail because they do not take fundamentals sufficiently into account. They will fail because they are based on perceptions of reality that are largely inaccurate.

There is a hint of this, occasionally, in fiction. For instance, in the film The Matrix, a dreamworld has been constructed by intelligent machines, who use it to enslave humanity. A young programmer named Neo is liberated – physically disconnected from – the apparatus which creates the shared mass illusion, and taken aboard the hovercraft Nebuchadnezzar.

Morpheus, who has long searched for, finally found, and now freed Neo, greets him with these words:

“Welcome – to the real world.”

 - 1 -

Birth Without Violence by Frederick Leboyer

First published in 1974, Birth Without Violence is a meditation on compassion and its impact. The often-stunning photographs are more eloquent than words alone could be (do not miss the final picture at the end of the text), and together with Leboyer's lyrical prose, make the point that birth is every bit the earth-shaking, path-setting event for the child that we would expect ' if we thought about such things more carefully. Not going through life with a straight-jacket of inner demons, from repressed trauma of whatever type, is a critical dimension of real freedom. For that reason, a gentle, compassionate birth is at least as important as any Bill of Rights. Besides, politically-recognized rights can be cancelled or ignored. In contrast, a good start in life provides strength, calmness, a sense of connection with others, and a less-clouded view of the world ' no matter what the politicians are doing.

Leboyer's book has had a wide impact, but counter-trends have also been at work. For example, in 1970, 5.5% of U.S. births were by Caesarean section; in recent years the figure has hovered between about 20% and 25% of all births ' roughly four times as high.[1] The high C-section rate is part of the medical industry's increasingly high-tech approach to the birth process.[2]

Dr. Leboyer, an obstetrician, had no quarrel with the need for modern medical technique where necessary. His focus was on getting parents, doctors, and nurses to consider the newborn's point of view. In turn, this would lead to a more compassionate approach, not in some mechanical way but as part of a more sensitive outlook generally. It was this sensitivity, not any particular technique (such as the warm bath Leboyer famously gave to babies right after birth, while the cord was still attached in most cases) that he was hoping to foster.

What is the meaning of 'sensitive dependence on early conditions' in human life? Birth Without Violence is my pick as the best starting point for answering that question.

- 2 -

The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost by Jean Liedloff

The Continuum Concept describes an actual, functioning, free and compassionate society. (We'll discuss another one shortly).

Yeah. Roll that around in your brain for a moment.

You could easily assume, reading the back cover of The Continuum Concept at your bookstore, that it was just another touchy-feely paean to Hillary-style 'it takes a fascist village' child care. Gloria Steinem raves about the book in a quote, for cryin' out loud. The New York Times has nice things to say about it. This book could not possibly be even slightly about freedom, you'd think.

Happily, you'd be wrong.[3] The Continuum Concept is as radical and emotionally powerful as anything I have read, but it is also well-grounded and sensible. More than that: at its core is a description of a society both healthy and free. The 'healthy' part is, among other things, a critical underpinning for the long-term survival of freedom in any society. That's my opinion, not necessarily the author's.

Liedloff spent time in her 20s with the Yequana, an isolated tribe deep in the Amazon; much of the book focuses on the child-rearing and other practices and behaviors of the tribe, and on the human results. She came away with a view of life so different from our own that one questions how deeply it can be understood by those of us steeped in modern, techno-centric society. It is worth making an effort, in any case.

A gifted writer, Liedloff grabs the reader immediately when she describes a haunting flash of enlightenment from her own childhood. That early experience (she was eight) runs like a thread throughout the book, often unspoken but always there. First published in 1975, The Continuum Concept reads as if written yesterday.

The title refers to Liedloff's idea that humans, like all species, necessarily have built-in expectations and needs ' part of a continuum that informs and guides us, and which we ignore to our detriment. A human baby knows what to expect ' not intellectually, but on a deeper level ' because those expectations are carved into its own DNA. The baby expects to be cared for in a certain way, handled in a certain way, fed and kept warm and protected, and to otherwise have its needs tended to. A human baby can do none of that for itself; it can cry or wriggle to get attention, but the mother or someone must do the rest. That expectation is met, or the infant dies. Thus are the continuum and its expectations passed along through time.

A gray area exists where the child's needs are met only partially: well enough for life to continue; poorly enough that damage is done.

This is the default situation of mankind. Changing that situation is the reason to participate in, and the only measure of success for, the human rights movement (by whatever name).

The need for freedom ' not the 'for your own good, at gunpoint if necessary' pseudo-freedom offered by the State, but the real thing ' is as much a part of the continuum as is any other deep human need. The good news is that genuine freedom can be (and occasionally has been) created by people without the use of politics, political theory, or violence. The Yequana Indians, for example, live free despite never having heard of Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, or Estienne de la Boetie:

Perhaps as essential as the assumption of innate sociality in children and adults is a respect for each individual as his own proprietor. The notion of ownership of other persons is absent among the Yequana . . . . Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yequana vocabulary of behaviors. There is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence ' let alone coerce ' anyone. (p. 90)

If there is anything beyond '. . . no impulse to influence ' let alone coerce ' anyone' required before a society can be called 'free,' I don't know what it is.[4]

Force, violence, and politics will never create such a society.[5] Love alone will create such a world, and Liedloff's book is an important reminder that it can be done.

- 3 -

Free at Last: the Sudbury Valley School by Daniel Greenberg

Founded in 1968, Sudbury Valley School offers no formal classes, unless students initiate them ' by contracting with a staff member or other student. The staff isn't there to give anything to the students (much less to force anything upon them), except what the students want to take. Fishing ' all day, every day, for as many years as you care to do it ' is a perfectly acceptable (and not unheard of) way for a student to spend his time.

Do the kids learn? Of course. Because they aren't being coerced to learn things they aren't interested in at the moment ' because they aren't even coerced to learn what they are interested in ' they learn quickly, easily, and thoroughly, when they feel ready to. How long does it take young kids to learn math, when they aren't being forced? About 20 contact hours, at an hour a week. That includes long division, fractions, decimals, percentages, and square roots, not just addition and subtraction. When Daniel Greenberg first put together a math class ' for students who had asked for one, of course ' he was amazed at how quickly they learned. Decades later, he knows this was no fluke. Children who aren't coerced also learn to read with no problem, and often without any adult assistance. Nor do they develop dyslexia, which Greenberg says may afflict as many as 20% of children in public schools. The rate of dyslexia at Sudbury (over decades, remember) has been 'zero.'

When the time comes for college or a career, Sudbury students are not merely ready: after years of being literally responsible for their own learning (and for their own actions generally), they are confident and competent. They know what they want and how to achieve it. Years of getting along with others in a setting where every person is free and responsible make them easy to be around.

The book was written many years after the school opened, and a second edition was published in 1995. This isn't mere cranksterism or theory: it is the story of a working, non-government school that has been successful for decades, and which has spawned several other successful schools run on the same model.

Free at Last is well and simply written, yet nearly every page explodes a myth or teaches a startling lesson about what childhood could be, can be, and must be. If children are to grow up outside the mental and emotional prisons we now herd them into, schools like Sudbury Valley (or the English boarding school Summerhill,[6] founded in 1921) must become the norm instead of almost unknown curiosities.

Your local NEA chapter will not likely be of help, although a few of its members might. (For a reminder of what public schools are often like, consider Public School Pandemonium by Rachel Baxter.) If you have children, or are a child; if you care about children or about education generally; if you are curious about how astonishingly different life can be from what we have made of it, Free at Last will be an invigorating visit to a world that feels so right, so real, so healthy and sane that you may not want to leave.

- 4 -

For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence by Alice Miller

For Your Own Good shows what happens when the natural, healthy course of early life is badly-enough corrupted. Cruelty, neglect, and disrespect early in life create damaged adults, many of whom are cruel, insensitive, and who find it easy to disrespect others. Some of these damaged adults will be (for obvious reasons) angry enough to enjoy hurting others. In some (but far from all) cases, these young victims grow into utterly sociopathic and dangerous adults.

Miller includes an incredibly chilling section with chapters on traditional German child-rearing advice (from the 1700s forward), including extensive quotations from child-rearing manuals. Another section provides details on the upbringing of some notorious violent criminals, including Adolph Hitler.

How on earth could a Nazi Germany ever happen? Read this book and you'll know.

As with the other books on this list, many readers (several reviewers at, for instance) say For Your Own Good changed the way they see the world. It's easy to see why that might be so.

From the book:

We admire people who oppose the regime in a totalitarian country and think they have courage or a 'strong moral sense' or have remained 'true to their principles' or the like. We may also smile at their naivet', thinking, 'Don't they realize that their words are of no use at all against this oppressive power? That they will have to pay dearly for their protest?'

Yet it is possible that both those who admire and those who scorn these protesters are missing the real point: individuals who refuse to adapt to a totalitarian regime are not doing so out of a sense of duty or because of naivet' but because they cannot help but be true to themselves. The longer I wrestle with these questions, the more I am inclined to see courage, integrity, and a capacity for love not as 'virtues,' not as moral categories, but as the consequences of a benign fate. (pp. 84 ' 85)

- 5 -

Death by Government by R. J. Rummel

Death by Government shows the nation-wide and global effects of the mistreatment of the young (i.e., the problem which Miller describes) when combined with state coercion ' and in so doing provides an honest, unblinking look at government power that you won't find in your typical PoliSci book or college course. Like the other books on this list, Death by Government makes the case that reality is vastly different from how nearly everyone perceives it.

Rummel devotes Chapter 3 to an overview of government murder throughout history, then documents an estimated 169 million government murders (not counting millions killed on the battlefields of the many government wars) in just the first 87 years of the twentieth century. His figures (from later material) suggest that governments murdered an average of roughly 5,000 people every single day, seven days a week ' for, yes, the entire 20th century. That daily average is nearly twice the number killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Despite that, nearly everyone seems oblivious to those numbers, and thus to the true nature of coercive state power. It is as if Hitler's Germany, Mao's China, Stalin's USSR, Pol Pot's Cambodian killing fields, Idi Amin's Uganda, and all the rest of this horror simply never happened. Not surprisingly, Rummel has commented that '. . . the ignorance of the incredible murder by government is a moral, intellectual, and academic scandal. It is the biggest and most significant black hole in our educational system and literature.'[7]

You won't read this one for fun. You may be unable to read much of it at all ' at least without stopping often, probably to cry. The dead, the tortured, and their stunned, grief-stricken families and friends deserve at least that much from us, though. If we won't lift a hand to stop the horror, at least let us honor the dead by not turning away.

And who knows? If enough of us are willing to face this horrific reality, perhaps it will energize us to, if nothing else, rethink our belief in the coercive state ' the tool without which almost none of this carnage would have been possible.[8]

- 6 -

Tibetan Portrait: The Power of Compassion by Phil Borges (Photographer), Dalai Lama, Bstan-Dzin-Rgya-Mtsho, Jefferey Hopkins (Introduction), and Elie Wiesel.

I see this book as a less-painful ' indeed, as a powerfully-uplifting ' backup to Rummel's Death by Government. It does provide information about conditions in Tibet, in a few short sections at the beginning and end. For example, since the Red Chinese invasion in 1949, about 1.2 million Tibetans have died 'from military actions, torture, forced labor, and starvation. One in ten Tibetans is held in prisons or forced labor camps for periods of 10 to 20 years.' The Chinese have destroyed nearly all of the 6,200 Buddhist monasteries which existed in 1949 in an attempt 'to eradicate Buddhism in Tibet.' So many Chinese have been resettled into Tibet that native Tibetans are now, already, a minority in their own land.

Yet while shadows of this tragedy are on every page, the heart of Tibetan Portrait is the people of Tibet and their individual and cultural emphasis on compassion. Primarily, this is a book of photographs and quotations, with exactly the right balance between image and text. The pages are mostly white space; everything is arranged artfully, and the effect is to create a natural calmness and a focus on meaning. A page at the right will have one of Phil Borges' stunning photographs, with a rough, pleasing border. The opposite page will feature a short note about the person or people in the photo, in small type at the bottom; a short quotation by the Dalai Lama is featured higher up on the page. Among my favorites:

This is my simple religion:

There is no need for temples;

no need for complicated philosophy.

Our own brain, our own heart

is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.

- Conclusion -

The freedom movement (by whatever name) is not about slightly lowering taxes so the rich can drive bigger cars. Nor is it about the other single-issue 'branches of evil' (as Thoreau puts it) that misdirect and divide our attention. It is more important than that; more important, really, than anything else. The freedom movement is about ending the frequent mass murder, torture, and other atrocity that governments have so often allowed, encouraged, enabled, and committed since the dawn of history. It's about creating a world where emotional health is the norm rather than the exception, and where running an entire society via coercion would never be conceived, much less tolerated. It's about no longer destroying new human lives by default.

The movement for freedom and human rights is, more than anything else, about putting an end to human evil, while we still have time. If, indeed, we still do.

Compassion and freedom require each other. If they ever meet, long enough and deeply enough, the world will be changed forever.

[1] and

[2] 'What trend [in childbirth] is growing the fastest? No doubt about it: Despite the leveling off of our cesarean rate and the upswing in the number of VBACs [vaginal births after previous cesareans], high tech continues to dominate childbirth.' (p. 1) A Good Birth, A Safe Birth: Choosing and having the childbirth experience you want, by Diana Korte and Roberta Scaer, The Harvard Common Press, Boston, MA, 1992

[3] Liedloff's book (and more so, its primary audience) is a reminder that even those with whom we largely disagree may have important things to tell us. The 'politically correct' (i.e., fascist) tactic of shouting down or ignoring anyone who voices an unapproved thought has partially infected even many who oppose the PC juggernaut.

[4] Plenty of other things are needed for a functional society; food, shelter, commerce generally, etc. The Yequana have all that and a good deal more, as any healthy and free society naturally will.

[5] Force may be required to defend such a society, of course, as long as less-healthy societies exist.

[6] Twenty-eight years after its founding, British inspectors filed a report on the school which shows it to be very similar in result to Sudbury Valley School (i.e., it creates children who are happy, resourceful, unself-conscious, who learn easily because they are not forced, and who do well in 'real life' after graduating) . To read the British Inspectors report in full, see .

[7] Personal communication.

[8] It is worth mentioning that Dr. Rummel spends much time (especially in Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Non-Violence) documenting that low-power governments with significant citizen oversight are far less dangerous to their citizens, than are non-democratic nations with less citizen oversight. My view is that ' since small governments almost inevitably become larger, more intrusive, and typically more dangerous ' we should at least consider whether any necessary social purpose is served by imposing government coercion on entire societies.

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Glen Allport's picture
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Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity.