The Changing Idea of American Freedomrecording...
Transcription by Nathaniel Mahlberg · Introduction and speech. Rough transcript.
Martha Saxton: I’m Martha Saxton of the Gender Studies Department, and it is my great good fortune today to introduce to Professor Eric Foner, who is our first speaker in a series of talks called “Democracy in Crisis.” Before I introduce Professor Foner, I just want to thank our president, Tony Marx, for the presidential initiative that made this possible and that allowed us to invite Professor Foner. And I would also like to thank my colleagues, very much, Tom Dumm, and Austen Sarat for designing this series and developing the ideas that we wanted to bring to you. This series reflects our concern for the condition of democracy, as you can hear from the title. Over the last few years there has been a constant flow of books and articles pointing to the correcting influence of businesses and corporations on campaigns and politicians; post 9-11 shrinking of civil liberties; the ongoing isolation of one citizen from another at the loss of what one social scientist has called “social capital,” partly through the disappearance of broad-based political organizations; a relentless market culture threatens to bury the citizen and consumer; for decades voter apathy has grown, apathy has developed, and although this election seems to have developed unusual interest we have a related problem with the historical roots in this country, which is to disenfranchise targeted groups. We developed this series of talks to investigate what has constituted democracy historically, what constitutes it now, what it needs to thrive and what is its health now and what will help its well being. So we couldn’t have a speaker more well-qualified to address these concerns than Eric Foner, who is the Dewick-Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. Professsor Foner spent much of his career thinking and writing about conditions that stifle freedom. His is the author of, by my count, 18 books, which collectively have changed how we think about our past. He is also a dedicated public historian, written articles and speeches, op-ed pieces; he’s curated museum pieces, and performed a wide variety of public projects, including rewriting the hall of Presidents performance at Disney World. I think a less successful consultation with Disney was to tell them not to produce the “Lion King”, I think, because no one wants to see a movie about live animals. [Laughter] He served as both the president of the American Historical Association and the Association of American Historians. And he’s received more awards than I can list – we’d be here till tomorrow just listening to me. But including awards not just for scholarship but for teaching and as a former student I can attest that he’s a dedicated and brilliant teacher. I want to give just one example of Professor Foner’s impact on the history that we study and by extension on our understanding of democracy. During Reconstruction, America’s unfinished revolution, he shifted the paradigm on Reconstruction, revealing, through meticulous research, it to be a wide spread attempt on the part of newly freed men and women to reshape the white southern aristocracy into a democracy. They tried to inaugurate full public participation, legal protections to protect the economically weakest citizens from being exploited by the strongest. White southerners violently overthrew this revolution with the complicity of the north. In an act that was as, if not more, destructive as allowing reconstruction to be overturned, white historians in the north propagated the view of the white southerners that reconstruction had been a tragic mistake, a disaster perpetrated on them by the carpetbaggers and by corrupt former slaves. Thus the story ran, deeply provoked and suffering white southerners pulled themselves together, removed the corrupt and uneducated blacks from office and restored the south to peace and stability and civilized white rule. My suburban Massachusetts high school taught essentially this view of reconstruction in the 1960s. at stake in our understanding of the great conflicts in American history are, among other things, who we’ve been, what can we can be proud of, how politics should and should not work, and how different Americans have identified those conditions in their lives that are worth fighting for. So we couldn’t be more fortunate today than to have Eric Foner as our first speaker in a series that investigates the health and status of our democracy. We welcome Eric Foner.
Eric Foner: Well, thank you, thank you very much, Martha. I really appreciate your kind remarks. It’s a pleasure to be here at this great college, to see some old friends like your president, Tony Marx, and at least a couple of my former students, Martha Saxton and Monisha Sinna at UMass-Amherst here. It’s always a great pleasure to see your former students become distinguished scholars in their own right – writing books and teaching … it gives me great pleasure to see them there. And that you for reminding us of my mistaken advice to the Disney corporation that the “Lion King” was not likely to be very successful and that they should drop that plan. Although, given the subject of my talk in the series, I do remember giving a talk about ways of teaching American history and it was Joyce Applebee, who is a scholar of the American revolution … I felt people were not gonna be interested in a bunch of animals … but she said (and it’s related to this) that really this is an undemocratic movie because it’s about a king. We shouldn’t have a lion king, but the movie should end with the lions electing a new leader in a democratic fashion, not worrying about what the monarchial succession was, ya see, worrying about the real king and the fraudulent king. But the Disney people did not feel that was likely to be as commercially successful either.
But anyway, it’s a pleasure to be here. And I look forward to speaking to the academic … ya know there are two groups of professionals who do not know how to tell time, professors and psychiatrists, because each thinks that an hour is about 45 minutes. So I’m gonna talk for the academic hour, which is about 45 minutes. I would like to leave a little time at the end, I know there’s a reception afterward, to field at least a couple of questions on what I’ll be talking about, because the subject I want to talk about, which is the idea of freedom in our country and it’s relationship to democracy, is certainly something that is very much on people’s minds and today an important part of the rhetoric of the current presidential campaign. By my count President Bush in his speech at the recent Republican National Convention accepting the inauguration used the word “free” or “liberty” 25 times. This has become a major part of his political campaigning – and at the end of my talk I’ll talk a little bit about what the idea of freedom means today in our political vocabulary. But I want to go back to an episode about half a century ago in the history of the idea of freedom in this country which was, maybe most of us in the room here today were not around for this, though maybe a few of you were here at this time, 1947 – the Freedom Train. This was a traveling exposition of 33 of the major cherished documents from American History: the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and many others, which opened to the public in Philadelphia in 1947 and then went on a year long trip across the country to 300 major cities. It shows you how long ago that you could actually travel to 300 cities by train. The idea for the Freedom Train originated in 1946 – the Department of Justice actually conceived of it – in order to highlight the difference between American freedom and Nazi tyranny after the Second World War. And President Truman endorsed it for that reason … but because the proposal for funding smacked of propaganda it was turned over to a non-governmental organization called the “American Heritage Foundation” which was mostly a group of prominent businessmen. The Freedom Train was a tremendous success – it attracted millions of visitors, it was accompanied by parades and forums and all sorts of educational activities – but behind the scenes of the Freedom Train’s little history reveals that the true meaning behind all this was not uncontroversial. Because how do you decide what 133 or what ever number of documents actually represent the idea of American freedom. The original list of documents to be included in this train was drawn up by staff members of the National Archives in Washington who were liberal New Dealers, basically coming out of the Roosevelt Administration. They included things like the Wagner act of 1935 which had given for the first time legal recognition to workers of the right to collective bargaining. They included President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech of 1941 in which he outlined the war aims to the allies. You may remember, they included freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear (very relevant these days), and freedom from want … but this last freedom was considered vaguely socialistic by the American Heritage Foundation and the Four Freedoms speech was removed from the Train. The Wagner act was also removed. Also removed – and this goes back to what Martha was talking about reconstruction – were the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. These had been ratified after the Civil War to try to guarantee and civil and political rights of Black Americans. And, again, nothing on the Freedom Train referred to organized labor or any social organization from the 20th century. And of the 133 documents, only three made any reference to Black Americans. The Emancipation Proclamation was one. Black Americans had no voice in planning the Freedom Train and at first were quite skeptical about it. At the eve of the leaving of the train the poet Langston Hughes published a poem wondering “Will there be Jim Crow on the Freedom Train?/ When it stops in Mississippi,” he wrote, “Will it be made plain/ Everybody’s got a right to board the Freedom Train?” And the organizers faced the question of whether the Freedom Train should allow segregated viewing in the South. In an unprecedented move, the American Heritage Foundation opened the train to all visitors irrespective of race. They actually cancelled the visits of the Freedom Train to Memphis, TN and Birmingham, AL, when the city fathers insisted on segregating visitors. But it actually in the end visited 47 other Southern cities in an integrated fashion, and it was hailed by the Black press for, at least temporarily, breaching the walls of racial segregation. The freedom train reflected the fact the wwii stimulated a growing unease in many quarters about racial divisions. The battle of the Nazis and their theory of a master race in some ways the horrific ways in which that had been implemented shed an unflattering light back at America and its racial practices and help to catalyze our civil rights mvt which comes out of wwii. So the freedom train was caught in that time of racial change. As it chugged along the freedom train also became caught up in the emerging Cold War. 1947 was the year Truman announced the Truman Doctrine pledging the U.S. to working for a worldwide containment of Communism. He also announced in that year the first national security program whereby government employees were required to swear their loyalties before various tribunals. Attorney general Tom Clark praised the freedom train as a way of preventing foreign ideologies, to use his phrase, from spreading through the United States. The F.B.I began compiling reports about people who criticized the Freedom Train or seemed to be unenthusiastic about it. The Freedom Train inaugurated a period where this language of freedom – the “free world” the battle of freedom against Soviet slavery – suffused the the culture and politics. It also revealed how the Cold War was shaping American ideas of freedom. The eviction of freedom from want was a prelude to a new concept of economic freedom which became dominate in the 1950s which went by the phrase “free enterprise” or “consumer freedom” or “freedom of choice in a marketplace” as replacing freedom from want – economic security – as the underpinning of economic freedom.
Now, I begin with this little story because it illustrates the basic point I want to make, which is that the idea of freedom is not fixed, is not permanent, and is in fact the subject of a persistent conflict in American history. This is the point I made in a book I published a few years back called “The Idea of American Freedom.” And what I want to do today is talk a little bit about that and look at today at the presidential campaign and this whole this we’re involved in, and look at what has happened to the idea of freedom since I published my book and since September 11th and other events which has galvanized conversation about this central idea. I’m sure you all will agree that no idea is more central to our sense of ourselves as Americans as “freedom.” Or “liberty” … “freedom” and “liberty” are used in our language pretty much interchangeably. There is a philosophical debate about whether freedom and liberty are the same, but I’m going to ignore it because in every day life people use those words interchangeably. These words are used throughout our history and in our everyday life – the Declaration of Independence, as you well know, lists liberty as second only to life itself as an unalienable right of humankind; the opening words of the Constitution refer to the “blessings of liberty.” Freedom has often been a rallying cry to mobilize support for wars, Lincoln said the civil war was being fought for a “new birth of freedom”, Roosevelt talked about the “four freedoms,” the Cold war was waged to defend the “free world”, the current war in Iraq, as you well know, has been given the name “operation Iraqi freedom.” And indeed all the other justifications for that war has fallen away – weapons of mass destruction, connection with 9-11, connections with Al Qaida – all those have fallen away. The only justification left for the war is to spread freedom and this is what the president says frequently – we have liberated Iraq from a brutal dictator and are now bringing freedom to the people of Iraq – that is now the number one justification for that war. Americans love of freedom has been enacted by liberty poles, liberty caps, statues of liberty; it has been acted out by burning stamps and burning draft cards, by running away from slavery, and by demonstrating for the right to vote. But as I said maybe even because of its ubiquity, the idea of freedom is very contested. The worst mistake people make is to assume that throughout history there is just one idea of freedom which has been constant throughout American history, was set down by the founding fathers. More people have enjoyed freedom – obviously at the time of the American Revolution many Americans did not enjoy freedom – but this idea that freedom has not changed but that more people have plugged into it. But my idea is not this at all – it is that the idea of freedom has changed many times in our history – they have been the subject of persistent debate and conflict, and that debate has taken place at all levels of society, in supreme court decisions, in congressional debates, but also on slave plantations and in labor picket lines and even in people’s parlors and bedrooms. Now if freedom has been a source of disagreement so too have been the boundaries of freedom – who is able to enjoy it. It is obvious and unoriginal to point out that this country was founded on the premise that it was a land of freedom, but from the very beginning blatantly deprived many of its members of freedom. And there have been limits of freedom along various social lines –race, class, gender – that has been pretty clear. More to the point and more interesting perhaps is that freedom is often defined by its limits. One group’s freedom is often defined vis-à-vis denying freedom to someone else. It may be difficult for us to take this at face value, but it is absolutely true that for example before the civil war, slave owners insisted that slavery was the strongest basis of freedom. That to be a slave owner was the best guarantee of freedom, it literally freed you from the daily exigencies of life, it freed you from the demands of labor, it freed you to pursue the higher callings of life – Thomas Jefferson studying philosophy, science, architecture … Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves who literally freed him to do the other more philosophical things that he so cherished. The master’s freedom rested on the slavery of the slaves. Similarly, autonomy, independence, which has been so central to men’s conception of their freedom through out history – ya know the man’s individual freedom, not dependent on any one else, the lone individual – assumes that you are the head of a household of dependent freedom. The women of children, their dependence on you; their lack of freedom is part of your freedom. And by the same token it is the struggles of the people who have been denied freedom to gain it and to gain it in a way as they understand it, has deepened and transformed the conflict within the concept. Time and again the definition of freedom has been transformed by the demands of excluded groups for inclusion.
Now, so far this has been a little on the abstract side. What I want to do is illustrate these points by looking at a couple of moments in history and also how it relates to this problem of democracy in our history. As I said this country, unlike many, many others, was founded by people who felt that it represented a universal ideal – the ideal of liberty. This is what Thomas Paine says in his great pamphlet “Common Sense”, American independence is not just one political entity breaking off and creating its own government. Why would anyone in the world care about that? We have seen many such things happen in the last 10, 15 years – new nations have arisen all over the map, in Western Europe, Czechoslovakia used to be one country now it’s two countries – does any body care other than the Czechs and Slovaks? No, because they’re just trying to do their own thing, they do not claim to represent some universal ideal of freedom, they have enough problems dealing with their own situation. But the United States was born claiming it represented a universal principle of freedom. And Asylum for mankind, said Paine, a place where people in other parts of the world who lacked freedom could find it. In fact the people who made the American Revolution believe that in the rest of the world freedom did not exist or was fast being extinguished. In Asia, in Africa, and even in Europe and Britain, freedom was absent or fast in decline – America was to be, as Lincoln would say, the “last best hope of man,” or as Jefferson would say, “the empire of liberty.” This notion of the United States as an emblem, a symbol, an example of freedom to the rest of the world is still alive in our political culture and language even today, as I’m sure you all know. But the revolution also gave birth to this persistent contradiction that this is a country founded on freedom and yet based in fact in large measure on slavery. And slavery helped to define the limits of American freedom and democracy in the 18th century. It gave it a powerfully racial boundary. In fact in opposition to the idea of American history (I’m sure in Martha’s High School and I know in mind) as a straight line of progress – that we started perfect and we have been getting better ever since - in fact as democracy expanded for white men in the first part of the 19th century it actually contracted for black Americans. There were far more states in 1787 that allowed Black people to vote than there were in 1860. Their democracy was restricted because of the power of slaver in forming the identity of America – and I’m not just talking about the South. States like Pennsylvania took away the right to vote from their rather prominent Black community – in 1897 Pennsylvania recinded the right to vote from black people who had had it up to that point. New York did the same thing in 1821 … actually in 1860 Massachusetts was one of the very few states that actually allowed African Americans to vote at the same level as whites. Actually the supreme court in 1857 in the Dred Scott decision, which has enjoyed a bizarre reemergence in the presidential debates a couple of weeks ago (totally misinterpreted by the person who raised it), in the Dred Scott decision the supreme court stated explicitly that no black person could be a citizen of the united states. So the existence of slaver put this very strong boundary around American democracy and by the same token it was the emancipation of the slaves and the reconstruction era that rewrote the constitution in order to create a non-racial, in order to expand the boundaries of liberty and to create a non-racial concept of American democracy. Black men, not women of course – no women could vote then – but granting the right to vote to black men was a repudiate of this history of 70 yrs of racialized democracy and was an effort that until that moment did not exist to create a different concept of democracy in which citizenship was based on birth not on racial origin. But the abolition of slavery did have the effect of further strengthening the American nation’s identification with liberty because slavery was a rather big embarrassment to the notion that this was an empire of liberty. Now that slavery was abolished the idea of American as worldwide emblem of liberty gained more credibility. And it became even more powerful in the late 19th century and into the 20th.
Now as I mentioned before, there are many different notions of liberty and its relationship to democracy. One critical debate (and I’m jumping through history very quickly) in the early 20th century was this question of what social conditions, what kind of social institutions had to exist in order for people to enjoy liberty. What is economic freedom, basically. And there were serious debates about this through the beginning of the 20th century. The dominant view, at least by and large, at least until the 1930s was what you might call the laisse faire view of econ freedom – that freedom meant the ability to participate in a free and open market place without government intervention. In that view of government, law is basically restriction on freedom, the truly free person is the person who can invest or seek to gain capital or sell his or her labor without intervention from the state. So the view here of democracy is a very limited one: the role of the democratic state is to step out of the way and that will secure the most liberty for everybody. But along with that laissez faire view there arose the opposite view that freedom means economic security, which is what Roosevelt was talking about. There were various phrases for this, a living wage, an American standard of living, industrial democracy. All of them presupposed active intervention by the government in economic affairs to ensure that no person would fall below a certain minimal standard of life. So democracy was a concept that expanded into the economic realm as well as the voting realm. As idea of economic security reached its high point with President Roosevelt and the New Deal who consciously tried to recapture this word “freedom” from the conservative usages. He constantly juxtaposed his idea of freedom, which he called “greater security for the average man”, to the older notion of freedom of contract or laissez faire freedom which he said promoted the interested of a privileged few and continued to entrench inequality. And of course when opponents of the New Deal mobilized, they also tried to capture this idea of freedom – after all what was the idea of the major anti-Roosevelt organization? “The American Liberty League.” Their idea was that an active New Deal state imperiled personal liberty. And really their critique laid the foundation for the later flowering of anti-statist conservatism in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, etc. but in the 1930s the idea of American freedom as economic security really was the dominant one.
Another concept of liberty related to democracy that began to flourish in this time, the late 30s and 40s, was civil liberties. Freedom of expression. We must remember that these values were not a constant in American history. even though the bill of rights was ratified in 1791, for many, many years the social decades, the social and legal freedoms of expression were very fragile in this country. Dissenters like labor organizers, WWI era socialists, free-lovers, birth control advocates faced stringent restrictions on their speech. It wasn’t until the 1930s that civil liberties came to assume a central place in mainstream definitions of freedom and democracy. There were many reasons for this, but one important one, and this links back to the freedom train in a way, was the confrontation with Nazi Germany. And one of the ideas I was to stress here is that freedom is a concept that seems to need an opposite to define against – some embodiment of lack of freedom. Sometimes it’s homegrown, like slavery, which is the classic example of lack of freedom in the 19th century. IN the 20th century the opposites of freedom have tended to be abroad – Nazi Germany, Russian Communism, today whatever you want to call it, fundamentalism, and terrorism. Freedom is often defined, in other words, in contradistinction with something else, and that something else subtly reshapes what you emphasize in your definition of freedom. And in this so-called discovery, historians call it a “discovery”, of the Bill of Rights 150 yrs after its ratification, was to a considerable extent in contradiction to Nazi Germany. The notion of the right of freedom of dissent … after all freedom of speech was one of the four freedoms of Roosevelt, and the right of dissent was seen as a major differentiating point between the U.S. and those we were fighting. And this was very different from WWI, in WWII even while perusing a titanic war, the government insisted on maintaining the right of dissent, by no means entirely. In contrast to WWI when thousand of critics of the government were jailed, rounded up and deported for criticizing the war and the draft, that didn’t happen in WWII. There was a far greater emphasis on the limits of governmental power to prevent dissent. WWII also helped reshape the internal boundaries of freedom, and the first time since reconstruction 70 yrs earlier, the status of African Americans became an issue on the national agenda. The battle against the Nazis discredited intellectually the concept of race, the concept of inborn differences, the concept of inferior races – racism was the enemy’s philosophy, the government consciously promoted pluralism as the essence of American democracy. That what was different between ourselves and our enemies was not only that we enjoyed freedom but that all groups could enjoy it without distinction of race, religion, or origin. Now, again this was all rhetoric, it was not put into effect in many ways in WWII – we can use Japanese Americans, their internment, as an example of the opposite. Segregation still continued even though the war catalyzed the movement against it. For many groups in American society, particularly white groups who had been oppressed during WWI, the new toleration of WWII was a big expansion of American democracy.
Well, of course the Cold War changed our idea of freedom again. The enemy shifted from the Nazis to Communism. As I mentioned before, this had the effect of highlighting what came to be called enterprise as an important part of freedom, what you might call consumer freedom – the ability to choose from the cornucopia of goods produced by the American capitalist market place. The high and low point of equating freedom with consumerism came in 1959 with a famous moment of Cold War American: the famous Kitchen debate – took place in Moscow, at that time during a thaw in the Cold War, the U.S and the Russians exchanged national exhibitions and the Soviets had an exhibit in New York which was mostly heavy machinery and stuff like that. The American exhibition, which opened in Moscow was consumer goods, it was ya know stereos and tvs and cars, and the centerpiece was this model of a suburban kitchen with automatic dishwasher and even a little robot that was sweeping the floor. And Vice President Richard Nixon opened the American exhibition with a speech entitled, “What Freedom Means to Us.” And in that speech he did not talk about democracy, he did not talk about freedom of speech, he did not try to contrast the rule of law in our country with the dictatorship in the Soviet Union. He said, what does freedom mean to us?, we’ve got 76 million cars in the United States, 47 million TV sets, you could buy a refrigerator in any color – white, mauve, pink – that’s freedom. And as they were touring this exhibit they got into this impromptu, unscripted debate in this kitchen it was Khrushchev, by some bizarre twist, who was the idealist and said, surely there’s more to freedom than buying a lot of stuff, surely there’s got to be some ideals here. And of course this idea of freedom also assumed a certain role for women in the society in the suburban dream house. And in fact the Vice President of the United States in this debate pointed to this little robot and said, “In the United States you are so free that you don’t even need a wife.” [Astonished laughter] You have a robot to sweep the floor, so what do you need a wife for.
But the glorification of freedom as the essential characteristic of the United States in this world wide battle against Communism opened the door for others to seize in it in many ways. And, of course, the greatest example of this was the civil rights revolution of the 60s which called itself the “freedom movement.” With its freedom rides and freedom songs and its calls of “freedom now,” it recaptured this idea of freedom from power, so to speak. It became, again, as it has been so many times in U.S. history, the rallying cry of the dispossessed. And the civil rights movement terrifically expanded our experience of democracy by bringing it to the south again and by bringing African Americans again, the first time since reconstruction, fully into the democratic process. It also inspired, as you all know, other so called “liberation movements.” One of the most powerful was the second wave of feminism. And the first thing I want to point out about that is how the feminism of the 60s took this idea of freedom and expanded it into the realm of private life which it had not really been applied to before that. The phrase, which is often misunderstood, the “personal is political”, basically argued that even in the most intimate areas of life, even in family life, marriage, sexual relations, there are questions of power, equality, rights, even questions of freedom or lack of freedom. And even though the political impulse behind that second wave of feminism has faded, that concept of personal choice in your private life is now very dominant. Today if you ask people what freedom means, many will say, “it is the right to choose your own lifestyle” (not a term I like) to live your life as you see fit – your sexual orientation, how you dress, how you wear your hair, whether you pierce your body, I donno. These are elements of freedom, and they’re fine, but they’re different - this is not what Washington and Jefferson were talking about when they were talking about the United States as a nation of Liberty. To them, it was a public set of rights and entitlements. But for many reasons, including the second wave of feminism, freedom has been pushed into private life where it has created a lot of conflict and a lot of more assertiveness of people in claiming rights and equality.
Now I want to jump ahead a bit to the more recent moment and just talk about two things that have happened to the idea of freedom more recently. One in the 1990s was the raise of the issue of globalization – not just the issue, the reality of globalization and its relationship to freedom and democracy. Certainly the collapse of communism made possible a world wide internationalization of American concepts of freedom. The “free world”, as it was called, triumphed over adversity; the free market triumphed over planned economies; free individual triumphed over the idea of a social citizenship. And these ideas dominant in the United States echoed throughout the world. but at the same time the very process of globalization itself threw up some big questions about the nature of liberty and democracy. Because democracy and to some extent freedom depends on your having a voice in the decision making that affects your life. Yet how can that be implemented in a world in which decisions are made by supranational entities over which there is no semblance of democratic control? Multinational companies; The International Monetary Fund; The World Band. There is no element of democratic input into those entities at all, and they are the entities that make decisions that affect the livelihood of people all around the world. Historically, rights have been derived by membership iin a state. Maybe what has happened is that this process of economic globalization is going on much faster than, you might say, the process of political globalization. In the future –this is a question, I don’t know the answer to it, but I’m just throwing it out there because you young people are going to have to deal with the world in the 21st century and solving these problems better that we did, I hope – will there be a regime of human rights that doesn’t know national boundaries. Will there be a way of protecting rights of individuals of labor and ethnic groups outside of nation states. These are key questions about the nature of democracy which the whole issue of globalization has thrown up but which no one has provided an answer to.
And then, of course, came the terrorist attacks of September 2001. And after that the language of freedom took center stage in public discourse. Freedom became an all-purpose explanation for the attack for the ensuing war against terrorism. President Bush over and over again has said over the last few years to the question of why we were attacked, “because we are free”; “our adversaries hate our freedom”, “they hate us because we are free.” Why do they attack America? (I’m just stringing together sentences from different speeches of his) “Because we love freedom and they hate freedom.” As I said this became the justification for the war in Iraq, etc, etc. The notion of the United States not only the embodiment of freedom but also the mechanism for securing freedom throughout the world has come back into vogue politically in a very dominant way. One good example of this was the 2002 national security strategy released, a very interesting document, it’s on the internet, well worth reading. This was the document which announced the principle of pre-emptive war – that we have the right to attack countries if they might in the future pose a threat to you. But what’s interesting about the national security strategy from this perspective is that it does not begin with a discussion of geo-politics, or with a discussion of weaponry or oil or anything like that, but with a discussion of freedom. Freedom, what is freedom? And it tells you exactly what freedom is. Freedom is political democracy, freedom of expression, religious toleration, and free enterprise. These, the document proclaims, are “right and true for every person in every country.” Moreover, it continues, the U.S. has discovered, or nevertheless implemented the, “single sustainable model for societies to organize themselves and achieve progress.” What’s interesting about these sentences is that a) they are totally ahistorical – that there is any debate or that any other ideas of freedom may exist or have existed in the past, these are right and true for every person in every society – there is no sense that other people may have given thought to the question of freedom and perhaps arrived that their own conclusion; there is no sense that we, as the U.S. might have something to learn from anybody else about what freedom is: we possess that idea and our purpose is simply to present it to others. And the notion of the single sustainable model is an interesting one. What would be the result in this world if every single country in this world used energy and emitted carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the rates the U.S. does – how sustainable would human life be under that circumstance. IN other words, our sustainable model is not sustainable at all if we actually success in our stated goal of remaking the whole world into the image that we have put forward. But my problem actually with this current discussion about freedom is that it goes hand in hand with this very mechanistic view of the world as divided up into those who embrace freedom and those who hate freedom. One form of that was in an actually very influential book published in the 1990s by Samuel B. Huntington called the “Clash of Civilizations.” There is Western civilization, embodies by us, and there are Other civilizations, and the one we’re fighting right now is Islamic civilization, which represents lack of freedom, illiberalism, intolerance, etc. This notion of the clash of civilizations and the division of the world into those who like freedom and those who don’t is monolithic and essentialist, it reduces culture into a single characteristic which is divorced from historical development, it ignores the global interchange of ideas, the exchange of ideas which has been going on for centuries and is a feature of the modern world, it makes it impossible to discuss divisions within these purported civilizations – the notion of Islamic civilization lumps together over a billion people in nations stretching from Indonesia and South-east Asia through the Middle east to Africa and parts of Europe, the Caribbean, parts of Brazil, even parts of the United States … those people do not share a common culture, they do not share a set of political institutions, they do not share a view of freedom. But even worse and, for us perhaps, is that this is essentializing ourselves: the notion that we embody freedom makes it impossible for us to criticize our own society, to look at the limits of our own society, to understand criticisms of the United States from abroad. If you assume that anyone abroad criticizing the United States does so because they are an enemy of freedom that sort of excuses you from the necessity of listening to criticisms and perhaps learning something through them. The idea that the west or the United States has exclusive access to Reason or Liberty or Democracy ignores the relative recentcy of the triumph of those ideals and that commitment to them is not necessarily unanimous even in our own society. But let me just finish by quoting a book, my favorite book of history, published fifty years ago at the height of the Cold War, by the great writer Louis Hartz called the “Liberal Tradition in America.” Hartz observed, writing 10 yrs after the end of WWII, that the internationalization of the post war era seemed to go hand in hand with self-absorption and insularity in the United States. He said: “Despite its deepened world wide involvement, the united states has becoming more isolated intellectually from other countries. Prevailing ideas of freedom have become so rigid and narrow that Americans could not appreciate ideas of freedom prevailing in other countries related to social justice and economic equality, and hence are baffled by their use.” Hartz was asking Americans to listen to the rest of the world, not just lecture it about what liberty and democracy are. And that call, 50 yrs later, seems more relevant than ever. That may be difficult for a country that has always considered itself a beacon to all of mankind. But it is also true that the founders of this country the writers of the declaration of independence proclaimed that they were anxious to demonstrate a “Decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” It is not the role of historians to instruct people, I think, students or other citizens, what freedom is. But I think we should try to insist that the discussion of freedom should try transcending boundaries rather than reinforcing or reproducing them. It seems from the early vantage point, now, from the early 21st century, that this century, is likely to be an American century, like the 20th was, at least according to Henry Luce. But that makes it imperative that this forever unfinished story of freedom in this country must become a conversation with the whole world, not just a monologue with ourselves. If our reaction to September 11 encourages us to think historically and not mythically about our own country and its relationship to the rest of the world then maybe some good will have come from that tragic event.