Sunday, April 3, 2016
The Myth Of American Freedom
Freedom’ – the rallying cry of all politicians, the bedrock of American values, and the core principle of American exceptionalism. We take freedom for granted and never question that our country is the freest of them all. The Bill of Rights is as absolute and irrevocable as the Ten Commandments and we would go to the barricades if these rights were taken away.
Yet how really free are we? More importantly what is the value of freedom? And finally what is freedom?
China has repeatedly and insistently said that freedom can only be defined in economic and social terms. Chinese authorities have no compunctions about curtailing American-style ‘rights’ in favor of promoting a universal economic development. Freedom of speech or assembly, say the Chinese, mean absolutely nothing for a poor peasant. There may be dignity in labor, but the goal of the State is to improve the quality of labor, increase individual productivity, and raise standards of living. Only through such economic progress can individuals take advantage of the privileges only the wealthy have had.
Challenges to the State which oversees this orderly economic and social reform can only divert attention from its principle goal – creating a nation of wealth and prosperity for all. While China has given up on the punitively doctrinal Communism of Mao, it has not rejected the socialist ideal of equality. It has rejected, however, the ideal of the Maoist state according to which comrades labored within a politically-enforced solidarity but shared only reprisal, punishment, and medieval conditions. The new China shares the Communist belief in the power of the State, the need for social order and integration, and the adherence to common rules and principles; but the goal – Western-style prosperity for all – and the socialist-capitalist means to it are radically different.
China believes that the public expression of parochial, sectarian, and regional interests is antithetical to the achievement of this goal; and they point to their remarkable economic progress and to the failure of the American socio-economic model. In their view – and that of many Americans – the United States is an ungoverned and ungovernable country. Society is riven by the very dissension they have suppressed. America is becoming a country with no common moral core, characterized more by acrimony and objection than general purpose and intent. The current (2016) political campaign – one of the most hostile, disrespectful, and power-driven ever – is a good example of the body politic. America’s so-called freedoms, the Chinese say, are the reason for so little political, social, or economic coherence.
America has lost international stature, power, and influence because it has lost its way. Its leaders continue to ignore the legitimate and increasingly imperative challenges to liberal democracy, the nation-state, and secularism. Once people vote, they say, liberal democracy will follow. No need to worry about the structural reform of the judiciary, representative government, the role of civil society, or the separation of powers all of which will come easily if not automatically once the people finally have their say.
The Obama Administration strongly backed the popular movements expressed during the Arab Spring, but were surprised when idealism turned bad, radical Islamic groups threated nation, region, and the world, and popular clamor was not for elections but sectarian identity.
In other words, much of the world is turning its back on American-style freedoms, preferring religious law, theocracy, and radically new political and social relationships. Autocracy, many say, is not the evil it is made out to be by the United States if the goals of the state are consistent with those of the people. The idea of a radical Muslim caliphate in which Islamic law replaces secular law;
where the rule of God finally replaces that of fickle politicians; and where a billion-strong borderless nation of believers can be established is a good one.
Freedom is a vacuous, meaningless concept when the principles of Islam preach absolute obedience to God and a complete submission to him.
Russia under Vladimir Putin, who even Russians describe as an autocrat, is rejecting liberal democracy, American exceptionalism, and so-called Western freedoms as impediments to the re-establishment of the Russian Empire, Russian sovereignty, and Russian influence.
Russia is clear, unequivocal, and absolute in its goals and Machiavellian policies. There is no concern for ‘cultural relativity’, inclusivity, or mutual respect when it comes to Chechnya or other disaffected enclaves within the Federation. China has no tolerance for the Uighurs, Tibetan nationalists, or Taiwan. ISIS is unconcerned about the hearts and minds of those who stand in its way.
What about freedom at home, then? Freedom is still an abiding principle of democracy in the greatest country in the world. Or is it?
Most people at the lower end of the socio-economic scale would say that they are not free. Black Americans insist that institutional racism continues to deprive them of their rights, their mobility, and their access to opportunity. Poor rural whites see nothing but flat wages, dispiriting jobs, little chance of escaping poverty. Both groups complain that the political deck is stacked against them. They may have a vote, but their Congressional representatives, themselves trapped in a cycle of constant reelection, respond more to monied interests than the popular will. They may have freedom of speech, but without education, sophisticated social skills, and the time and energy to mobilize, who will listen?
The War on Terror has taken its toll on civil liberties and there has been a rapid erosion of the right to privacy and free speech. Although we may be free to express our opinions, such expression is not free when it is monitored, tracked, recorded, and potentially used against us. The Internet represents one of the most revolutionary changes in information flow since Gutenberg. Yet because of government surveillance, Web surfers must think twice about consulting the sites of any group – national or international – on the US watch list. Repeated visits to mosques, purchases of politically questionable books, travel to areas under surveillance, communication with contacts in Syria, Palestine, or Iran, are all suspect. Continue them at your peril.
The press at least is free, isn’t it? Certainly not the mainstream media which since the beginnings of television in the Fifties were created as a vehicle for advertising and whose programming was designed to complement commercial appeal. The rise of media conglomerates and their corporate interests have limited their license. They in principle can say anything they want, but are beholden to the advertisers who finance them. Investigative journalism – the proudest example of which is the Watergate stories of the Washington Post – is a thing of the past. Concern about lawsuits and diminishing resources have forced the best newspapers into vaudevillian, if-it-bleeds-it-leads local-style journalism. The Post’s pages are now filled with feel-good human interest stories which cost little to produce and sell papers to ‘the other Washington’ which is far less interested in world affairs than community issues.
Universities, long bastions of intellectual inquiry, open and unrestricted research, and the seats of rational authority, are no longer so. They have been coopted by the ‘progressive’ Left so that public debate is monitored and limited, curricula skewed and biased according to a political agenda, research projects undertaken only if they are ‘acceptable’. Academics chosen not for their intellectual rigor but for their politics, and students vetted as much for their conformity to received wisdom as for their academic achievement.
Who, then, is really free? In a proto-capitalist country like America, wealth equals freedom. Multi-millionaires can say anything and buy the best legal counsel to defend them from lawsuits. Their money guarantees them influence and favors from Congress. They buy what they want and where they want to and can conclude sweet deals with any complaisant jurisdiction willing to bend the rules for their political and economic support.
All societies are economically and socially unequal, and the wealthy will always have more freedom of expression, mobility, opportunity, and enterprise than everyone else. The wealthy will always be able to control people and events in their favor. In a country where freedoms are only within the purview of the privileged, they cannot be touted as universal or American.
We live in a regulated, controlled, monitored, society with an overweening, intrusive government; and unless these regulations and policies are rolled back, individual freedoms will continue to be eroded. The extension of economic opportunity and social mobility is a function of this rollback, and until government shrinks in size and influence both at the state and national level, can pent-up enterprise be released. Only when our ill-advised, sanctimonious belief in ‘freedom’ for the world’s oppressed gives way to realpolitik and the elimination of any and all enemies which threaten America’s sovereignty, influence, and wealth can the abrogation of civil liberties at home be restored.
Americans must finally stand up to the corrosive politically correct programs and policies of the liberal Left so that religious freedoms regain their rightful place, that aggressive secularism is checked, and that no one is afraid to speak their mind.
Freedom will always be a subjective term. Liberal democracy, proud of its tradition of civil liberties and rights, will not last forever. The question to ask is, “What is freedom?” and “Why is it so important?”.
Starting with the Declaration of Independence is not a bad idea. Jefferson never meant a free-for-all when he proposed “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, but envisaged a society in which individual freedoms and community interests were both served. Times have changed and the meaning of Jefferson’s words have been distorted beyond recognition. Yet, basing his principles on the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement which promoted both rationality and the search for spiritual value, Jefferson should be the first place to look for guidance, not the last when we reconsider the nature and meaning of ‘Freedom’.