An Inversion of Values
Brancusi’s Bird in Space (L’oiseau dans l’espace), 1932-40.
Whose Freedom? Whose Responsibility?
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, November 14, 2006
[The following lecture was delivered on Monday at Stetson University as part of the Values Council Series, chaired by Donald Musser. Warning: the piece is slightly lengthy. A pdf version of the lecture, including all source references, is available here.]
On Thursday last week I lost my voice. It happened about the same time that George Allen conceded, giving the Senate and the congressional majority to the Democrats. I have no idea why it happened. I don’t recall ever losing my voice before, and I guarantee you I wasn’t going around screaming my head off last week when the Democrats won. I am a liberal but I’m not one of the suicidal ones. If anything, I was hoping they’d only win one chamber, because they have a bad habit of dressing up as a punching bag for Republicans, and if it’s winning the presidency in 2008 that matters, you’d rather give Republicans one punching bag instead of two. Well, they won, I lost my voice, and I’m not sure how well it’ll hold up tonight, so you might be in luck. It was sometime last spring that Don Musser told me about the theme of this year’s Values Council lectures, freedom and responsibility, and would I be interested in taking part. At the time we were all sandwiched between two controversies that weren’t just news cycles. They were volcanic clouds circling the globe and changing the climate of public discourse along the way. The first was the outing of the Bush administration’s domestic spying program. The New York Times had done the outing in time for Christmas, and the president, in that wonderful habit of his of going after the wrong target, was having a field day beating up on the Times for, as he put it, damaging our national security and putting Americans at risk. The second volcanic cloud was that whole business over the Muhammad cartoons, the ones that showed the prophet in various stages of blasphemy and got the Islamic world chanting Satanic verses at the West after newspapers in Denmark and a few other places chose to run them. I assumed, and maybe Don Musser did as well, that I could deliver a liberal defense of a free press bound by the old dictum about giving the news “impartially without fear or favor.” But that would be a pretty boring lecture. I’m not sure that it would have much to do with reality.
What got me interested in being here were those three words put together: freedom and responsibility. The phrase immediately started knocking about my head like a mental short-circuit. The wedding of the words sound to me presumptuous, as if freedom was a woman in Saudi Arabia who can’t go out without a male escort—responsibility—or drive by herself. Why not go the Thelma and Louise way and call the lecture series freedom and happiness? Well, Don Musser might have answered, because Thelma and Louise took their freedom and happiness and drove the hell over a cliff. He has a point there, even though we never had that conversation. It all took place in my head, complete with shouting matches with myself, which, come to think of it, may in fact explain why I lost my voice. So what I’d like to do tonight is attempt to deconstruct those two words, look at them from both sides, meaning from Europe and America , and, as the title of this talk has it, ask the questions: whose freedom? Whose responsibility? I can’t do this without going slightly academic on your patience, so a couple of segments are going to be heavy on theory and foreign names. But look at the bright side: the moment I’ll say Friedrich Hegel, the NSA agents will jump out of their white van parked out here and go off for a doughnut. I’m also going to set the words freedom and responsibility in their historical context: what has the relationship been like between those two words and the United States . It’s been a long drama, and one of these days someone should do a miniseries about it. They could call it American Idolatry. And finally I’ll bring those two words up to speed with our own day, and see how they apply to the way we live now, otherwise all this would be irrelevant.
So let me start with a true story to get us in the mood. Jeb Corliss is a stuntman, a so-called BASE jumper, meaning he jumps from bridges, antennas, spans and earth. He was the host of a Discovery Channel show called Stunt Junkies. He’s jumped off the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge. On April 27, a Thursday, he disguised himself as a fat man, paid $40 to take the express elevator up to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, then in a quick Superman act went to the bathroom and emerged the thin, svelte man of 30 that he is, a parachute on his back. He eluded the police all along and was eluding them still when he was climbing the ledge of the deck’s fence. That’s as far as he got. “Security officers at the building had received a tip” that Corliss would attempt the jump. How on earth do you receive a tip about these things? Who would be so malicious as to want to pass on a tip of this sort? But these are the times we’re living in. So Corliss was nabbed and taken away in cuffs. By day’s end he was booked on reckless endangerment, a felony. If convicted, he could spend up to seven years in prison. More than six months after the incident his case is still pending. The city hasn’t embraced him one bit. The New York Daily News basically insulted him in a headline: “Jumpin’ Jerk Dreamt of Being a Flying Fool.” The New York Times made fun of Corliss for claiming that he was exercising his right to free expression, and quoted an unnamed official from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office saying, “I wouldn’t want his freedom of expression to land on my head.” Corliss was also fired from his job at the Discovery Channel. And banned from ever appearing in any program on any station controlled by the Discovery Channel. Oh, and The New York Times called him “the moron from Malibu , willing to risk the lives of others for his own gratification, testing a busy city’s patience.”
You may be thinking: what of it? He was testing the city’s patience. He was all about self-gratification. I don’t think that’s the point. Go back thirty-two years to the morning of Wednesday, August 7, 1974 . New York City was busy going to work when a man appeared to be walking on air, 1,350 feet above the Wall Street, between the two towers of the World Trade Center , whose construction was almost about done by then. It was the famous French daredevil Philippe Petit. He spent forty-five minutes walking back and forth, kneeling, hanging by his feet and playing other games while thousands of people stopped in their tracks and a traffic jam developed below. Construction workers cheered. Office workers cheered. Even the police cheered. Petit himself said he was laughing with joy, up there in the breeze. He, too, had eluded police and posed as a construction worker to pull off his stunt. When he was done, he turned himself over to police. His explanation, in his heavily accented French? “If I see three oranges, I have to juggle. And if I see two towers, I have to walk.” He was charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespass and sent to a psychiatric hospital for testing. But the district attorney released him that afternoon and dropped the charges after making a deal with him: he would have to perform a high-wire act in Central Park “for the children of the city.” Petit was an instant folk hero. How did the New York Times react to the feat? With an adoring Sunday editorial that described Petit as an artist expressing himself for the joy of the city, and that noted how the charges against him “were, in a very New York way, dropped.”
It wasn’t one-time indulgence. It was the way New York City embraced its free spirits back then, and not just for their French accents. Less than a year after Petit’s stunt, a man from Astoria, Queens, called Owen J. Quinn did exactly what Jeb Corliss tried to do, except he did it at the World Trade Center: he eluded police, hid his white parachute in a green bag, and smack in the middle of evening rush hour jumped off the 110 th floor down to the plaza between the two buildings. He jumped to “draw attention to himself and to the plight of the poor.” He was taken to a psychiatric hospital and released. No charges were filed. In May 1977 George Willig spent three and a half hours scaling the South Tower of the World Trade Center . The mayor fined him $1.10, or one penny per floor that he scaled, and Willig went on to the Johnny Carson Show and stunts on the “Six Million Dollar Man” and wrote an autobiography.
Each one of these men wanted to exercise his freedom in an expressive way. Each one broke the law. Each one put lives at risk. Each one acted “irresponsibly.” Yet each was granted hero status and let go to the winds of celebrity, because it was the “ New York way.” It didn’t matter if security was breached. The police officers wanted the stunt-men’s autographs more than they wanted to cuff them. The city was happy for the fun publicity. Were the times that different then than they are now? I don’t think so. Then as now, the effects of a war had left its mark on the country and the city. For that matter the World Trade Center itself in May 1970 had been the nerve center of one of the city’s ugliest chapters in its history. Students had set up camp around a statue of George Washington downtown and waved peace and Vietcong flags to protest the Kent State killings that had taken place four days earlier. Construction workers from the Twin Towers then literally attacked them and smashed them around with their hammers and pliers. When White-collar office workers saw what the hard-hats were up to, they joined them, burning the students’ flags. That was the more reactionary side of the “ New York way.” I can’t get over the irony of those Twin Towers, whose rubble in 2001 became the symbol of a freedom that’s been the rallying cry of everything virtuously American since then, yet whose construction workers in 1970 had proved to be the John Henrys of American chauvinism—not unlike the chauvinism we’ve been experiencing in different ways since 2001, and in the name of those same Twin Towers. Our friend Philippe Petit and his copycats back in the 1970s essentially soared above the recent mayhem in a “Good bye to All That” sort of energy. Of course it was self-gratifying. But it was also artistic, expressive, and free, it was healing, and, above all, it was defensible in its own right.
Yet we’ve gone from celebrating those who soar and defy in beautiful and marginally risky ways to castigating them like common trespassers. That’s the thing: They are trespassing. But not on property or safety. They’re trespassing on authority. Their freedom, however planned and studied and considerate of the environment around them is meaningless. Law and order, “security,” authority, or what’s more vulgarly and euphemistically known as responsibility, is paramount. Funny how the hard-hatted Daily News and the white-collared New York Times, along with the law, banded up on Corliss to give him his public beating. No wonder the city Rudy Giuliani birthed again as a law-and-order paradise managed to land the Republican National Convention for the first time ever two years ago. The city that had championed the creatively subversive now submits to the merely appropriate.
How did we get here?
A good way to go about this is to define our terms. What do we mean by “freedom”? What do we mean by “responsibility”? (I should say here that I use the words freedom and liberty interchangeably, although personally I prefer the word liberty. It doesn’t seem to have been corrupted as much by overuse. When I hear the likes of President Bush compulsively use the word “freedom” in speech after speech defending war after war, my kidney stones act up the same way they do when I hear Beatles songs being used to sell Nike shoes or Trent Lott praising the words of Martin Luther King like they’re liposuction to his bigotry. It just doesn’t fit. Bush thankfully rarely uses the word “liberty,” and when he does it’s usually a disaster. In 2001 the San Francisco Chronicle quoted him saying this about abortion: “My pro-life position is I believe there’s life. It’s not necessarily based in religion. I think there’s a life there, therefore the notion of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” This from the man who sent 152 people to the electric chair when he was governor of Texas . Obviously, different people define certain words differently.
How do we define “liberty”? Well, we don’t. There is no definition of the word. Philosophers and politicians and editorial writers have been trying to define it since the first pre-historic man stood at the entrance of his cave one particularly beautiful morning and decided not to go hunting that day. Just because. In fact I think that’s the day freedom was born—as the first fake sick day in the history of man. If we were to poll any given audience of two hundred people, we’d get two hundred different definitions of the word. That, of course, is part of its power, part of its charm: Like God, you don’t want a word like liberty to be easily defined, or to be defined at all for that matter. The moment you define God, God is no longer God. The moment you define liberty, the word loses its freedom to be, well, all that it can be. But if you can’t define the word, how can it have any meaning at all other than whatever meaning we want to give it? How are we supposed to know the difference between an abuse of the word by our propagandists and political Pinocchios, and its more proper uses by our lecturers and editorial writers? The way we do that is not by defining the word liberty, but by understanding what kind of liberty we mean when we invoke the word. That will help us understand the word itself, and its relationship to responsibility.
We can break down the meaning of the word liberty into four categories (and let me put in a quick disclaimer right away here: none of what I’m about to tell you is my original thinking. It’s just a crude summary of collected wisdom and plagiarism from Plato on down to Mortimer Adler and yesterday’s News-Journal. I’m just translating here). First, there’s freedom of thought, or what’s more commonly known as free will. I can think in my head anything I please, I can imagine anything I want, and there’s nothing anyone can do or say to keep me from having that freedom. We all have it, but it doesn’t enter into the realm of responsibility: it is neither responsible nor irresponsible of me to think of Pope Benedict as a lying, cheating, anti-Semitic assassin who’s had an on-again, off-again affair with Pat Robertson for the last fifty years, anymore than it is responsible or irresponsible of any of you sitting there in the audience to wish you had a shotgun aimed at my Catholic head right now. Freedom of thought is ours alone. So we’re not going to be concerned with it tonight.
Second, there’s moral freedom, freedom of the heart and soul, or what Christ meant when he said, “Know the truth and it shall set you free.” It’s the freedom to choose between good and evil, the freedom to be a good person rather than a bad person, the freedom to learn wisdom, to make good choices and to be morally pure. The best example of it is Socrates drinking hemlock in prison. He died a free man. That kind of freedom doesn’t concern us tonight either, because I don’t think it’s a matter of responsibility or irresponsibility to be wise, but a matter of virtue, and that’s an entirely different lecture.
The third kind of freedom is circumstantial freedom, or to put it more simply, physical freedom. This one does concern us. It’s the freedom of movement, the freedom of expression, the freedom to do what you want to do without being coerced, and the freedom to have the means, or at least work toward the means, to enable you to do what you want to do: I’m free to go to Kansas tomorrow, I’m free to study what I choose to study, buy any book I please, live where I want to live, marry, divorce, become a monk, take up bingo or watch reruns of “The Honeymooners” all day or, if I’m a woman, drive around without an escort.
Finally the fourth freedom is political freedom: the freedom to vote, the freedom to have political choices, to be a citizen, to take part in the civic life of my community, to voice opinions and exercise them in the voting booth, to be a Democrat or a libertarian or an independent or, because political freedom should also be indulgent and understanding and compassionate and tolerant of its slightly troubled spirits, Republican.
It is those last two freedoms, physical freedom and political freedom, that concern us here, because it is those two freedoms that most people mean when they talk about freedom at all, or when matters of freedom and responsibility are in play. It’s also those two kinds that Franklin Roosevelt had in mind, by the way, when he spoke about his famous Four Freedoms in 1941: The freedom of speech; the freedom of worship; the freedom from want; and the freedom from fear. We’ll get back to those later, because they go directly to the point of responsibilities gained and lost over the years.
I should also be defining what we mean by the word responsibility. But I’m not going to, because the way we’re going to go about exploring notions of liberty in time and place will define responsibility as we go along. It will also show how the word can be a trap — why most of the time we use it today, responsibility is in fact the enemy of freedom, the very thing that ought to be resisted, if it’s freedom we aim to preserve.
So here’s the theoretical part of this talk. I feel almost compelled to tell you at this point what my mother used to tell me in church when the priest was about to deliver his sermon: “Go out to the garden and play and come back when it’s time for the singing.” Now that was true freedom: Freedom from God himself.
The reason I think the idea of liberty and responsibility is misunderstood and sometimes abused these days is because it’s parachuted into discussions as if the principle of physical or political freedom has always been unchanging, even if its application hasn’t. Obviously, that’s not the case. Its application has been changing because the principles underlying it have thankfully never been set in stone. So we can’t discuss the meaning of liberty and responsibility without taking stock at least a little bit of the genesis of these two concepts, and the way their theoretical mercenaries have handled them. By that I mean the philosophers and politicians who’ve given us the theories and constitutions we’re living with. As far as we’re concerned, there’s the continental European way of thinking, and then there is the American way of being. They’re not entirely separate. What’s going to become clearer later on is that the division can also fall along the line of what we call liberalism and conservatism, at least in the way liberalism and conservatism are practiced today. It’s not a division a lot of people would agree with, and I have to commit the crime of speaking in generalities here, but to some extent history can speak for itself.
As Americans living under the Constitution, we owe our conception of liberty to a large extent to those familiar names of the Enlightenment: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, the French philosopher Montesquieu (it’s thanks to him that we have such a thing as a separation of powers, or did), and John Stuart Mill, although he wrote his great tract On Liberty just as the American Civil War was beginning. What all these thinkers had in common was a great respect for individual liberty tempered by the need for order by means of law or authority: In other words, tempered by responsibility. Where the boundary between freedom and authority falls is where it gets interesting. Thomas Hobbes was all about authority. He’s the guy who saw the entirety of the human experience as a competition of Sopranos where life is nasty, brutish and short. So you impose strict and unbending authority to make life nasty, brutish and a bit longer. John Stuart Mill was all about liberty. My freedoms end only where my neighbor’s begin, which also means that if I want to gamble my life savings, shoot up heroin and turn my back yard into a porno movie set, there’s nothing the government can or should do about it. John Locke, Jefferson and the others were somewhere in between. But at every stage, the individual, the human being, was central to their thinking. You could not have had human and civil rights, which begin and end with individual right, without those British and American thinkers — along with a few big guns of the French Enlightenment. By the same token, liberalism as we know it today, or I should say as it tries to survive today, would not exist if it weren’t for those thinkers, and those who amplified their thinking in subsequent years.
The same happy words can’t be said about the continental European conception of freedom. To be sure, everyone was talking about freedom in Europe in the 1800s just as everyone was talking about it in the United States . But there was a world of difference between the two conceptions. This is relevant to us today because that difference that existed in those two conceptions 200 years ago is, I think, similar in weird respects to the difference that exists today in our midst, except that it’s being replicated among conservative and liberal Americans. I’m going to briefly focus on just three individuals whose names have been associated with the philosophy of freedom. But when it comes to enemies of liberty, they’re the axis of evil, as far as I’m concerned: Rousseau, Hegel and Fichte. Each one of them took on the idea of freedom and authority. All three of them resolved it in favor of something much worse than authority, and in so doing, inspired more than a century of totalitarian horrors by various means. They may have dished out their thinking on another continent and in another century, but the more you get to know them, the more you get a sense of uneasy familiarity around you, at least in their rhetoric, a sort of ambient déjà vu or déjà heard that starts looking and sounding like Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh or the Lord and Savior himself, our Dear Leader.
Rousseau thought freedom was a universal ideal that infused every human being, if only every human being knew it. The problem is, most human beings don’t know freedom from frippery — at least not in Rousseau’s opinion. They don’t know freedom because they don’t know themselves. Once they get to know themselves, they discover what’s good for them, and can only do what’s good. But how do you get them to that point? Well, you have that social contract business: you agree, as a human being, to give up your individuality for the sake of the whole, for the sake of the State. The State will show you the way. And because the State is designed by the whole for the good of the whole, it can only be good. So everything it does is for your own good, up to and including slamming you up in a concentration camp to reeducate you and get you in touch with your inner freedom. And you’ll be grateful and happy for it! You see, that’s what those 14,000 Iraqis are doing in American prisons in Iraq . They’re happily going about discovering what’s good for them. That’s where the idea of forcing a man to be free comes from. As the great philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote, “there is not a dictator in the West who in the years after Rousseau did not use this monstrous paradox in order to justify his behavior. The Jacobins, Robespierre, Hitler, Mussolini, the Communists [Cambodia’s Pol-Pot] all use this very same method of argument, of saying men do not know what they truly want—and therefore by wanting it for them, by wanting it on their behalf, we are giving them what in some occult sense, without knowing it themselves, they themselves ‘really’ want. […] [F]rom this deification of the notion of absolute liberty, we gradually reach the notion of absolute despotism.”
Rousseau had help. Meaning Hegel. If Rousseau sowed the seed of individual surrender to the State, Hegel sowed the seed of submission. Two different things. Rousseau’s surrender was a velvet invitation of surrendering one’s rights for the sake of the community’s, on the assumption that the community will always preserve your rights and your individuality. That’s why Rousseau manages to have so much appeal for liberals who think they can take the best from him and leave out the rest. It doesn’t quite work out that way. Hegel is a realist. He doesn’t bother with the individual. He has nothing but contempt for any suggestion that there is such a thing as an individual. There’s only the State, and even the State only behaves in accordance with the laws of history. Within those laws, might is always right, and the best that you can do as an individual is to know your place. The freedom that Hegel is concerned with is the freedom of history to stay its necessary course, to create catastrophes, out of which a new world emerges and progress is possible. What that describes of course is the famous Hegelian dialectic that has actually had a lot of benefits in the way we think and study and write—the thesis, antithesis, synthesis approach to problem-solving. (Hegel had his benefits.) But take that view of the human being to its logical conclusion, and what are you left with? A human being is nothing more than a pixel in an image, or a single word in a 500-page novel, and that novel is just one book in a library of 5 million volumes. The individual doesn’t matter. It’s only the freedom of the State to do what it will that matters, and it must do so at the price of individual freedom. That’s its responsibility. Hegel is all about the celebration of power and authority to achieve great ends. Bills of Rights make him laugh. There is only the responsibility of the State, and only in service of “God’s march through the universe.” Those are Hegel’s famous words. At this point let me call your attention to how George Bush described in his own words to Bob Woodward how he felt about launching the American invasion of Iraq : “I’m surely not going to justify war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case I pray that I be as good a messenger of His will as possible. And then, of course, I pray for personal strength and for forgiveness.” If that’s so, then at least we know who Bush saves all his apologies for.
I’m not going to keep boring you with German philosophy, and the last thing I want to do is linger over Hegel. He’s the reason I dropped out of grad school: I wasn’t willing to submit to my adviser’s Hegelian idea of writing a thesis. But let me briefly mention how the German thinker Johann Fichte understood freedom, because his thinking was also profoundly influential for those conservatives and reactionaries who, today especially, form that large group of people in our society who like to think themselves alienated and victimized by the liberal culture. If you want to understand the Red State syndrome of sour grapes, which was so effectively turned into the winning Republican strategy of the 1990s, then Johann Fichte, not Newt Gingrich or George Bush, is your man. Basically, Fichte says, if I can’t control the world around me, I can always withdraw into my own and create my own domain, my own free-speech zone, if you like. I don’t adopt someone else’s morality. I don’t even believe in universal morality. I have my own. It’s a nifty, gated-community sort of way of breaking yourself off from the society you’re living in with all its norms but still surviving within it, with your own norms. The goal is not happiness. It’s sticking by the only principles I can control, preferably those of my own design, and preferably in defiance of society. In Fichte’s time, artists and revolutionaries got very excited by those ideas because they justified their alienation. Beethoven is music to Fichte’s ears. In our time and place, the idea has the same attraction but for evangelicals, to whom defiance in the name of a higher ideal is half the act. Now, Fichte goes further. It isn’t enough for one’s protection to be an individual unto oneself. That’s too risky. The individual must be part of a collection of like-minded individuals between whom disagreement is made impossible. This is where Fichte begins to join Hegel, but by empowering individuals with a sense of self, then forcing them to abandon their individuality for a greater cause. The individual is not flesh and blood anymore. The true, free self “is a super-self, it is a larger, divine self which he gradually begins to identify, now with nature, now with god, now with history, now with a nation,” or the race, or the creed, or the war of the moment. In other words, it no longer matter that I as an individual don’t matter. I’m part of a cause greater than myself. How cool is that?
That phrase, be part of something larger than yourself, is so common among us, whether it’s used by the Peace Corps, by the army, by one’s church or one’s university or by companies, that it hardly means anything anymore. But it does. And how do you think the current administration managed to get self-respecting anti-government Republicans to embrace the mighty idea of a Superstate? By just changing the words. By making the so-called War on Terror be that mission that is a greater cause than the liberties or the rights of any single one of us or even all of us put together. This it’s where submission begins, and where freedom ends.
The secret to the American success of liberty is in its willingness to keep asking the question: what kind of liberty, how much of it, where can it go next? That, I think, is one of the major differences between European and American conceptions of liberty. In Europe the question isn’t asked. The answer is imposed. When we’ve followed the same model as a nation, that’s when freedom as the framers understood it has suffered the most. (We are obviously in one of those periods, which is ironic considering the Bush administration’s disdain for old Europe ; its conception of freedom is nothing but old Europe .) Fortunately, it’s nice to know that it isn’t quite the first time in our history that freedom has been treated like a vassal of something else, and always, always in the name of responsibility.
In the 1600s, the responsibility part of the marriage was interpreted unquestionably as authority — the authority of God and the authority of the colony. If you looked at any court docket from the times it wasn’t adultery or sodomy or other things that got the law all excited then as now. It was an offense called “contempt for authority.” That changed when it became fashionable to show contempt for the British Crown’s authority. The 1700s were all about liberty and property. Property, of course, defined freedom to such an extent that it was a minority affair enjoyed by property-owning white men, and part of their property was black men and women. Freedom’s frontiers in the 1700s were literally made of chains. But at least they were expanding, politically, so that between the 1790s and 1830s, the most common bumper sticker you found on horse-drawn carriages was “liberty and independence.” Then came “liberty and union,” at least in the North, between the 1830s and 1860s (in the South it was more like (“liberty and lynchings”), and then came the golden age of “liberty and order,” a precursor to that Nixonian favorite still with us today, law and order. At every stage, the changing word in the marriage was nothing more than a reinterpretation of responsibility. But at every stage, too, it was liberty’s responsibility to submit to its partner when push came to shove: Property first in order to secure liberty; independence first in order to enjoy liberty. Union first in order to preserve liberty. And so on. There was no talk yet of freedoms associated with the expansion of rights, the expansion of opportunity or equality or education — except when it came to the freedom to do business. Protecting free enterprise, or the freedom to contract, became the responsibility of government and the courts between the 1880s and the 1930s, as it has been again, I think, since the 1980s. It was no coincidence that the 50-year period between 1880 and 1930 produced the most bitter labor violence in the country, and that it gave rise to so-called law-and-order leagues all over the country. And for all of Woodrow Wilson’s very lofty and very beautiful words about freedom and opportunity and decency, he was also the president who signed the Espionage and Sedition Acts, it was Wilson “who refused to release men like Eugene Debbs or Victor Berger from the savage sentences pronounced on them in wartime,” (Berger by the way had been duly elected to the House of Representatives, but the Tom DeLays of the time refused to seat him). It was also Wilson who would sit by while his attorney general, Mitchell Palmer, with the help of a very young J. Edgar Hoover, would collect the names of 150,000 suspected radicals and then arrest and deport thousands of them in 1920. Here was this “This high-minded scholar [Woodrow Wilson] who read and admired those great libertarians” like John Stuart Mill sanctioning and encouraging an unprecedented program of repression.” You can be assured that Wilson preferred to call the repression his responsibility to liberty, and that he probably took in 500 milligrams of Rousseau every night so he could sleep better. The McCarthy era was a rerun of similar hysterias, although I can’t imagine Dwight Eisenhower reaching for more than a nice bourbon and a bit of “I Love Lucy” while Mamie wasn’t looking before catching his zeez.
With the New Deal, freedom and justice finally became the marriage of the century. In his second Fireside Chat of 1934, Roosevelt said that he opposed “a return to that definition of liberty under which for many years a free people were gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few. I prefer and I’m sure you prefer that broad definition of liberty under which we are moving forward to greater freedom, to greater security for the average man than he has ever known before in the history of America .” He was right, too, and it snowballed through the 1960s and 70s with civil rights and women’s rights and, let’s not forget, the most economically equal period in American history. That would all come to an end with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and a slow return, barely slowed by the Clinton years, and in some ways encouraged by them, to liberty understood as a sphere to be expanded for the sake of free enterprise, and since 2000, national greatness, even if at the expense of other freedoms. The European era of freedom as an instrument of the state was upon us.
This is the era I like to call the Era of National Irresponsibility, and it began, not on September 11, 2001 , but on September 14, at 4:40 p.m. to be precise. That was the setting where President Bush had his “Bullhorn Moment” atop that charred firetruck at Ground Zero. We all remember it, because it was the one image the White House made sure to splash on all the magazine covers and all over the television news for a long time after that, and during the 2004 election campaign. All from 136 words that the president spoke on top of that firetruck, which came down to this: “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The Gettysburg Address is all of 278 words long, and it really did change the course of American identity and purpose. Those words Bush spoke at Ground Zero did the same, but for a different reason, and obviously with a different purpose. The Gettysburg Address was, as Garry Wills described it in his book on the matter, “a new birth of freedom.” Eight thousand Americans were killed at Gettysburg , remember. As Wills wrote, the people who left Gettysburg after Lincoln ’s address “walked off from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America ,” an America made stronger and more free by Lincoln ’s interpretation of a Constitution he remade in the image of the Declaration of Independence, but without its former shackles. But where Gettysburg was “a new birth of freedom,” Bush’s speech at Ground Zero was the opposite. In design more than in words (because the words were pretty clumsy and uninspiring after all, and most people there didn’t hear them, but the people were irrelevant, they were pixels in the image the White House was even then putting together), in design it was a redefinition of freedom in the service of power. When you combine it with the image that had preceded Bush’s appearance at Ground Zero, which was Bush at the National Cathedral belting out the Battle Hymn of the Republic, it was a redefinition of freedom in the service of power and God. So it wasn’t just God who was marching on, it was America and American destiny in the most Hegelian moment of our history. The people who heard Bush at Ground Zero, and those who saw him on television in the context of that perfectly choreographed day, walked away with their hearts full of something, but it was something primarily angry, primarily vengeful, primarily smashing, and so ready, willing and able to be part of something greater than themselves.
We would have been lucky if we’d have had from there on the kind of dialectic clash between one idea of freedom and another. We might have grown into something new. But we haven’t had a clash. We’ve had an almost unstoppable “march of history” dictated by a single-minded vision of what freedom must be like, not only for us here but for people abroad. Those days in 2001 were seen as proof of a spiritual and patriotic renewal in America . But how could they be, when the response displayed such a poverty of trust in what individuals could believe in themselves, and such an unquestioning grab for what they desperately wanted to believe from something greater than themselves, from a force that would give them meaning. That force wouldn’t be liberty, the American religion that does demand self-reliance and trust in oneself. It would be war, at home and abroad. When has the Bill of Rights been held in such contempt? When has a nation as powerful and inventive as ours been so willing to reduce itself to a state of such simple-minded surrender to a mythology of freedom that has no connection with what we’ve been about until now? But the White House wasn’t the only Hegelian surrogate reinventing America as “God’s march through the universe.” It was a group project.
Sixteen days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Sandra Day O’Connor, then still a Justice of the Supreme Court, was invited to be the keynote speaker at the groundbreaking of a law school building at New York University in Manhattan . The events of September 11 were on hers and everybody else’s mind. I remember when I went to school at NYU, there was hardly a place where you could stand in Greenwich Village and not see, looking south, the Twin Towers with their million windows looking back from their hover in the sky. Now they were gone. They’d left a chasm in the skyline as gaping as the chasm that was opening in America between two schools of thought. There were those who saw our society having to change radically in response to the attacks. And there were those, very few and often insulted at the time, who saw the greatest strength of our society in what it was already, not in what it should become in response to the terrorist attacks, or unbecome. Sandra Day O’Connor made clear what that unbecoming would be: “We’re likely to experience more restrictions on our personal freedom than has ever been the case in our country,” she said. Her audience was full of lawyers, professors and would be lawyers, and of course journalists. She was addressing them all, knowing that her words would have the weight not of a legal precedent, but of a psychological one: hers was among those powerful, early voices that framed the terms of the debate to come. “First,” she said, “can a society that prides itself on equality before the law treat terrorists differently than ordinary criminals? And where do we draw the line between them? Second, at what point does the cost to civil liberties from legislation designed to prevent terrorism outweigh the added security that that legislation provides?” Great questions. But Anyone waiting for O’Connor’s answers that day was disappointed. What she did say was this: “These are tough questions, and they’re going to require a great deal of study, goodwill and expertise to resolve them. And in the years to come, it will become clear that the need for lawyers does not diminish in times of crisis; it only increases.” Did she really say lawyers? O’Connor not providing any answers was the kind of telling silence that spoke loudly and anticipated the long silence of Congress and the courts in deference to, or in complete submission to, the way the White House went about not only restricting personal freedom, but redefining it as unquestionably subservient both to authority and security. She was right. Lawyers did get to work. In the White House and the Justice Department especially, and from the desk of one lawyer in particular: John Yoo.
I was going to say that we should not confuse John Yoo with John Woo, the Chinese film director who’s escalated violence and gore in American movies to levels that make Sam Pakinpah look like a Teletubby. If I was making a joke about two Chinese-born individuals’ similar names it would have been a vulgar cheap shot. But it’s actually a little more than that. John Woo is the filmmaker who directed “Face/Off,” the movie where John Travolta plays an FBI agent tracking down a terrorist played by Nicholas Cage. The plot revolved around a biological bomb about to go off in Los Angeles , but the terrorist is in a coma, and the only way to find out where the bomb is planted is for the FBI agent to get the information about the bomb out of one of the terrorists’ accomplices. To do that he has to win his trust. And to do that, he literally assumes the terrorist’s identity, up to and including the movie’s famous skin graft of the terrorist’s face onto the FBI agent’s face. Needless to say, the terrorist find a way to wake up from his coma and stitch the FBI agent’s face on, and off they go on a bloody cat-and-mouse hunt for the better part of an hour. I’m going into details here because no one would have dared make a movie like that after 2001: it would have been too close to the reality we’ve been living where it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the terrorist and his hunter, at least in terms of who’s doing the most damage. And when it comes down to it, the perverted inventiveness of John Woo the Hollywood filmmaker is identical to the perverted inventiveness of John Yoo the Justice Department lawyer, just as their ends were one and the same: to catch the terrorist. Except that one did it to entertain 500 million people. The other one did it to gratify George Bush’s lust for power. Guess which one proved truly damaging?
If we’re to believe John Yoo’s new book, cleverly called War by Other Means, it’s largely to him that we owe the subversion of the Constitution in the service of executive power. It was out of John Yoo’s imagination that the concept of “enemy combatants” came about—a concept entirely unknown until then, because it has no meaning other than as a euphemism for non-persons, a legal definition that the Soviet Union applied to every one of its prisoners in the gulag. It was out of Yoo’s rationale that the 9/11 attacks had created “an emergency situation,” within which “the government may be justified in taking measures which in less troubled conditions could be seen as infringements on civil liberties.” But when was an emergency situation ever declared? It was also out of John Yoo’s imagination that the rationale was found for the president to wage war preemptively, to torture, to spy on Americans calling or emailing abroad, and to turn Congress into a collection of 535 penguins tap-dancing to the administration’s fear index. Then John Yoo asks in his book, “Is the Bush administration using public fear to consolidate political power? If it is, it has only another two years to go, and new security policies generally last only as long as the emergency. Lincoln ’s military courts and military justice did not last beyond the Civil War and Reconstruction. FDR’s internments ended after World War II. The President and Congress usually give up their emergency powers voluntarily, and if they don’t, courts step in.” Notice how he’s comparing George Bush to Abraham Lincoln and FDR. We’ll come back to that in moment. But what if the Chief Justice of the United States is a disciple of John Yoo, which he is? What if the war by its own definitions has no end? In John Yoo’s mind, and in the mind of those who buy into his thinking, it isn’t: we’re in a state of perpetual emergency, therefore in a state when liberty is perpetually subservient to authority and security. So whose responsibility does it become when government is the ally and enforcer of repressions we’re supposedly at war to defeat? Whose right is it anymore to oppose a government that feels anointed to fight in the name of freedom by all means necessary? My apologies to Malcolm X here, although one of the greatest lines attributed to Malcolm comes to mind just about now: “You’ve been had. You’ve been took. You’ve been hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, run amok.”
The very day that Sandra Day O’Connor spoke at the groundbreaking of the New York University Law building, you could have gone across the Hudson River to Princeton and listened to Shirley Tilghman deliver her speech on taking office as the 19th president of Princeton University. (Woodrow Wilson, by the way, had been its 13 th.) She delivered a talk that turned out to be the perfect counterpoint to O’Connor’s speech across the river, and that could have easily been part of this series of talks on freedom and responsibility. But notice how in her view ours is a responsibility on behalf of liberty, not as a restraint on liberty: “It is in times of national crisis that our true commitment to freedom of speech and thought is tested. History will judge us in the weeks and months ahead by our capacity to sustain civil discourse in the face of deep disagreement, for we are certain to disagree with one another. […] The conversations we will have on our campuses are not intended to reach a conformity of view, a bland regression to the mean. […] By conducting difficult discussions without prejudice or anger, by standing together for tolerance, civil liberties and the right to dissent, by holding firm to core principles of justice and freedom and human dignity, […] we will be true patriots.”
Now let me ask you this: can we say the same thing about most of our newspapers? Our television networks, our media whose responsibility it has been to enable this debate, force it if necessary, to give the country a forum in which the ideas we’re supposedly fighting for are defined for our time and place so we’re better armed to defend them, and better enlightened to know when we’re being bamboozled in the very name of those ideas?
The present “emergency” has been compared by the president to World War Two. The comparison is preposterous on its face. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that it was true. We at least have the historical record to check and see how, on the approach of World War II and during the war itself, FDR and Winston Churchill dealt with the question of freedom in time of war, and specifically with the question of freedom and responsibility, and how the press dealt with it as well. First, let’s go back to FDR’s Four Freedoms speech. It was actually his State of the Union , and it was delivered on January 6, 1941 . By then the Nazis controlled most of Europe , and Hitler was half-way through pounding Britain almost into submission: we may remember Churchill’s great war speeches, we don’t remember as well the contingency plans he was making for a government in exile. So times were bleak. FDR recognized them as such. The majority of his Four Freedoms speech was about the world at war and how he found it necessary to report to Congress how “the future of all the American Republics is today in serious danger.” He asked Congress for a blank check for a massive military buildup. He then devoted another chunk of his speech to preparing the public for an attack. He knew war was coming. And only then, at the tail end of his speech, he brought up the Four Freedoms. The point being that no matter how dark the world had gotten, it was not so dark that American principles would be sacrificed to the altar of fear and warmongering. Not only that, but in spite of the coming war, freedom’s responsibility to expand and include social justice was still paramount.
We can argue that when Roosevelt delivered his Four Freedoms speech in 1941, he still had the luxury of having a nation at peace to talk to. Americans didn’t, or more likely could not, really imagine that they could be touched by those fascist barbarians. Well, they were. So how did the nation respond after the attack on Pearl Harbor ? There was the untrammeled outpouring of grief and patriotism. No question. But on December 15, 1941 , one week after the attack, there was also this, in The New York Times: an enormous editorial titled, “The Bill of Rights.” It happened to be the 150 th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, and the editorial said, “We dedicate ourselves, our nation, our all to save the spirit of the Bill of Rights.” That very evening FDR went on an hour-long program broadcast on all radio networks to commemorate the anniversary. Yes, he was also getting ready to intern 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, most of whom were American citizens, in concentration camps throughout the West, and other minorities suffered along the way. There were aberrations. But that’s what they were: aberrations. The tone that FDR set in the 1930s didn’t change, so that by the time 1.4 million people gathered for the annual “I Am an American Day” in Central Park in May 1944—the largest crowd ever gathered there until then—it wasn’t just for the food and the Broadway show tunes: They heard, and anyone tuned to WNYC radio that afternoon heard what remains to this day one of the greatest American speeches on the meaning of liberty, and our responsibility as citizens to it. I quoted eleven words from it when I spoke here last year. I’d like to quote a few more this time. The speech was almost as short as the Gettysburg Address, and in many respect just as powerful. It was by the great Judge Learned Hand: “What then is the spirit of liberty?” he asked. “I cannot define it; I cannot tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.” Learned Hand had been invited to speak because among the 1.4 million people were 150,000 new American citizens to whom he was administering the oath of citizenship. At the end of his speech he asked everyone to join him in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, whose last words, let’s remember, are not liberty and security for all, not liberty and responsibility, not liberty and order, not liberty and property, not even liberty and happiness, but liberty and justice. Learned Hand would not have spoken those words had they become the meaningless white noise of campaign commercials. He spoke them because he meant them, and because the policies of the government around him believed in them, in the middle of war, to an extent that seems alien to us today. Why the alienation?
Just to be clear, England , too, despite the war, took its responsibilities to liberty seriously. There were abuses. There were also active checks. There was the National Council for Civil Liberties that heard grievances on behalf of people who felt harassed or railroaded by Scotland Yard. When that turned into too much of an apologist for left-wingers, George Orwell became vice chairman of a volunteer group called the Freedom Defense Committee. And if those were just Pollyannaish attempts by intellectuals to seem relevant in a time of war, there’s the case of Oswald Mosley that speaks loudly about British restraint and reason even in time of war, and how hysterical it makes post-9/11 America look in comparison. Mosley was a respected member of parliament who in the 1930s became the leader of the British Union of Fascists. He built himself a private army of thugs and lead them on rampages against Jews in East London , using lead pipes, rubber hoses and brass knuckles. He modeled himself after Hitler and Mussolini and advocated peace with Germany . He could fill lecture halls with masses and turn their boos to cheers in moments. When war broke out, he and his wife were imprisoned along with most fascists in Britain . His health wasn’t too good (although he lived on until 1980). In 1943, Churchill ordered him released, or at least confined to house arrest. What’s remarkable about this story is that there was no question about Oswald’s charisma, his leadership abilities, the fact that he’d literally trained in fascist countries, or that he essentially advocated the overthrow of the British government. He would have been called one of the “worst of the worst” if he’d had the bad luck to cross paths with Dick Cheney, assuming Dick Cheney would not have been a member of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Yet in November 1943, smack in the middle of the war, here was the letter Winston Churchill wrote his Home Secretary—the position we have somewhat Nazified as Homeland Security: “I expect you will be questioned about the release of the Mosleys. No doubt the pith of your case is health and humanity. You might however consider whether you should not unfold as a background the great principle of habeas corpus and trial by jury, which are the supreme protection invented by the British people for ordinary individuals against the State. The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him judgment by his peers for an indefinite period, is in the highest degree odious, and is the foundation of all totalitarian Governments, whether Nazi or Communist. It is only when extreme danger to the state can be pleaded that this power may be temporarily assumed by the Executive, and even so its working must be interpreted with the utmost vigilance by a Free Parliament. […] Nothing can be more abhorrent to democracy than to imprison a person or keep him in prison because he is unpopular. This is really the test of civilization.”
Now why does that letter by Churchill sound as quaint as FDR’s four freedoms today? Because sometimes you look around you and see an America where the meaning of freedom has been literally inverted. We have political leaders and their spokesmen who warn us about what we say. We have Evangelicals insinuating themselves in politics and law and education as if the church state wall had become a welcome mat and public displays of religion are a form of loyalty oaths. Fear is a national policy and want is your tough luck, if you happen to be without health insurance or decent housing or a job that can pay for either and have you home in time to have dinner with your kids before they grow up to be social delinquents and conservatives blame you for having been an absentee parent. The inversion has taken place not because there’s a lack of values. To the contrary. But because values which are a subjective thing, are being confused with facts, the same way that might is being confused with right, the same way that freedom is being confused with responsibility, the same way that the individual is being confused with the nation, with the State. Our relationship with freedom is no longer Jeffersonian or Madisonian or even American for that matter. We’d have been debating it furiously left and right if it were still an American notion, because debating liberty is the only way to sustain it and let it grow.
No, our conception of liberty has become a Hegelian one: It is the State that defines it, it is the State that sets its boundaries, the state that sets the very terms of the debate that may or may not question those boundaries. And when I say the State, I’m not by any means excluding the corporate structure that depends on the State for its existence, and vice versa: it is the symbiotic relationship of the age, and like the slogan for that cheese commercial says, “resistance is futile.” And we comply, because we want to be secure, we want to be patriotic, we want to be—responsible. Under these circumstances, naturally, we consider conflicts about freedom a form of sedition, so we choose not even to discuss the matter. That’s how living ideas die and dogmas are born in their place. In more immediate terms, it’s how Supreme Court justices like William Brennan, who did more than any other justice to expand the spheres of liberty, die, and the likes of Antonin Scalia take their place. It’s how the wonderful acrobatics of Philippe Petit from one tower to another give way to the shackling of the next tower jumper. In a State like this, it is irresponsible not to create conflict over freedom, not to force the matter the way you’d slap a defibrillator on a seizing patient. In a state like this it is irresponsible to be responsible. The very phrase freedom and responsibility is irresponsible. The two words must be divorced, or at least inverted: our only responsibility for the time being is to freedom.