Liberty and justice for us: free trade. Free markets. “Our” freedoms. When exactly did a big idea get so small?

Liberty and justice for us: free trade. Free markets. “Our” freedoms. When exactly did a big idea get so small? – The Slant Essay

Jack Hitt

WORDS HAVE A WONDERFULLY SINISTER WAY of telling us more than we want to know, especially during wartime. According to President Bush, the terrorists of Al Qaeda are after”our freedoms.” Linguistically speaking, there’s bipartisan agreement on this point–“our” freedoms are what must be preserved. It’s odd how a single possessive pronoun can foreclose so many possibilities. Our? This is a radical departure even from good old American isolationism–a retreat from the world not just with our policies, but with our ideas. What happened to the America that couldn’t shut up already about liberty and justice for all?

The deployment of freedom and liberty, two alleged synonyms, tells the whole story. You almost never hear the word liberty anymore. Yet freedom rings in our speeches incessantly. Liberty has an old Jeffersonian quality to it. The word is suffused with that soaring founding spirit, suggesting that we had come up with a new idea that was much bigger than mere America. This was an idea that was “self-evident,” that originated from the “Creator” and applied to “all men.” The word freedom, as it’s been used in the last half century, is a strangely smaller concept. We talk about “freedom and the American way.”

Freedom is a version of big wild liberty that’s been, well, domesticated. Freedom can easily fit into as small a package as you want to wrap. It’s not hard these days to hear a crank with a pack of Marlboros complain that puritans are trying to “take away my freedom to smoke.” Hard to substitute the word liberty in that sentence, isn’t it?

Liberty is a huge breeze of a word, and in the confines of our small-bore politics, it sounds almost archaic. You can do a Nexis search on Bush and liberty and discover that the word doesn’t show up much in his vocabulary–or any politician’s, really. One quote that received a lot of airplay last fall, as we warned the Taliban we were coming, was that vintage Kennedy tough-guy line from the Cold War: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe….” Strange how rarely one heard the end of the sentence: “to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Both liberals and conservatives can take the blame for the disappearance of liberty from our national vocabulary. Let’s start with Vietnam. That conflict has become the whipping boy for nearly every social ill imaginable, but in this context, for once, it makes sense. World War II was about assuring the survival and success of liberty, no question. What Vietnam was about was murky when we got in and still is. But it’s safe to say that “liberty” was never part of it.

Americans had always believed that we fought for liberty, or else happily retreated into mind-our-own-business isolationism. Very simple. Suddenly, in Vietnam, not so simple. By the time we exited Southeast Asia, it had become difficult to use liberty talk to discuss our reasons for globe-trotting.

Jimmy Carter tried to revive a variation of that old language. He is both credited and blamed, depending on whom you are talking to, with introducing “human rights” into our foreign policy. But human-rights talk and liberty talk are not the same. In arguing for freedom of speech and assembly in places like the Soviet Union, Carter’s approach put the cart before the horse. Self-determination, democracy, representative government–republicanism, if you prefer that word–is the necessary foundation for Jeffersonian liberty. Human rights or civil rights are a kind of natural off-product of participatory government. Remember that the Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton didn’t even think an enumeration of our Bill of Rights was necessary since such rights would so organically emerge from any functioning republic. The founding generation did agree on one thing: One could not be truly free if one didn’t participate in the creation and maintenance of one’s government.

Once post-Vietnam ambivalence fogged our foreign policy and permitted Carter’s inverted thinking, some real doozies got trotted out there. None was more fraudulent than Jeane Kirkpatrick’s. As Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, she was credited with drawing a line between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, a distinction that allowed her to use phrases like “moderately repressive regimes.” In other words, we could quit all this fretting about namby-pamby human rights and cotton up to some death squads.

And that is why the shock was almost more than we could bear when, on a bright afternoon in Beijing in 1989, a group of students rebelling against China’s murderous regime raised a papier-mache replica of the Statue of Liberty. Oh, that–we all seemed to say–oh, yeah, that. It was like a middle-aged man stumbling upon a memento of idealistic adolescence and feeling kind of embarrassed.

But we got over it. The rebellion was crushed, and, really, who cared anymore? Soon enough we had President Bill Clinton, who saw the world the way a dogpatch governor did: as a huge jobs bazaar. The land of the free was now the land of free trade.

In a sense, our loftiest ideal had finally undergone the same market transmogrification as all our domestic institutions–the way the ideal of patient care by doctors has shriveled into capitation fees for health care providers, and the notion of universal education has been boiled down to vouchers. Our self-image abroad has been allowed to wither into the tinny call for more Detroit cars to be sold in Japan, or lower tariffs on oil imports from the Middle East, or fewer obstacles to entry into China’s markets. The conversation is so given over to the economic structure of things that the only place America’s protest culture survives is at WTO meetings. College students have concluded that that’s where the action is these days.

Is there anyone left who “promotes” liberty? Actually, there is. It’s a tiny federal bureau, the National Endowment for Democracy. It currently boasts a budget of $33.5 million, a figure that, placed in almost any context–how about peanut subsidies: $500 million–makes it a joke. It is run by someone named Carl Gershman. Heard of him? Well, that’s understandable. He’s only been in office since April 30, 1984. He’s survived four presidents. Why? His job is to hand out brochures.

Meanwhile, our trade ambassadors–and they carry the title “ambassador”–are all people whose names are familiar: Charlene Barshefsky, Mickey Kantor, William Brock, Robert Strauss, and Robert B. Zoellick.

The grubbiest talk of free trade has replaced the highest language of freedom. When Congress debates “normalization” of relations with China, it refers only to tariff levels. Occasionally, the current president squawks when Bible salesmen in Beijing are harassed, but otherwise the diplomatic exchanges turn only on export-import quotas.

When Laura Bush made her first political foray with something easy–a radio address condemning the Taliban for their medieval treatment of women–she learned just how difficult it is to resurrect American talk of liberty. Immediately after her weekend address, commentators pointed out that women in Saudi Arabia, our good ally, hardly have more liberty than their sisters in Afghanistan. Laura was next seen on television showing off this year’s Christmas decorations in the White House.

Meanwhile, among our other allies, Bahrain and Qatar are praised because their emirs have promised that one day in the next few years, they may consider creating a parliament for the oil gentry. England, you will recall, made a similar leap with the Magna Carta. The demented King Fahd of Saudi Arabia made news by announcing that his “advisory council” might open up its membership beyond his incestuously Hapsburgian circle. And to the peeps for freedom that one occasionally hears amid the moans escaping the torture chambers, there we stand–a pragmatic trade partner.

The real tragedy is that this administration didn’t take the chance that all war offers: to rewrite and revive the language of American foreign policy. How much weaker would Islamic fundamentalism be if we emerged from Afghanistan once again committed to the survival and success of liberty? Sure, we want more cooperation from foreign governments, which is all we’ve demanded from our Islamic allies so far. But if these countries had real opposition movements that could soak up legitimate discontent, much of Al Qaeda’s recruiting pool would dry up. The chance to reclaim the original meaning of the flag everyone is waving these days is passing us by.

Rather than swan onto the scene, in the full feather of victory, proclaiming the triumph of liberty, we have clutched our precious freedoms to chest. From the symbolic to the real: The White House is inaccessible, the exquisite geometries of Pierre L’Enfant’s Washington are clotted with concrete barriers, and location scouts for our secret courtrooms have shown up on remote islands. Rather than brandish our liberties in the face of friend and foe alike, we have hied off with them to an unnamed bunker behind barbed wire for safekeeping.

If you happen by the National Archives these days, you’ll find that you can’t read the actual words of the Declaration of Independence anymore. The ink is fading. Why? Because the parchment spent much of its first century displayed in the open sunshine. Today its feeble weave is held in a helium-filled container. At night, it descends into a deep vault hardened to survive a nuclear assault. It’s one thing to do that to a piece of paper. It’s another thing to do it to the idea itself.

Jack Hitt (“In Defense of Liberty,” page 30) is a contributing writer for both the New York Times Magazine and Harper’s Magazine.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Foundation for National Progress

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