2005-02-04 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Fuzzy On Freedom
by Stuart W. Mirsky

While it’s true that arguing to convince is pretty hit or miss in the real world, this doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Certainly we’re faced with numerous difficulties in getting agreement on the kinds of facts we can all accept, particularly when this involves reliance on information based on what others tell us or report. But there is at least one sure way to make progress in an argument and that’s to show that the other’s viewpoint is incoherent. What’s that? It’s when we apply different rules to similar situations, or apply the same rules differently, although we have no basis for that, or when we’re just unclear about what we’re trying to say but say it anyway.

The left tells us, for instance, that there was no reason to go to war to remove Saddam Hussein because he wasn’t really a danger to us... but not to worry because sanctions were containing him anyway (why bother if he wasn’t a danger?), though those same sanctions needed to be removed because they were harming the people of Iraq. Besides, Saddam didn’t have those wmds we thought we’d find, and which were a major reason advanced by the administration for acting quickly against him. Well, if he didn’t have them, why do we think that was? The U.N. inspections and the sanctions (which needed to be removed, of course) had clearly done their job, answer those on the left.

Okay then, what if we had finally removed the sanctions? Well he didn’t have any wmd at that point so we should certainly have done that as a long overdue humanitarian gesture, says the left! But he used to have wmd, didn’t he? Well yes, they say, but the inspections regime and the sanctions (which were a humanitarian horror and needed to be removed) had ended all that. But if he could get them once, couldn’t he get them again, once the inspection regime and sanctions were removed? Sure, but then we could have reinstituted the sanctions (which were a humanitarian travesty and needed to be removed). Incoherence anyone?

Now comes Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson writing the other day in the New York Times about President Bush’s inaugural speech. Bush, of course, made history by making that speech a call for advancing freedom around the world. But what did Professor Patterson have to say about it? After misrepresenting the administration’s argument for removing Saddam by wrongly characterizing it in the guise of a flawed syllogism, which did not reflect the real administration argument, he gets right down to it: “In the twentieth century,” Professor Patterson tells us, “two versions of freedom emerged in America... The modern liberal version emphasizes civil liberties, political participation and social justice.” (Sounds pretty good to me!)  But “most ordinary Americans,” he adds, “view freedom in quite different terms.”

They do? Aside from the question of who these “ordinary Americans” might be and how they differ from more exalted types like the professor who hold this “modern liberal” idea of freedom, the question is whether there really is any such difference at all? Are there really two notions of freedom at work here and is one somehow superior to the other? The modern notion, Professor Patterson assures us, is the view “formally extolled by the federal government, debated by philosophers and taught in schools... the version most treasured by foreigners who struggle for freedom in their own countries.” But this view is not the one George W. Bush has in mind, adds the Professor.

That other “freedom,” the idea Bush is promulgating and which is held by ordinary Americans “is largely a personal matter having to do with relations with others and success in the world.” It means, the professor tells us “doing what one wants and getting one’s way.” This is the nineteenth century conception of freedom, he suggests, never adequately realized and now passe, though still clung to by the great American unwashed, even while they continue to pay lip service to the more exalted twentieth century idea of freedom as embodied in the progressive institutions of the state. “The genius of President Bush” adds the professor, “ is that he has acquired an exquisite grasp of this... and he can play both versions... to his advantage.” But the rest of the world, Professor Patterson adds, is unable to grasp how Bush subtly and cynically dances about between these two notions of freedom and sees his words “merely as hypocrisy.”

So the professor puts it all in perspective for Times readers and the rest of us poor benighted souls. Our president is hopelessly mired in an outdated notion of freedom but has “genius” enough (a big step up from the Bush-is-a-jerk days!) to use the vagueness of the word itself to confuse us ordinary Americans as he moves to undermine our “civil liberties, political participation and social justice.” Well that’s certainly how it’s being argued by the left these days. But is it correct? Are there really two notions of freedom at work here?

Freedom may have many meanings but in a political context, in our American tradition, it means the ability to choose our leaders through elections, to express our views and to hang onto our property, all without undue government interference. And it means having the governmental institutions in place to assure us these rights. So is Bush offering a different idea than that? Has he advocated shutting down the Constitution or disregarding the legal rulings of American courts? Has he attempted to suppress opposing opinions (including the left’s near hysterical, endless tirades against his policies)? Is Professor Patterson being prevented from publishing his views? In Iraq, has Bush advocated against holding elections or is his administration among the foremost proponents of these? Has he not pressed for the development of an Iraqi constitution to institutionalize democratic processes, such as we enjoy, and to ensure the rights of citizens, including members of minorities? Where then is this alleged difference the professor purports to see, a difference which supposedly diverges from the accepted twentieth, and now twenty-first, century norm?

Is it enough for the professor to assert this difference exists, to suggest that Bush has no interest in the institutions we have developed to safeguard democracy and no real interest in the demands of social justice, even as the President has argued for, and implemented, the liberation of millions abroad? Writing in the Times the professor feels free to make free with the idea of freedom, suggesting that President Bush means one thing when he says another. But, in fact, there is no basis for such a claim. It merely reflects a fuzziness about the idea of freedom, itself, a fuzziness that results in splitting a concept, like an infinitive, that does not lend itself to being split.

Freedom may mean many things but in the context of Bush’s speech and actions in the world it means the same thing overseas as it means here: freedom to choose your leaders, to speak your mind and to keep what you have. That’s what our Constitution guaranteed us in the nineteenth century and what it has not ceased to guarantee us, even in the twenty-first. And that’s what the President spoke about sharing with the rest of the world in his recent inaugural address. Suggesting he had anything else in mind, absent real facts to demonstrate he did, is just another form of the left’s ongoing incoherence.


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