The Speech Misheard Round the World
Published by permission from the author
Since 9/11, President Bush and his advisers have engaged in a series of arguments concerning the relation between freedom, tyranny and terrorism. The president's inaugural paean to freedom was the culmination of these arguments.
The stratagem began immediately after 9/11 with the president's claims that the terrorist attacks were a deliberate assault on
When this bogus syllogism began to lose public appeal, it was shored up with another flawed argument that was repeated during the campaign: tyranny breeds terrorism. Freedom is opposed to tyranny. Therefore the promotion of freedom is the best means of fighting terrorism.
Promoting freedom, of course, is a noble and highly desirable pursuit. If
The administration's notion of freedom has been especially convenient, and its promotion of it especially cynical. In the first place, there is no evidence to support, and no good reason to believe, that Al Qaeda's attack on
Second, while it may be implicitly true that all terrorists are tyrants, it does not follow that all tyrants are terrorists. The
Third, while the goal of promoting democracy is laudable, there is no evidence that
And even advanced democratic regimes have been known to breed terrorists, the best example being the
The president speaks eloquently and no doubt sincerely of freedom both abroad and at home. But it is plain for the world to see that there is a discrepancy between his words and his actions.
He claims that freedom must be chosen and defended by citizens, yet his administration is in the process of imposing democracy at the point of a gun in
Is this pure hypocrisy -- or is there another explanation for the discrepancy, and for Mr. Bush's perplexing sincerity? There is no gainsaying an element of hypocrisy here. But it is perhaps no greater than usual in speeches of this nature. The problem is that what the president means by freedom, and what the world hears when he says it, are not the same.
In the 20th century two versions of freedom emerged in
But most ordinary Americans view freedom in quite different terms. In their minds, freedom has been radically privatized. Its most striking feature is what is left out: politics, civic participation and the celebration of traditional rights, for instance. Freedom is largely a personal matter having to do with relations with others and success in the world.
Freedom, in this conception, means doing what one wants and getting one's way. It is measured in terms of one's independence and autonomy, on the one hand, and one's influence and power, on the other. It is experienced most powerfully in mobility -- both socioeconomic and geographic.
In many ways this is the triumph of the classic 19th-century version of freedom, the version that philosophers and historians preached but society never quite achieved. This 19th-century freedom must now coexist with the more modern version of freedom. It does so by acknowledging the latter but not necessarily including it.
It is not that Americans have rejected the formal model of freedom -- ask any American if he believes in democracy and a free press and he will genuinely endorse both. Rather it is that such abstract notions of freedom are far removed from their notion of what freedom means and how it is experienced.
The genius of President Bush is that he has acquired an exquisite grasp of this development in American political culture, and he can play both versions of freedom to his advantage. Because he so easily empathizes with the ordinary American's privatized view of freedom, the president was relatively immune from criticism that he disregarded more traditional measures of freedom like civil liberties. In the privatized conception of freedom that he and his followers share, the abuses of the Patriot Act play little or no part. (There are times, of course, when the president must voice support for the modern liberal version of freedom. The inaugural is such a day, "prescribed by law and marked by ceremony," as he ruefully noted.)
Yet while these inconsistencies may not bother the president's followers or harm his standing in America, they matter to the rest of the world. Few foreigners are even aware of America's hybrid conception of freedom, much less accepting of it. In most of the rest of the world, the president's inaugural address was heard merely as hypocrisy.
Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, is the author of "Freedom in the Making of Western Culture" and a forthcoming book on the meaning of freedom in the United States.