Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On the Silent Wings of Freedom: Defining Liberty

In my contribution to the Turtle Island 42 blog, I went into some detail about the word "Freedom" and its connection to the Goddess Columbia.  Since the topic continues to garner attention (and discussion), I thought it was worthwhile to comment further.

When I noted on Wild Hunt that "the American fetish for "rights" is not necessarily shared by everyone the world over. In many cultures law and order, peace and prosperity, and conformity to social norms are all seen as far more important than an individual's right to troll Internet forums, follow a minority religion or buy pornography,"  Apuleius Platonicus weighed in with his strongly-felt opinions:
Kenaz, when Africans were enslaved and brought in chains to the "New World", were they deprived of their freedom, or not? What was it that Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, etc, rose up in rebellion over? If it was not freedom, then please tell me what it was. 
To deny that "freedom" is something that all human beings desire and have a "right" to is tantamount to saying that there is nothing wrong with slavery if those enslaved have no concept of freedom to begin with. In fact, this was, in essence, precisely the justification that Europeans gave for enslaving Africans. 
Or perhaps you are claiming that Africans only learned about freedom from Europeans? But I seriously doubt that.
* * *
I completely reject the notion that modern Europeans are the only people who cherish freedom. I find the very idea intrinsically racist. 
In fact, the ideas about freedom, equality, democracy, etc, that we associate with the Enlightenment were really a revival of ideas from pre-Christian societies, including of course Greek and Roman societies, but also Germanic, Celtic and other cultures. 
Chinese history is also filled with examples of popular uprisings against injustice and oppression, going back 3,000 years or more.
Apuleius is a smart fellow: while we've crossed swords in the past I definitely recognize his intelligence even when I disagree with his conclusions. But though he keeps using the word "freedom," he seems unwilling or unable to provide a definition - or, more precisely, to explain what freedom means to him.  Hence, I'm forced to look to a different authority: dictionary.com

free·dom [free-duhm] Show IPA  noun
1. the state of being free or at liberty rather than inconfinement or under physical restraint: He won his freedom after a retrial.
2. exemption from external control, interference, regulation,etc.
3. the power to determine action without restraint.
4. political or national independence.
5. personal liberty, as opposed to bondage or slavery: a slave who bought his freedom.
 #2 gets to the heart of a comment from my TI42 post.  Ian O. took exception to my statement that Lincoln justified war against the Confederate States - who had chosen secession with widespread support from their citizens - in the name of "freedom."
Why call the Confederate movement 'popular'? They only form a comfortable 'popular' majority if you exclude the rest of the U.S. at the time *and* exclude the slaves they oppressed.  
Let's keep in mind, that the number of 'popularly' elected officials representing the to-be-Confederate states at the national level were inflated on the basis of enslaved African populations who had no influence over their selection. 
Calling Lincoln's refusal to acknowledge secession a brutal assault on freedom buys into the lies of Lost Cause history that pretends the Confederacy stood for anything else but slavery and expanding white supremacy.  
Really, the Confederate elites made no bones about their desire to preserve slavery and, if they had their druthers, returning places like Haiti to it.
I do not intend to be an apologist for slavery or the sins of the Confederacy. But the inconvenient fact remains that the people of the southern states chose to dissolve the Union and form their own government. Their reasons for that secession were wrong-headed, even evil.  Nevertheless it was a popular choice, and one which they were willing to defend by taking up arms.  The people of the Confederacy did not greet the Union Army as liberators when they came marching through town: they were brought back into the Union only after a long, bloody and brutal struggle.  And let's also put the issue of "liberating the slaves" into some perspective: while the Confederate attitude toward blacks and slavery was repellent Lincoln's proposed solutions to the "Negro problem" were no less problematic:
In his annual message to Congress in December of [1861] , Lincoln made his first public statement as president in support of colonization. Former slaves seeking refuge across Union lines, who were regarded as contraband, had aroused the racist fears of northern whites and threatened to become an economic burden. To alleviate the problem, Lincoln suggested that Congress appropriate funds for colonizing the slaves. He also advocated an additional step. "It might be well to consider," he submitted, "whether the free colored people already in the United States could not, so far as individuals may desire, be included in such colonization."10 Thus he called for not just a relief plan for the freedmen, but for a full program of racial separation.
This brings us to one of the pesky inconveniences of freedom: sometimes free people will make choices we find repellent.  Freed from Communist tyranny, the Serbians residing in the former Yugoslavia launched genocidal war against Bosnians and Albanians residing in the region.  With the fall of the Mubarek regime, Egypt's Muslim majority has grown increasingly intolerant of its Coptic Christian minority.   And we all know how well our plan to withdraw support to Shah Reha Pahlavi and encourage a democratic government in Iran worked out - not to mention our Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

If we were justified in preserving the Union through force and dragging the south kicking and screaming back under United States control, is the Russian government justified in maintaining control over Chechnya with an oppressive military presence?  What about our efforts to "free" Chile from the popularly elected Allende government - or the Soviet tanks that "liberated" Czechoslovakia and Hungary? When does it become necessary to take away the right to popular rule in order to protect "Freedom."

At what point are we justified in taking away freedom in order to save it? And what do we do when the newly liberated don't recognize the superiority of European and American models of democracy and choose to  build a political system and society based on other models? There are no easy answers - but I think it's important that we raise the questions anyway.  Until we have some clear idea of what "Freedom" means, we are at risk of falling prey to any demagogue looking to justify this week's convenient atrocity.