Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A tale of two liberties

Last night I was lucky enough to attend a talk by American Historian, Eric Foner, on The Idea of Freedom in the US. Foner has written a huge number of very influential books on American history, notably Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, and more recently The Story of American Freedom, and Give Me Liberty!: An American History (see a pattern here?). In his talk he looked at the history of freedom in the US from 1779 to today.

His main theme was that, unsurprisingly, freedom has been a driving force in American discourse and politics to an extent not seen in any other democratic nation. Yet the notion of freedom is far from transparent and is envisaged in different ways by different individuals and ideologies.

And furthermore, freedom is often a very contradictory notion in American history, especially when one considers the role of slavery and race relations. Both sides of American politics invoke freedom as one of the primary imperatives, yet they do so in different ways.

Foner talked of the dual notions of freedom: one as freedom to...; and the other freedom from.... These two forces are far from identical. The former is more about an individual's rights to do what they damn well want. Or the "it's a free country" defence for shenanigans. The latter is more about fundamental conditions of living, which is more closely pegged to things like the labour movement.

Consider Roosevelt's Four Freedoms:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of religion
  • Freedom from want
  • Freedom from fear
Note the first two are freedoms to...; they're positive affirmations of something you can do. The last two are freedoms from...; they're negative affirmations about what can't be done to you. So, in some sense, the latter freedoms could impinge upon the freedoms of other individuals, particularly freedoms pertaining to economic practice.

How to mediate between the two? Arguably the muddied discourse in American politics makes it impossible, particularly because the axioms of libertarianism are in dispute. And it's a bummer when your assumptions are up for debate. Means you often get people talking across each other rather than being on the same track. Sound like political debates to you?

Another fascinating notion raised during the talk was why the US is fixated on liberty with little emphasis on the other two notions that accompanied it in the French Revolution: egalité and fraternité. Foner suggested it's because the US never really had a fully blown 'revolution'. Instead it had a war of independence, but it never experienced an uprising of the lower classes against a privileged elite. In fact, arguably, the wealthy landowners were more instrumental in the struggle than the labour classes. For this reason, liberty represented throwing off the yoke of Continental influence rather than individual liberty from oppression. The very lack of gross class-based inequality perhaps meant equality was less of a concern than liberty to pursue one's own ends. Perhaps another reason that socialism was never seriously considered in the US.

I find discussions of freedom fascinating. It's one of those concepts that is today uncritically considered a 'good thing'. It's even critically perceived such - Rawls is an example. He considers some things to be just plain good, in the sense that we naturally desire more rather than less of them. Freedom is one of the biggies. (Why? I ask...) But I digress.

Yet I'm entirely comfortably (some say too comfortable) with the notion that freedom is an illusion. Determinism is wearing the pants, and that leaves no room for a 'hard' free will, which would, IMO, amount to breaking causation. But, critically, it doesn't make one monkey of difference. If free will exists or it's just an illusion, nothing changes (except for a few spurious theories of moral responsibility - spurious because basing moral responsibility on uncaused or random actions isn't much better than basing it on deterministic actions, so it's psychological free will that counts, not physical determinism).

So, determinism aside, freedom is still a complicated notion. And we also have other values, such as equality, and they're not always in accordance.

Where my own research crosses over with this discussion is in the suggestion that we are born with a faculty for appreciating things like freedom/oppression and equality/inequality (read Jost, Haidt for more on this). Yet some feel them in different ways. Some individuals tilt more towards freedom, others towards equality. Certainly the feelings can be influenced by experience and imbibed ideology, but there is an innate tendency in many of us to sway more to one side than the other. (And evolution could be the reason for this variation - that's yet to be convincingly demonstrated, but I have a hunch it's correct.)

Yet freedom - perhaps because it's a difficult idea to pin down - can be adopted by both sides as a virtue, at least to some extent. This makes me pessimistic about a reconciliation between the Left and the Right, particularly in the US. But it makes me optimistic about taking a more nuanced centrist notion that acknowledges that neither side will ever be able to claim ideological dominance over the other.

Still, I'm pleased to live in a country where I'm free to blog about such things. Foner mentioned a lecture he gave in China about American freedom. The lecture title had to be changed to A Central Idea in American Politics (or something very similar). Funny, because it shows the Chinese organisers get the idea of freedom - but they just don't get it, at least, not yet...

P.S., Foner also has the honour of appearing on a very prestigious list. Not a list of prize winners for exception academic writing (although he does appear on those lists), but a list of the 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America - at least according to Bernard Goldberg.

It's possibly one of the funniest lists I've ever seen. It's like a frontal assault on intelligence, nuanced thinking and those who might think things other than freedom and God might also be important in the world.

I hope to appear on such a list one day. I probably need to be more outrageous (or vastly more talented) though...


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