Coming of age in early-to-mid 2000s America, my generation had unprecedented opportunity to interpret the word “freedom.” The word was mercilessly flung around by the entire political spectrum, being most often positioned as something in dire need of preservation following 9/11.
Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq were said to fight for “freedom,” French fries were renamed “freedom fries” so as to, for some reason, slight the country that actually won the
French American Revolution, and, with time, a word that might have once denoted independence from tyranny instead connoted everything from billionaires having the “right” to decisively influence election to the nation’s working poor gun-owners having the “freedom” to own firearms posing a much greater threat to them than any intruder. That really runs the gamut.
Even as a 16- and 17-year old, I didn’t feel that “freedom” was at stake for Americans in particular in regard to the Iraq War and other conflicts. Granted, it was very much at stake for the inhabitants of these lands, who good or evil had to abandon their previous lives in either fleeing or fighting back. There’s little freedom to be had when one is running for her life.
The dour American political climate of the 2000s was really just one symptom of the decay of “freedom” (and “free”) as a word free of partisan connotations. It has become doublespeak, following 70+ years of it serving as the go-to rallying cry against inflated threats like communism and terrorism. Its decline as a meaningful descriptor, I think, correlates perfectly with the growing absence of any existential threat to America.
“Freedom”: Not at stake
Not a single American alive today has fought or taken any political action that meaningfully preserved her nation’s “freedom” from foreign threats – the last person who did so was probably a Union solider who helped the U.S.A. defeat the C.S.A. in the Civil War and eradicate slavery. Had the Confederates won, then, yes, the prospect of freedom would have been lost for millions who would instead have lived under a white supremacist republic.
What about the World Wars? Let’s imagine the German Empire winning World War I – Niall Ferguson did so in his book “The Pity of War,” and the results aren’t that much different from what we see today with the European Union – a German-dominated trading bloc and currency union. Germany had neither the international reach nor the materiel nor the will to take over the U.S., despite its encouragements to Mexico in the Zimmerman Note.
German victory in World War I likely would have prevented World War 2 from happening, but let’s imagine it did happen anyway in this alternate history. The “freedom” that Americans fought for in this conflict was the freedom of the people of other nations from the fascism (more on this word in a bit) of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan.
But the war’s decisive blow was struck by the U.S.S.R. at Stalingrad, and the nations that would have likely lived under the Third Reich instead lived behind the Iron Curtain of Stalin and his successors, who were no paragons of personal liberty. A victorious Axis, as imagined in books like “Fatherland,” would have likely resulted in a Cold War (between the Anglosphere and continental Europe) with slightly different contours.
While the postwar years were full of dangerous incidents, peaking with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the 70 years since the end of World War II have overwhelmingly been characterized by the steady decline of warfare and even vague hostilities between great powers, as well as the gradual redistribution of wealth from a handful of countries (the U.S. accounted for 50 percent of global GDP in 1945 but has declined to the low 20s since then) to everyone else. Fascist regimes eager to stamp out “freedom” are few and far between – even when a candidate like ISIS arises, its appeal is so limited and its power so slight within the capitalist world that it just just doesn’t make sense to argue that any American’s “freedom” is riding on the outcome of a war in the middle east or central Asia.
But still, “freedom” is often trotted out as something in need of costly preservation, perhaps in deference to Thomas Jefferson’s worrying assertion that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” I don’t agree with this line of thinking, but it is bound to have its adherents thanks to the cult of personality that has emerged in America around the Founding Fathers.
The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was initially called “Operation Enduring Freedom,” positioning the struggle against al-Qaeda as a monumental civilizational battle on par with the only real reference points that the developed world had: the Cold War and World War II. Perhaps the conception of the Afghanistan War as a battle in which “freedom” itself was at stake was inevitable since, in the wake of the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., existential threats to the notion of democratic government and free markets simply didn’t exist. One had to be invented.
Only in the last few years has terrorism finally and rightly been deflated as an existential threat when discussed in public by U.S. government officials. It’s not enough to stop the misuse of the word “freedom,” though, and the broader grandstanding about the severity of the threats that civilization faces. Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech about Iran to the U.S. Congress, in which he compared the Islamic Republic to Nazi Germany, is a great example of how the far right of the political spectrum continues to create bugbears for this notion of “freedom,” at a time when I’m not even sure they know what “freedom” means, the word having endured so much abuse over the last century or so.
Josh Marshall got at what I’m trying to get at in a post for Talking Points Memo last month, about how we can’t all”live in interesting times.” He went after Paul Berman’s “Terror and Liberalism” and the hysteria of the Iraq War with its trumped-up language about fascism, liberalism, and freedom:
“Berman’s book was something like the summa of that intellectual’s penchant for over-thinking things, that desire to have the times you live in match the headiest, most consequential and perhaps most idea-driven times of the past. If you’re a writer, an intellectual of a certain sort, who wouldn’t want to be Orwell in the late 30s and 40s or Hannah Arendt a bit later?…World War II ended 70 years ago. Outside of far-left pubs and Tea Party circulars, ‘fascism’ has not existed in any coherent form for a very long time. But some people can’t resist the hifalutin equivalent of dressing up as cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers. Play-acting. Fantasy. At least the Civil War and World War II re-enactors know they’re reenacting.”
Moreover, language about “freedom,” in the absence of a true foil, has been redirected at any number of absurd targets. Take Phil Gramm’s “alternative” to the Affordable Care Act, in the event that the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates that legislation’s premium tax credits. He thinks that another similar plan could be instituted as a replacement, albeit with the insurance markets deregulated. What did he call it? The “freedom plan” – apparently the freedom to prey on the poor and make exorbitant profits on essential care.
“Freedom” as a tool of the elites
The enlistment of the seemingly uncontroversial, universal concept of “freedom” into propaganda about unnecessary wars and draconian insurance plans, I think, indicates that “freedom” is doing verbal work that is the exact opposite of what it may have performed at other times for insurgencies or rebellions. “Freedom” has, basically, become a code word for the status quo, the interests of the elite in preserving an increasingly unequal economic system paired with a lack of politically accountable institutions.
Against big business? You’re against “freedom.” Ditto for unchecked political campaign contributions (protected under “freedom of speech,” stretched to an almost absurd meaning). The irony of the seemingly constant campaign to save “freedom” is that freedom (you know, the version that doesn’t need scare quotes) is being subtly lost, in that living a life in much of the developed world, outside some degree of surveillance and financial pressure, is becoming difficult. There is a loss of freedom, for sure, even while “freedom” still goes strong.