Sunday, October 08, 2006

Freedom and its Discontents

Note to Readers: I wrote this essay elsewhere over a year and a half ago but I feel it is still relevant today. If you haven't noticed already, I tend to start writing on one topic and then I somehow let the subject wander off towards loosely related insights. I'll publish the follow-up essay soon after. Enjoy!

When reading numerous articles, books and talking to many people, one thing I notice is how the notion of freedom is pretty confusing. I hinted at this in my last post when discussing the difference between peace and stability. In that case I referred to geo-politics, arguing that stability was a shallow goal if it were not accompanied by an expansion of freedom to everyone. Yes, I know it sounds very Second Inauguration Speech of me to echo the President's strategy of expanding freedom around the globe rather than to tolerate brutal regimes as our allies. But having studied the history of American foreign policy since the War for Independence, It appears that for the first time there is an opportunity to weld idealism with realism in America's relations with the world. What is ironic and in my opinion quite sad is that such idealism and faith in the promise of freedom has never been so undervalued as today. A majority of Western governments and its elites in academia and the media have expressed about freedom and its spread.

Are these people who have benefited considerably from the freedom offered to them ungrateful? Are they being selfish basking in freedom while denying it to other societies?

From my point of view yes. From theirs, they are convinced that they see reality as it is, not as we would like it to be. I'm more interested in uncovering why this doubt about the foundation of their livelihoods emerges.

We've all heard it before countless times: far from being the champions of freedom and democracy, the United States is guilty of many crimes throughout history around the world that is anything but symbolic of our most cherished values. In addition to hundreds of years of slavery, the U.S. has practiced gun-boat diplomacy in Asia, colonization of the Philipines and Puerto Rico, military coups in Guatemala and Iran and senseless firebombing of Vietnam. America has backed brutal dictators, strongarmed Colombia to give up Panama to us, forced internment on its own Japanese-American citizens and worst of all was the only country to employ a nuclear weapon against an enemy. All of these things did happen on our behalf, and by themselves constitute a rapsheet no nation would be proud of. Add to that more perverse recent accusations of profiteering and wanton killing in Iraq and Afghanistan lead many to doubt the possibility that America could ever do good in the world. Rarely is it asked whether opposite of these things would have brought about as good a world as we know it today. Yet all of these things were concerned with keeping peace and stability under the circumstances. Few of these events were initiated on the hope that liberal democratic values would naturally spread. But maintaining peace by use of force was the issue here.

Those who judge this record to be purely embarassing reveal a simple moral code that emphasizes peace. Peace in the form of stability must prevail at all costs. They accept that violence will take place around the world, but what is most important is that the armed forces that represent them do not participate. A peaceful, harmonious existence is desired, and any kind of social or cultural movement that espouses these goals are worthy of support. Some civil wars are therefore justified if one of the sides aim for this kind of society. One means of achieving harmony is by empowering an oppressed class or minority group, since the prior circumstance permits unfair social inequalities and thus intelorable social tension. Another is to encourage social movements that promise a restoration of the old order based on early cultural traditions, since modernity has alienated large groups of people and engenders problems like crime, drugs, consumerism, the breakup of family ties. Both methods justify the initial violence as part of a much-needed revolution, as long as peace ensues resulting in the new corrected order. Bear in mind that those who prize peace but excuse violent revolutions demand an end result in which all social and cultural conflicts are resolved, all economic disparities made insignificant, and spiritual unity restored. In simpler terms, these harmonious societies are actually very heavily controlled entities.

Those who believe that freedom matters above all else don't necessarily have peace as their objective. Rather they value the potential that chaos brings. The problem in promoting freedom to other places that have not experienced it is that it promises nothing specific. Freedom is open-ended, defined by an endless number of possibilities. There is no built-in stability and no guarantee as to what the settled order might look like. It is dynamic, with various social, economic and cultural forces intersecting and always in state of flux. Inequalities are inherent in a free society which causes to everyone within compete with one another based on their innate and acquired advantages. Achieving a sense of societal wholeness is irrelevant, as the goal in a free society is the opposite: to maximize the realization of the self. Obligations to family, class or to 'the cause' matters relatively little in a free society. Trust, therefore, substitutes obligation and is essential in encouraging people to cooperate towards common goals. It is often, however, more tenous than traditional duties. Betrayal is a constant fear among people in societies that have not lived long with high levels of trust. They have instead become so comfortable to a life where one did not choose to deal with another, one rather was obliged to do so.

Free will complicates everything. One can no longer depend on the help of another because it is expected, now that one has to to persuade the other that it is in his or her self-interest to help. This is a task most people would like to do without most of the time. Many of us prefer the security in knowing what to expect from others over the uncertainty of waiting if the other takes an interest in you. We prefer that things function with regularity, disinterest and a dedication to common social purposes. The time-worn phrase "because it has always been done this way" is another way of saying that one does things regardless of private choice or personal agenda at a single point in time. It's less a rejection of the merits of a better idea than it is a warning that the new idea threatens to destabilize an established tradition. Repetition, predictability, participating in something that is older and therefore greater than yourself, the relief from angst inherent in constantly making choices: that's what keeps tradition alive, and in many societies, dominant.

It is one of the most common observations of countries that experience democratic capitalist rule for the first time: a short-lived sense of euphoria followed by an unending mood of depression and disappointment. Before, freedom was distant, but somehow it was always associated with abundance and pleasure. After, freedom is everywhere, but life then is anything but abundant and pleasurable as one now has to work hard to acquire anything, and generosity is rare. People who adjust to their new freedoms come face to face with added responsibilities which were at one time insignificant. One's place in society is under freedom uncertain and their future even more so. His sense of purpose becomes a big question mark and his loyalties to people and to ideas are confused. In conclusion, as you take on more freedom, you take on more choices which demand more responsibility. A free life becomes a complicated life, and endlessly stressful.

My experience in the former East Germany in the early Nineties reminded me all the time the disappointments of a liberated population. Somehow they felt that a free life was worry-free. Risks were not perceived as a major part of economic life. What they really believed was that a capitalist democracy would free the from the shackles of communist control. The key here is 'freedom from'. Rarely was it ever described as the freedom to do something, since that entailed making a risk-filled decision that only brings about more worry. The reunification of Germany was a traumatic event for many people in the East, as it signified a permanent loss of livelihood through unemployment, of community and political solidarity. Much of what they invested their lives with in education, finances and careers were gone. The old dream of "freedom" had become a chaotic nightmare of factory closings, disintegrating savings, and envious neighbors.

With such a list of intractable problems, why promote freedom around the world? Isn't a peaceful security the better choice?

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