In keeping with the vivisection metaphor, let’s think of this essay as an exploratory surgery. Rather than making a specific argument that I believe is true, I want to entertain a notion that I believe might be true and follow it. The notion in question is that contemporary American political discourse is structured around a historically unique metaphysical notion of ‘Freedom’.
In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard famously identified postmodernity as the lack of a ‘metanarrative’, or overarching worldview. This would seem to be backed up by the heterogenous superfluity of philosophies and schools of philosophy that defines the contemporary moment, where the disparity between something like Slavoj Žižek and Richard Dawkins–two people I have heard described as philosophers at the forefront of culture–seems unbridgeable, even if they do have a certain degree of common ground. But when we look at the people afflicted with this postmodern ennui through the lens of contemporary American pop-political discourse (which for the sake of convenience I will refer to as American politics/culture, well aware of the problems this entails–but from its own point of view, as we shall see, it is the totality of America–and I hesitate to say ‘right-wing’ because I see this discourse on the left as well) we see that those afflicted by it are uniformly rejected as elitist, effete, socialist, or in some other way ‘not American.’ Perhaps this is because America is not struggling with a loss of meaning, even among the contingents that proudly call themselves atheist. America has a God, and that God is Freedom.
Freedom-with-a-capital-F is a radical departure from the historically or lexically accepted meanings of the word. It eludes definition, because to define it would be to limit its use or nature. It is for some distinct from and contiguous with God and Country, the new WASP holy trilogy, or with Free Market and Country. It is transcendent, an ideal like Heaven that is infinitely sublime–it is to be fought for, to kill for and die for, to cheat, lie, steal for–and yet like the Heavenly afterlife it is incredibly precarious, constantly at threat of collapse or being lost forever. The threat does not ever come from within, this is one cardinal rule–one never gives up one’s Freedom. To give up one’s freedom for one’s country (this being, of course, America) is considered acceptable as long as by doing so one is preserving Freedom. It is, like salvation, composed of sacrifice. One of the founding myths of Freedom is the appropriation of the (American only) war dead. Many people have died for your Freedom. It is guaranteed in sacred documents: the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights. It has a new pantheon of deities, the Founding Fathers, who may be lauded or attacked but must always be understood as the key and vital catalyst for Freedom.
Most importantly, Freedom is defined by its lack.
Freedom is defined by the people who do not have it and the people who will take it away from you. Freedom is the opposite of socialism, of fascism, of Islam, of Stalinism, of Maoism–of any other conceivable government system, all of which are defined by their lack of Freedom (this may seem a tautology–Freedom is what they don’t have, they are what doesn’t have Freedom–but a bootstrapping metaphysics like this is built on tautology). The logical end of this is either to see the US government as uniquely capable of bestowing freedom, or of being itself an enemy of Freedom and therefore of America (we will talk about the shift from one to the other in a moment). Freedom being lacking in all other countries, it is therefore uniquely, explicitly American. Interestingly, it is wedded to the populace, not the soil–when the American goes abroad, they expect their Freedom to follow.
And yet “American” here is only a self-defining term again–it means those who have Freedom. How do you lose your Freedom? Someone attacks it. But who? How?
Let’s say A and B both possess Freedom and are therefore Americans. Now let’s say A makes a sexist joke and B tells them it is not okay. Within this metaphysical system, this constitutes an attack on A’s Freedom, which makes B un-American and therefore lacking Freedom. Which is to say, one loses one’s Freedom by ‘attacking’ another’s, but only discursively. One does not actually lose Freedom by losing real freedoms. Take as example, the USA PATRIOT Act, which pretty definitively took freedoms away from the US citizenry but which was lauded as a defense of Freedom.
Now let’s look at how this mechanism plays out. (Since this is an exploration rather than an argument: anecdotal and unsourced evidence ahead.) A man fired for referring to basketball players as “nappy-headed hoes”: an attack on Freedom. Marxist professors allowed to continue teaching at universities: an attack on Freedom. Silencing the son of a 9/11 victim by cutting his mic when he talks in opposition to the Afghanistan war: a defense of Freedom. Banning gay marriage: a defense of Freedom. Banning assault rifles: an attack on Freedom. A renowned law professor claiming police treated him roughly because of his race: an attack on Freedom. A white man being criticized for shooting an unarmed black kid: an attack on Freedom. Mandatory ‘nondenominational’ prayer and ‘teach the controversy’ in schools: a defense of Freedom. Openly admitting oneself to be a Marxist: such an attack on Freedom that even among ‘left-wing’ Americans it can silence a conversation.
A familiar, unpleasant pattern begins to emerge. When we look at definitions, Freedom appears founded on a tautology; when we look at experience, it is nothing but the mystification of racist, sexist, and otherwise bigoted processes we’ve been long familiar with. Am I saying that American Freedom is bigotry? Not quite–look at some of the smaller examples, like the defense of the two guys Adria Richards drew attention to for sexist comments at a tech conference. More than anything, Freedom seems to be the right to be bigoted.
This explains its peculiar character. When someone appeals to the American’s conscience, they are trying to undercut the right to bigotry. They themselves are therefore not bigoted–which is to say, un-American. This is also how one’s Freedom can be genuinely threatened: an appeal to conscience may succeed.
Bigotry is founded in the kyriarchy, the network of power structures in our society that includes sexism, racism, classism, and plenty of other forms of abuse. It is institutional and also socially amorphous. As I pointed out in previous posts, everyone participates in it, both from a place of privilege and from a place of marginalization. This is stressful–to be marginalized means to be in a state of discomfort, among other things. Thus Freedom, which will solidify the boundaries of one privileged group, the Americans, and the rest. However, Freedom is both something people are unfortunate to lack and something they are responsible for lacking. As such, one need not feel compassion for those lacking Freedom, since they must have reached that point out of some perverse desire of their own. Alternatively, if one does feel compassion, rather than examining the systemic abuses that create the ‘lack of Freedom’, one must bring Freedom.
There are a lot of ways to bring Freedom, but they are almost all figured as invasion, and they are all nearly impossible ventures.
Because Freedom is inherently bigoted, someone cannot have it without accepting this bigotry. With a few unpleasant exceptions, few people are willing to openly accept bigotry directed at them in such a way as to not make one being bigoted feel uncomfortable. Certainly this cannot occur on a national level; hence the inevitable failure of any effort to bring Freedom abroad. If a nation like Canada or Mexico is not Free (as, of course, they are not), then how could Iraq ever be? Freedom is again a drive to root out whatever may challenge Freedom, i.e. whatever challenges the conditions of bigotry. The greatest exception to this is of course on the level of class: we see Americans who equate wealth with hard work while having none of the former.
I believe this mechanism has not yet been particularly understood because for a long time the Freedom-worship seemed like another simple form of authoritarianism. This is due to the degree to which the authority participated in Freedom culture. If you look at pop culture criticisms of the situation during the W Bush presidency, most of them adopt the language of George Orwell’s 1984 or of response to Hitlerian Fascism. This was because the notion of Freedom was wedded to the federal government. Country was made of land, government, military might, Founding Fathers . . . the whole package was in sync. However, something happened to severely disrupt this synchronism: a black man was elected president.
Obama created a paradox within the Freedom system: a president against whom one should be bigoted by the rules of the system. If one could be bigoted against the man, how could he be president? (Remember the quasi-religious nature with which the office of president was received circa 2007.) If one could not be bigoted against him . . . then he is attacking the American’s Freedom . . . and therefore not Free.
All told, it was not particularly difficult for Freedom culture to jettison the federal government and jump into the arms of one of the sects that had been waiting around for a while: right-wing libertarianism. Although built on principles of Atheism, that was not fundamental to its core; an obsession with Freedom was. Thus the Tea Party, which among other things organized a number of bigoted attacks against Obama. If he is not Free, he is not American–let’s check his birth certificate! It must be a fake! I’ve been trying very hard to skate free of Godwin’s Law throughout this article, but if I may be permitted one slip-up, it’s hard not to see how the conflation of Muslim and Socialist in the attacks leveled against Obama mirror the conflation of Jew and Bolshevik in the attacks Hitler leveled at his enemies.
All of which is not by way of defending Obama for the atrocities he has committed–but only recently has Freedom culture begun to take advantage of these as a leverage point. And who knows, perhaps that leverage will have a real positive effect in the world, as bigotry is used to help prevent massacres. I don’t have much faith in such a thing.
What I do have more faith in is the limitations that arise from the structure of Freedom culture. In short, it lies in the degree to which bigotry can no longer occur in a cultural echo chamber. More and more people are speaking out–again, after a decade of decreasing discourse. The information age puts the American in accidental contact with the un-American in such a way that superstitions about those lacking Freedom may be unintentionally challenged. Most of all, those excluded from the America of Freedom culture are making their voices heard in the US. As I pointed out before, Obama was reelected on the basis of the marginalized vote. Women are becoming a political force. People of color (half of which, of course, are women as well) are becoming a political force, even in the face of a country that is seeking dozens of ways to criminalize them. Even queers are beginning to have some political draw, although generally only the wealthier white ones. Freedom culture may be the last gasp of the long historical moment of liberal (meant in the tradition philosophic-historical sense) oppression, brought down by the the very notion of universal enfranchisement that it birthed.
Or we may be witnessing a temporary lapse before another rise to power. Even if this depiction of the political situation in the US is accurate, it doesn’t yet answer the question that I find most pressing: where to go from here. But from the angle of personal ethics, the answer seems clear: renouncing Freedom to begin working toward freedom.