Among George Orwell’s most enduring essays is his “Politics and the English Language.” Reflecting on the licentious use of the honored western key word “democracy” (as in “people’s democracy” or the oxymoronic “capitalist democracy”), Orwell observed that “words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”
When the speaker is a leading imperial and corporate-plutocratic figurehead and the “hearer” is the public at large, de-coding the difference between hidden (“private”) definition and artificially constructed public meaning means critically engaging ideology, propaganda, and the crass manipulation of language to cloak class rule and global inequality.
And when the speaker is former Yale History major George [Or]W[ellian] Bush, the master keyword the public is likely to hear is “freedom.”
Speaking to a group of history students last week, I put the “over-under” (betting) line on how many times Bush II would use the word “freedom” (and/or its twin “liberty”) in last Tuesday’s State of the Union address at fifteen.
Not bad. Bush used “freedom” fifteen times and “liberty” three times.
I don’t know if Bush II actually has used this word more frequently than did presidents Reagan, Carter, or Kennedy, but his attachment to these wonderful but potentially dangerous (see below) words seems unusually strong. Read any of his major speeches during the last few years and you’ll see what I mean.
It’s no accident, of course, that Bush II leans so heavily on “freedom”-talk. “No idea,” as the prolific and brilliant American historian Eric Foner observes, “is more fundamental to Americans’ sense of themselves as individuals and as a nation than freedom. The central term in our political language, freedom – or liberty, with which it is almost always used interchangeably – is deeply embedded in the record of our history and language of everyday life.”
Who doesn’t avowedly support “freedom” in modern America? Nobody who wishes to be taken even remotely seriously in the American political realm would proclaim herself an enemy of “liberty” and “freedom.”
But beware. “The very universality of the idea of freedom,” Foner reminds us, “can be misleading. Freedom,” he counsels, “is not a fixed, timeless category with a single unchanging definition. Indeed, the history of the United States is, in part, a story of debates, disagreements, and struggles over freedom.” Furthermore: “over the course of our history, American freedom has been both a mythical ideal – a living truth for millions of Americans, a cruel mockery for others.”
During their long, contentious, and conflict-filled history, Foner reminds us, Americans have engaged in repeated epic conflicts over “(1) the meanings of freedom; (2) the social conditions that make freedom possible; and (3) the boundaries of freedom that determine who is entitled to enjoy freedom and who is not” (Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History, Volume I , p. xxiii).
During the 1960s, to give one example among many, Americans of various different social and ideological backgrounds faced off on (1) whether the massive U.S. assault on Vietnam was consistent with a meaningful and just (truly “American”) concept of “freedom;” (2) whether social conditions at home were permitting all of America’s own citizens to enjoy “liberty’s” blessings; and (3) who deserved to be receive freedom’s gifts.
For the martyred social justice and antiwar activist Martin Luther King, Jr., America’s claim to be the leading agent and epitome of human freedom on earth rang hollow along all three lines. You’d never know it from the tepid language used by American political and cultural authorities in their by-now ritual sanctification of King’s officially whitewashed memory, but the fallen civil rights leader was rather unimpressed by the extent to which his movement’s mid-1960s triumphs over southern racism had extended freedom throughout the nation. He viewed the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts as relatively partial bourgeois accomplishments that dangerously encouraged mainstream America to think the nation’s racial problems “were automatically solved.” He saw these early victories as falling short of his deeper “freedom” objective: advancing social, economic, political, and racial justice and liberty across the entire nation (including its northern, ghetto-scarred cities) and (of increasing important to him late in life) around the world.
Thus he quickly followed up on the movement’s significant defeat of open racism in the South by “turning North” in an effort to take the “freedom struggle” to a radical new level. It was one thing, King told his colleagues, for blacks to win the freedom to sit at a lunch counter. It was another thing for black and other poor people to get the money that gave them the freedom to actually buy a lunch.
It was one thing, King argued, to open the doors of economic opportunity for some few and relatively privileged African-Americans. It was another thing to move millions of black and other disadvantaged people out of economic oppression and tyranny. It was another and related thing to dismantle slums and overcome the deep structural and societal barriers to freedom and equality that continued after public bigotry was discredited and open discrimination was outlawed.
Beneath King’s official canonization (the great pacifist actually received an official U.S. Air Force military fly-over on King Day), few Americans know that King who linked racial and social freedom at home to the end of (American) imperialist oppression and social disparity abroad, denouncing what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated”: “racism, economic exploitation [capitalism], and war.”
Along the way, King proclaimed the U.S. “the foremost purveyor of violence in the world” and proclaimed that American had no business claiming to “fight for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not put even our own [freedom] house in order.”
There are many other examples, going back before the American Revolution and leading up through the 1960s and beyond, showing that “freedom” and “liberty” have always been and remain highly and hotly contested words in the American historical experience.
You’d never know this, however, from our history major president’s “State of the Union address.”
The president might be in love with talking about “freedom,” but he never puts any but the most superficial substance on the skeleton of his favorite key word.
“In this decisive year,” he proclaimed Tuesday, “we will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom – or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life.”
No elaboration required: “freedom’s” enemies are America’s enemies because (incidentally corporate-plutocratic America, the “best democracy that money can buy” and possessor of the world’s highest incarceration rate) is self-evidently the land of “freedom.” We will chase down the terrorist enemies of liberty.
“Far from being a hopeless dream,” Bush said, “the advance of freedom is the great story of our time. In 1945, there were about two dozen lonely democracies in the world. Today, there are 122. And we’re writing a new chapter in the story of self-government — with women lining up to vote in Afghanistan, and millions of Iraqis marking their liberty with purple ink, and men and women from Lebanon to Egypt debating the rights of individuals and the necessity of freedom. At the start of 2006, more than half the people of our world live in democratic nations. And we do not forget the other half — in places like Syria and Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Iran — because the demands of justice, and the peace of this world, require their freedom, as well.”
Here “freedom” is simplistically equated with the formal act of casting a ballot, the existence of formally elected representatives, and the attainment of basic civil liberties. There’s no required concern (ala King) with the purchase of “democracy” by concentrated economic power, the class and/or racial-ethnic identity and agenda of the specific representatives elected, or the limiting effect of economic and other social inequalities on meaningful “freedom” and civic power for the majority.
“Islamic terrorists’” aim, Bush said last Tuesday, “is to seize power in Iraq, and use it as a safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world” and thereby to “break our will, allowing the violent to inherit the Earth. But they have miscalculated: We love our freedom, and we will fight to keep it.” Here “freedom” apparently means security from “violent” others, who want to attack us. It’s hard to imagine anyone not wanting to be free of such attack, though it might be worth mentioning that many Iraqis and others reasonably follow the counsel of Martin King by wondering if Americans are “the violent” who “inherit the Earth” and noting that we deny Iraqi’s the right to coverage under this definition of “freedom” since we’ve liberated tends of thousands (the precise body count is a subject of debate) of them from the burden of biological existence.
“America rejects the false comfort of isolationism,” Bush announced, adding that “we are the nation that saved liberty in Europe.” Saved Europe, that is, from European fascism-Nazism.
There’s no remotely imaginable mention here, of course, of the fact that U.S. policymakers in the interwar period (1919-1939) concluded that America’s (false) conflation of freedom with capitalism required them to appease and otherwise enable the rise of European fascism. As is apparent from the relevant historical literature, the US watched with approval as fascist darkness set over Europe. American policymakers saw Italian, Spanish, German and other strains of European fascism as welcome counters to the truer (for them) threat to “freedom”: the Soviet danger (essentially the demonstration Russia made of the possibilities for modernization capitalist world system) and anti-capitalist social democracy within European nations.
“We’re continuing reconstruction efforts, and helping the Iraqi government to fight corruption and build a modern economy,” Bush said, “so all Iraqis can experience the benefits of freedom.”
Here “freedom” refers to “modern” political economy, presumably (it is certainly safe to assume) corporate-state-capitalist (falsely described as “free market” in dominant elite usage) and material “reconstruction,” with a hint of anti-corruption thrown in. There’s no room in such a usage for the considerable extent to which “modern” (currently corporate/state-capitalist) economies have consigned vast swaths of the global populace to material immiseration, poverty (un-freedom), and related forms of oppression over centuries of world-capitalist dominance. There’s no room to grasp Iraqis’ legitimate concerns about the significant extent to which their social, economic, and political freedom is assaulted by the specifically corporate-globalizationist form of “modern economy” – dominated by foreign, largely U.S.-based multinational corporations that are free to buy up Iraqi’s economy – that “liberty-”loving Uncle Sam is insisting that Iraqis adopt. Sticklers might like to remind the president that the main thing Iraq needs to be “reconstructed” from is the monumental devastation imposed by savage ongoing U.S. over the last two decades. “We’re striking terrorist targets while we train Iraqi forces that are increasingly capable of defeating the enemy,” Bush said. “Iraqis are showing their courage every day, and we are proud to be their allies in the cause of freedom.”
Here “freedom” simply means defeating the resistance to America’s brazenly imperialist occupation. This resistance is the “enemy” equated with “terrorism” and what Bush described as “radical Islam’s” “ideology of terror and death” and “totalitarian control.” There’s no room in that usage for acknowledging the significant extent to which many strictly nonviolent and non-”terrorist” Iraqis see the illegal occupation of their country by history’s most lethal military power (the U.S.) as the ultimate enemy of their “freedom.”
“Democracies in the Middle East,” Bush announced, “will not look like our own, because they will reflect the traditions of their own citizens. Yet liberty is the future of every nation in the Middle East, because liberty is the right and hope of all humanity.”
To “the citizens of Iran,” Bush said “America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom.”
“Together, let us protect our country,” Bush said, adding: “support the men and women who defend us, and lead this world toward freedom” – a reference to the soldiers of the U.S. military.
“America is a great force for freedom and prosperity,” the president said. “Before history is written down in books,” Bush noted in conclusion, “it is written in courage. Like Americans before us, we will show that courage and we will finish well. We will lead freedom’s advance.”
Bush did not elaborate on the meaning of his concept of “freedom.” The president is content to cloak what careful de-coders know to be his richly authoritarian and radically reactionary sentiments on (1) what “freedom” really means; (2) the “social conditions that make it possible;” and (3) “the boundaries of who is entitled to enjoy” it and who is not. He is more than pleased to “allow his hearer to think he means something quite different.”
He opened his address, finally, with a reference to “the good life” of the recently passed Coretta Scott King, wishing her “a glad re-union with the husband who was taken so long ago.” He and handlers were more than happy, however, to leave us in the dark on where the administration really stands in relation to Martin King’s freedom-killing “triple evils that are interrelated.”
Of course, such misunderstanding is precisely the point. If the majority of the American populace fully grasped the extent of the Orwellian chasm between (a) the privately-held meanings and values of the power “elite” and (b) the superficial shadow-discourse concocted for the citizenry’s diversion, confusion, and public “consumption,” we’d probably have another American Revolution on our hands*and a new twist in the continuing American and related global struggle over the meaning of the words “freedom” and “liberty.” Paul Street ([email protected]) is a Visiting Professor in American History at Northern Illinois University. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004, order at www.paradigmpublishers.com);Segregated Schools: Race, Class, and Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge: 2005); and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL: Chicago Urban League, 2005).