Wednesday, September 15, 2004

When Bush says "freedom," what does he mean?

Hello everyone! My name is Nathan Truitt, and I had the distinct pleasure of knowing Judd Legum, the brains behind this blog, back in college. We were on a debate team together, and, as I’m sure you can imagine, he always had an uncanny ability to come up with great arguments – and the facts to back them up. My role on the team was simply to rant at great length when the opportunity presented itself.

The other thing you should know about me is that I have lived abroad for four years, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan, and now as an aid worker in Uzbekistan. Living for so long outside America – and in the middle of Central Asia – you begin to see politics with a slightly different perspective.

These two things – my address and my penchant to ramble – somehow convinced Judd that I should join his blog. Which I will do with a certain amount of trepidation, and (I hope) an equal amount of humility. I don’t have Judd’s access to facts, but what I do have is access to the questions, thoughts and concerns that people in this part of the world possess – and I’ll try to share them with you on a weekly basis.

The war on terror is unique in that it is not being fought against an easily definable group of enemies. Yes, there is Al-Qaeda, but even this organization is more a loose collection of radicals and sub-organizations than a global movement, or worse, a mobilized, hostile government. The war on terror is a war against an abstract noun – against the idea of terrorism, and, supposedly, against all those who would practice it.

Sorting through the various organizations that use violence, deciding which ones are “terrorists” and which ones are “freedom fighters,” and then explaining this process to the American voter is not an easy task. Little surprise, then, that George W. Bush tries to frame the debate not in terms of who we’re fighting against, but in terms of what we’re fighting for. And what are we fighting for? Freedom.

You can’t listen to Bush’s speeches without hearing the word repeated several times. The idea is, America is using its massive power to spread this magical gift, freedom, to the disparate corners of the globe. Maybe.

But have you ever heard George Bush describe what he means by the word, “freedom?” In the Oxford English Dictionary, freedom has no less than fifteen different meanings, so it’s a word with a lot of potential ambiguity. For example, are we talking about legal freedoms, such as the freedom from unjust imprisonment so graciously denied to inmates at Gitmo? Are we talking about business freedoms, such as the freedom granted to Halliburton to operate with no oversight or accountability whatsoever? Are we talking about social freedoms, such as the freedom to participate actively in your own culture – by, say, getting married to who you want regardless of what Pat Robertson thinks about it? Or are we talking about political freedoms, such as the right to vote, freedom of speech, etc. – you know, the ones we denied to black voters in Florida in 2000? Are we talking about all of them at the same time?

A former president who guided us through our most terrible war wrote as concise and comprehensive a definition of freedom as can be found. Speaking as the world was sliding into war, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not offer a vague word that he assumed everyone would think of as “good;” rather he laid out, in concrete terms, what he felt were the four most “essential” freedoms:

“The first is freedom of speech and expression . . . the second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way . . . the third is freedom from want . . . the fourth is freedom from fear.”

Looking at our current conflict through the light of these words, you see a lot of American successes. Girls in Afghanistan are going to school for the first time. Iraqis can (mostly) speak their minds about their own political situation. But you also notice a lot of damning failures – most noticeably in providing the last of the four “essential” freedoms. Who in the world today is less fearful, and feels more secure, than they did a year ago? Some of this can be attributed, of course, to the aftermath of September 11, but we’ve also undertaken some minor projects (the invasion of Iraq) that have brought terror and violence onto television screens – and into the streets – around the world. You could go farther and say that the Bush team cynically uses its power to actually create fear, to make us a prisoner to insecurity – by its absurd terror alert meter and by its frequent and boisterous pronouncements of impending doom . . . if we don’t all line up and vote for Bush / Cheney, that is.

We need a president who is willing to explain to the American people his vision of freedom – not just throw the word around as a shield to conceal poor leadership and poor decision making.