So you're for freedom and opposed to oppression? Big whoop, so is everybody else (or at least they all talk that way.) In carrying out political discourse in the 21st century, we're going to have to find some new ways to slice the rhetorical pie.
Liberal vs. Conservative
Left vs. Right
Labor vs. Management
The People vs. The Man
The Haves vs. The Have-Nots
Question: What do all of the political dichotomies listed above have in common?
Answer: They all have their origins in the 19th or 20th centuries (or earlier).
Better Answer: They are all widely exploited by the media and the political parties to keep public discourse within an established and comfortable set of boundaries.
Even Better Answer: They are all of rapidly diminishing relevancy and will soon fade to a sort of vestigial, background-noise kind of existence or (with any luck at all) go extinct altogether.
Another possible answer would be that they all seem to be variations on a theme. And it’s a good theme. The premise behind all of the political Celebrity Death Matches listed above is that people should not be exploited for the benefit of others (or for any reason). Where people are suffering such exploitation, they should be liberated and the exploiters brought to justice.
Who could possibly disagree with that?
Nobody. That’s why it’s such a powerful theme, and why it’s hung in there so long. In the U.S., the idea is fundamental. Foundational, even. Our nation originates with the cry of “No Taxation without Representation” and a model of the world that looks something like this:
Colonists vs. British Taskmasters
We were born looking at the world this way, and we grew up still seeing things in those terms:
Free States vs. Slave States
We had to play the theme out in order to become the nation that were meant to be. In the 20th century, we played a variation of the same theme in two world wars and the cold war:
Freedom vs. Oppression
Interestingly, although we were the first country to adopt the theme wholesale, others began picking up on it over the years. Where in the U.S. it was born in partnership with free markets, in Europe it was quickly coupled with a vision of state-sponsored liberation of the masses.
That’s where it gets interesting. In World War II, we fought with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany in a war that we saw as being consistent with our overall 20th century theme of Freedom vs. Oppression. After winning that war together, we engaged in a 50-year struggle with the Soviets which we viewed as being consistent with the same theme. Amazingly, the Soviets also described their struggle with us as being consistent with that theme.
Contrast that with our war with the Nazis. The Nazis never claimed that they were fighting for freedom and against oppression (although they did use the “oppression” of German ethnic minorities as a pretext for rolling their tanks into one or two countries.) They were all about Strength vs. Weakness, Purity vs. Corruption, or - to turn one of our original dichotomies on its ear - The Man vs. The People.
After World War II, Freedom vs. Oppression became everybody’s theme. In this country, Republicans calling for an end to the capital gains tax and Democrats fighting any restrictions on abortion outside of what’s spelled out in Roe vs. Wade will both hale back to the language of Freedom vs. Oppression in making their case. In the world at large, both sides of the dispute over the current war use this theme as justification for their actions. President Bush will tell you that he invaded Iraq to protect the world from the oppression of terrorists armed with WMD and to liberate the Iraqis from the oppressive Baathist regime. President Chirac will tell you that he was opposed to the oppressive U.S. incursion on another sovereign state. The Canadian government, in setting up separate Shariah courts for use by their Muslim citizens, will no doubt describe this as a great triumph of freedom over oppression. Likewise, opponents to the establishment of such courts will do so on precisely the same grounds.
All of this simply goes to show that the language of Freedom vs. Oppression is no longer a reliable or useful political gauge. When opposing forces consistently use the same theme to justify their actions, it’s time we thought about getting ourselves a new theme. Since everyone at least claims to be for freedom and opposed to oppression, I think it’s time we got a lot clearer about the kinds of freedom we’re looking for.
In defining some of those, I’ve come up with three possible themes that might replace Freedom vs. Oppression in the new century.
Individual Rights vs. Group Rights
Again, there’s no point in getting in an argument over whether group rights exist. Let’s just say they do, and they’re really important. Individual rights, however, are more important and must always take precedence. This is where, in my view, the United Nations has utterly failed in its mission. The U. N. began with a charter declaring universal human rights, but it has somehow ended up in the business of legitimizing every possible form of oppression and deprivation of basic freedoms. They have done this through the recognition of a peculiar group right called “sovereignty,” which somehow makes the evil perpetuated upon a group of people by their ruling class not only untouchable, but generally unmentionable.
Group rights, even the sacred concept of sovereignty, have to take the backseat to individual rights. This, by the way, is the moral argument for the invasion of Iraq. And it’s why Canada should think twice before empowering Shariah courts.
Freedom via Freedom vs. Freedom via Control
This is a restatement of the classical libertarian position - You want to liberate me? Fine. Don’t enact a four-step Liberation Plan or establish a Department of Liberation. Just leave me the hell alone. - with an important distinction. “Freedom via Control” may sound oxymoronic (or even Orwellian) but it’s something this country’s - and the world’s - body politic believes in firmly. Repeatedly telling them that there’s no such thing and that is they, not we, who are the oppressors is pointless.
So let’s concede that they are as much for freedom as we are. We just don’t care for their flavor of it.
Freedom Through Change vs. Freedom From Change
This is the big one, as far as I’m concerned. The major national and global struggles of the coming decades will be defined in precisely these terms. And once again, it’s not a question of whether there is a right not to change. There is. Anyone uncomfortable living in a world with electricity, or antibiotics, or reality TV shows has the right to live without them. I can do without one of them, myself, and I’m not talking about antibiotics.
The Amish have the right to be Amish. But nobody has the right to make me Amish. (See the item on “Individual Rights,” above.)
Consider the case of Patrick Moore, the Greenpeace co-founder who evolved from extremist environmental activism to a more moderate “sustainable development” approach, and from there to outright advocacy for biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering. Moore came to see that progress in these areas could do more to achieve the goals of sustainable development - increased crop yields, reduction in the use of pesticides, improved health in local populations - than anything the traditional activists were advocating. According to Moore, the mainstream of the sustainable development movement is violently opposed to any use of biotechnology on grounds that are largely (if not wholly) irrational.
Those activists would no doubt describe Moore as an agent of oppression in their struggle for freedom. But he doesn’t see it that way. He wants to achieve the goals of cleaning up the environment and improving health in the third world using tools that can truly empower us to do so. Patrick Moore is an agent of freedom through change.
The struggle between those who want to prevent change and those who want to achieve greater freedom by pursuing it will grow more intense in the years to come. And it will hit closer and closer to home.
As Virginia Postrel writes in her introduction to The Future and Its Enemies:
How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis—a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism—a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare with Appelo that "we're scared of the future" and join Adams in decrying technology as "a killing thing"? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. The central question of our time is what to do about the future. And that question creates a deep divide.
The stasists whom Postrel decries are advocates of Freedom via Control and Freedom from Change. Just as much of the political turmoil in the world today can be defined as taking place between those who prefer freedom for individuals and those who want it for groups, in coming years we will see increasing conflict over these other two dichotomies of freedom. On the Fight Aging! weblog, pseudonymous life-extension advocate Reason lays out the 2004 presidential election in precisely those terms:
Stem cell research and regenerative medicine offer the best near term hope for therapies and interventions that will greatly increase healthy lifespan. These branches of medicine offer the possibility of near term cures for a long litany of the worst diseases and age-related conditions:
- Serious injury
- Nerve damage
- Heart disease
All of these named conditions have been cured in animal models, in early human trials, or in laboratory tests. Commercial therapies would be only years away in some cases, such as for heart disease. All this wonderful research is estimated …to be five years behind schedule due to the actions of the Bush administration, its appointees and paid bioethicists.
So there you have it, the real issue of this Presidential election in a nutshell. Is better health, curing the incurable and a longer, healthier life important to you? Then look carefully at your options when you vote, and, as I do, wish that you lived in a world in which scientists didn’t need to beg permission from uncaring bureaucrats to develop a cure for cancer.
In his conduct of the current war, President Bush has proven himself a champion of the old theme of Freedom vs. Oppression and of the newly proposed one of Individual Rights vs. Group Rights. Unlike Reason, in choosing whom I vote for this year, I will definitely take that into consideration. But I hope no one dismisses Reason’s point as belonging to some kind of longevity fringe. The issue of Freedom Through Change vs. Freedom From Change may not be determinative in this year’s election, but it will be eventually. Technology is opening up so many new possibilities so fast that the question of whether we will be allowed to realize those possibilities will not be able to avoid the center of national debate for long.
Addressing the subject of new technologies that may enhance human intellectual (and other) abilities, Glenn Reynolds wrote:
Would I like to be smarter? Yes, and I'd be willing to do it via a chip in my brain, or a direct computer interface... And I'd certainly like to be immune to cancer, or AIDS, or aging. But these ideas threaten some people, who feel that our physical and intellectual limitations are what make us human.
I don't know whether I believe this. Which limitations, exactly? Would humanity no longer be human if AIDS ceased to exist? What about Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Was Einstein less human? If not, then why would humanity be less human if everyone were that smart? It may be true, as Dirty Harry said, that "A man's got to know his limitations." But does that mean that a man is his limitations? Some people think so, but I'm not so sure. Others think that overcoming limitations is what's central to being human. I have to say that find that approach more persuasive.
If overcoming limitations is, indeed, central to being human - and I’m convinced that it is, as I wrote a while back in this piece about overcoming the greatest limitation of them all - then the advocates of Freedom Through Change have human nature and virtually all of human history on our side. It’s a tremendous advantage, but considering the tenacity and ruthlessness of those who want to control, restrict, or simply prevent change if they can, it’s an advantage we’re going to need.Posted by Phil at February 10, 2004 06:16 AM | TrackBack