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NYTimes op-ed on promoting "freedom"--12/19/06

NYTimes op-ed on promoting "freedom"--12/19/06

December 19, 2006
Guest Columnist

 God’s Gift?


One of the more disquieting aspects of the Iraqi occupation is that the
president’s final rationale for it is a cherished, though groundless,
liberal belief about freedom. As we now know, the war was motivated less
by any real evidence of Iraqi involvement with terrorism than by the
neoconservatives’ belief that they could stabilize the Middle East by
spreading freedom there. Their erroneous assumption was a relic from the
liberal past: the doctrine that freedom is a natural part of the human

A disastrously simple-minded argument followed from this: that because
freedom is instinctively “written in the hearts” of all peoples, all
that is required for its spontaneous flowering in a country that has
known only tyranny is the forceful removal of the tyrant and his party.

Once President Bush was beguiled by this argument he began to sound like
a late-blooming schoolboy who had just discovered John Locke, the
17th-century founder of liberalism. In his second inaugural speech, Mr.
Bush declared “complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom
... because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark
places, the longing of the soul.” Later an Arab-American audience was
told, “No matter what your faith, freedom is God’s gift to every person
in every nation.” Another speech more explicitly laid out the
neoconservative agenda: “We believe that freedom can advance and change
lives in the greater Middle East.”

A basic flaw in the approach of the president and his neoliberal (a k a
neoconservative) advisers was their failure to distinguish Western
beliefs about freedom from those critical features of it that
non-Western peoples were likely to embrace.

Those of us who cherish liberty hold as part of the rhetoric that it is
“written in our heart,” an essential part of our humanity. It is among
the first civic lessons that we teach our children. But such
legitimizing rhetoric should not blind us to the fact that freedom is
neither instinctive nor universally desired, and that most of the
world’s peoples have found so little need to express it that their
indigenous languages did not even have a word for it before Western
contact. It is, instead, a distinctive product of Western civilization,
crafted through the centuries from its contingent social and political
struggles and secular reflections, as well as its religious doctrines
and conflicts.

Acknowledging the Western social origins of freedom in no way implies
that we abandon the effort to make it universal. We do so, however, not
at the point of a gun but by persuasion — through diplomacy,
intercultural conversation and public reason, encouraged, where
necessary, with material incentives. From this can emerge a global
regime wherein freedom is embraced as the best norm and practice for
private life and government.

Just such a conversation has been under way since the first signing, in
1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United
Nations. Several Asian nations — some, like China, rather cynically, and
others, like Singapore, with more robust reasoning — have vigorously
contested elements of the culture of freedom, especially its
individualism, on the grounds that it is inconsistent with the more
communal focus of their own cultures. The doctrine of freedom, however,
with its own rich communitarian heritage, can easily disarm and even
co-opt such arguments.

The good news is that freedom has been steadily carrying the day: nearly
all nations now at least proclaim universal human rights as an ideal,
though many are yet to put their constitutional commitments to practice.
Freedom House’s data show the share of the world’s genuinely free
countries increasing from 25 to 46 percent between 1975 and 2005.

The bad news is Iraq. Apart from the horrible toll in American and Iraqi
lives, two disastrous consequences seem likely to follow from this
debacle. One is the possibility that, by the time America extricates
itself, most Iraqis and other Middle Easterners will have come to
identify freedom with chaos, deprivation and national humiliation. The
other is that most Americans will become so disgusted with foreign
engagements that a new insularism will be forced on their leaders in
which the last thing that voters would wish to hear is any talk about
the global promotion of freedom, whatever “God’s gift” and the “longing
of the soul.”

Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, is a guest

Copyright 2006
<> The New
York Times Company <>

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