Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, January 04, 2010

At Least I Know I'm Free: A Myth That Unites

I was talking with a relative recently who was telling me about an incident a while back where the maintenance staff at the building he worked at had gone on strike and were picketing the building. Emails had gone out from the building management telling people not to get into arguments or cause incidents with the picketers, and it became a source of quite a bit of topic around the office. My relative was amused to hear expressed several times the sentiment, "That's what makes our country different from the rest of the world. Here, they have the freedom to hold a protest like that."

It if, of course, true that they have the freedom to picket their employer here. However, that's not necessarily a contrast with the rest of the developed world. They could do the same in thing in Canada, or the UK or France or Germany, etc. There is, as my relative pointed out, a tendency at times for Americans to assume that because our country was very consciously founded in order to secure certain freedoms, that this means that people who don't live in the US don't have the same freedoms. Obviously, some don't. One's freedom of political and economic expression is severely limited if you live in North Korea or China or Cuba or some such nation. But there are many other countries in which people enjoy basically all the same freedoms that we do.

This American tendency to assume that we are the only ones to enjoy the freedoms outlined in our Bill of Rights is something which very much annoys many people who consider the US to be dangerously nationalistic, or who would prefer that we see the US as just one other region, not better or worse than others. They have, thus, a strong reflex to squelch these kinds of slightly misguided patriotic outbursts when they hear them.

I do not argue that it's better for people to be ignorant of the legal conditions in other countries than otherwise, but there is, I think, a certain virtue to Americans' tendency to see America finding its uniqueness in being "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal".

Americans have traditionally identified our freedoms a defining characteristics of what it means to be an American. As Lee Greenwood song that seemed to be playing all the time a few years ago went, "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free."

Before people get angry about Americans acting like they have a monopoly on freedom, however, they should keep in mind that all countries are built around some sort of uniting characteristic. The US is moderately unique in that its uniting characteristics are abstract and essentially philosophical: ideas about political freedom and limitted government as laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, as well as a host of other writings ranging from Common Sense and the Federalist Papers to the Gettysburg Address and the I Have A Dream speech. Other countries tend to be founded fairly explicitly on the basis of a ethnic or cultural commonality. This idea that any unified cultural group deserves it's own country in some deep and important sense can lead to a great deal of conflict, especially when two culturally separate groups live mixed together (Israel and the Palestinians, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, etc.) or when a culturally dissimilar group has traditionally been incorporated into a country run by some larger groups (as with the Basque independence movement in Spain or the conflict over whether Russia should control Chechnya).

I'd much rather have Americans occasionally displaying ignorance about the civil rights available in other countries when talking about how essential they see freedom as being to our republic, then have people building their sense of identity and patriotism around being of suitably Arian stock, or some other sort of ethnic or cultural characteristic. Freedoms are something which not only can, but should, be extended to all people who live within our borders, and as such I can think of no better characteristic to base a sense of national identity. A sense of identity rooted in our political liberties not only makes it harder to interfere with the liberties themselves (which is doubtless a good thing) but also provides a unifying potential which is quite the opposite of the more traditional ethnic and political sources of national identity.


Rebekka said...

As an expat this tendency (among others) causes me occasional embarrassment and gnashing of teeth.

I wonder, though, whether there is a flip side, and the freedom "myth" is so entrenched that people do not take the loss of personal liberties and privacy seriously. I doubt that the majority of the American people are aware of the gory details of their rights - and whether they derive a false sense of protection from the mythology of freedom. ("Like, it's in the Constitution, dude.")

Anonymous said...

What makes me to gnash my teeth is that the people who shout the loudest about American freedom were mostly the same people who supported President Bush's rollback of our freedom: warrantless spying, indefinite detention, torture.

That people choose to identify freedom as the uniting American characteristic, rather than Christianity or whiteness, is undeniably a good thing. But it loses much of its value when it becomes clear that so many people are so completely clueless as to what freedom actually looks like.


CMinor said...

I mentioned at the American Catholic crosspost that it's necessary to consider freedom of religion and conscience: while I don't want to belabor the point I made there, remember that many (generally) free nations retain established churches. It makes a difference, especially if you're not in the "in" group.