Learning to become free
By Luciana Bohne
Journal Contributing Writer
Mar 22, 2005, 23:14
The nineteenth-century English historian, Lord Macaulay,
wrote, "Is it not under oppression that we learn to use freedom?"
A conservative, Macaulay was not a champion of revolutionary
mass movements. Like Burke, he deplored the "excesses" of the French
Revolution, particularly when these expressed themselves in popular rage
against the autocrats of the Ancien Regime. Still, a guarded critic of
"empire" (like Burke), he makes for intelligent reading, particularly
since in post-Cold War America it is still not prudent or wise to cite incisive
critics of imperialism like Lenin or -- perish the thought -- Marx!
It is ironic that, in a country in which liberty is taken to
be its synonym, certain political thinkers are anathema, proscribed more
effectively than if the prohibition were enforced by an inquisition of
torturers. It is amazing that for half a century, American university graduates
have been disgorged as obedient bodies from institutions of higher learning -- beings
without the slightest notion of an alternative political system that might put
the their own certainties to the test. Isn't the test of a sound system of
thought passed by subjecting it to the challenge of another?
Today, Americans are caught in a historical reality with
which they are educationally, culturally, and politically unprepared to cope:
their country has gone imperialist. For this pernicious "innocence"
they have the ideologues and institutions of the Cold War to thank -- a
carefully crafted culture of fear of "communism" which handed to them
a Manichean version of the world -- a simplistic reduction of the complexity of
the planet's social upheavals to a struggle between "good and evil,"
in which they unfailingly (and contrary to the historical record) played the
Nine-eleven came to them as a total surprise -- a bolt from
the blue of their insulated illusions, which is why they were so hurriedly and
menacingly told not to ask why. Inexcusable as that or any terrorism (including
state terrorism) may be, it is always prudent to ask why a crime has occurred
as a matter of prevention. But they weren't permitted to ask. Even before the
season of mourning started, the flags were unfurled in battle, God was
marshaled to their side, the ships went sailing, the missiles were loaded, and
the bombers flew off to exact vengeance -- before the culprits were even found.
Now, at a point in the chain of violence only apparently
yielding random effects, they watch in horror as horror upon horror unfolds
before their now unjustifiably innocent eyes -- the jewel in that crown of
horrors almost undoubtedly being Fallujah and its two-thousand missing corpses,
its countless refugees, its use of lethal chemical weapons, napalm (or whatever
its militarily-correct name might be), cluster bombs, ground-zero urban
destruction -- and continued resistance. History is a nightmare from which
they're trying to awake, as Irish writer James Joyce might have told them if
history and literature had carried any real weight in their unfortunate and
quite propagandized education, which presented a constructed view of the world
as "natural," transparent and self-evident, when it was anything but
Today, so many Americans, tortured by despair, hounded by
impotence, fleeing the news, the threats, the dire forecasts of the demise of a
freedom that was only nominally real because unexercised, ask what they should
do. I return to Macaulay's implied advice: "Is it not under oppression
that freedom is exercised?"
To begin with, they must reject the war in Iraq and request
the withdrawal of the troops. The war was illegal. Failing to work for an end
to the war in Iraq means siding with nominated US ambassador to the United
Nations, John Bolton, whose diplomacy is summed up in this statement, "It
is a big mistake for us to grant any legitimacy to international law."
Unless they want him by their side at an ever more imminent Armageddon, as his
mentor, Jesse Helms, wished, Americans had better denounce such infantile and
pernicious boasts. Goering, Bolton's probable counterpart in the Nazi era on
the point of international law, said that the Nazis used the Geneva Conventions
as toilet paper.
Americans must begin to recognize the resistance as a
legitimate form of struggle for independence in Iraq. That, too, is
international law and a human right. The director of the Defense Intelligence
Agency, Vice-Admiral Lowell Jacoby, told the Senate Armed Services Committee a
few days ago that "the insurgency in Iraq has grown in size and complexity
over the past year. Attacks numbered approximately 25 per day a year ago.
Attacks on Iraq's election day reached approximately 300, almost double the
previous one-day high of about 160 during last year's Ramadan. Since January 30
elections, attacks have averaged around 60 per day."
Americans must acknowledge that the shooting of whole
families at checkpoints, the gulag of prisons housing the
"disappeared," the coalition's torture chambers, the bombing of
hospitals, the razing of cities, the elimination of journalists and scholars,
the culture of criminality and beheadings, the national impoverishment by an
unemployment rate of over 50 percent, Abu Ghraib, and the rest of the
slaughterhouse follies that take place in Iraq today are the consequences of
the war and that no democracy will come to Iraq under occupation. Contrary to
what Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush claim, democracy is not on the move in
Iraq. What is on the move are conquest and terror.
Consider that shootings at checkpoints afford Iraqis in
their own land no legal redress. The Financial Times explains: "In such
incidents, the victims have little legal recourse. According to the coalition
order 17, enacted by the US administration shortly after the invasion, military
personnel and most private contractors working in Iraq cannot be brought before
Above all, Americans must begin a process of
de-Americanization -- by ridding themselves, for instance, of the rhetoric of
an Americanism, by now greeted with hollow laughter in the world, broken by the
helpless sobs of the rhetoric�s victims. Take liberty and patriotism, for
instance. Macaulay was speaking of a latter-day school of shabby Greek
historians but he may have been speaking of the Bush faithful: "[They]
brought into fashion an offensive cant about patriotism and zeal for freedom.
What the English Puritans did for the language of Christianity . . . they did
for the language of public spirit. By habitual exaggeration, they made it mean.
By monotonous emphasis, they made it feeble. They abused it till it became
scarcely possible to use it with effect."
And Americans must give up fear. Take the war on terror. We
were launched into this by the events of nine-eleven. Was the crime on that day
commensurate with our actions (100,000 dead Iraqis; 1,500 of our own; 3,000
dead in Afghanistan, and counting) which today have destabilized the world,
increased terrorism, garnered us the pity and contempt of the world for our
violent ways and lack of psychological balance, shredded our Bill of Rights,
and violated our Constitution? Do we want to live in a moral order derived from
normal and ordinary conditions or are we prepared to live in a state of
constant emergency, chasing a form of security without changing our policies,
creating more enemies along the way? The latter is this administration's
preferred choice, for, as Macaulay said, "Their ordinary rules of morality
are deduced from extreme cases. The common regimen they prescribe for society
is made up of those desperate remedies which only the most desperate distempers
Finally, Americans must cease being terrorized by slurs of
insufficient or inadequate love of country. The Nazis coined the meaningless
phrase "anti-German," which they applied to any German unfortunate enough
to love Germany well enough to regret that it had fallen into the Nazis'
vicious clutches. It doesn't require extraordinary wisdom or attainment to love
one's country, anymore than to love one's parents or one's children. What every
American should remember in this hour of his or her country's need for sane and
rational citizens is that where love of country becomes obsessive, morbid, and
intense, this sick love turns "states into gangs of robbers, [gives] a
character of peculiar atrocity to war, and [generates] that worst of all
political evils, the tyranny of nations over nations" (Lord Macaulay).
Bohne teaches film and literature at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She
can be reached at email@example.com.
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