Rediscovering America

“The desire for freedom,” the second President Bush once remarked, “resides in every human heart. …  Over time, and across the Earth, freedom will find a way.” There was a time when every American would have said much the same thing. But today that observation seems self-evidently untrue — a hope, a wish, but hardly a statement of fact. Nor did those supposedly yearning to be free see their liberty snatched away from them by would-be tyrants. Time after time, freedom is not rejected by newly minted despots but by the people themselves, who increasingly have questions about what we Americans have always seen as our great contribution to human history — the idea of equal liberty.

This growing distrust of liberty became ever more apparent to me starting just over 10 years ago, when I was in Iraq trying to help the Iraqis rebuild their shattered higher educational system as Senior Adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education. I arrived not long after Baghdad fell. We were accompanied by many Iraqis who had suffered under the reign of Saddam Hussein. They worked as our assistants, translators, drivers, and advisers. Many, if not most, harbored thoughts of someday coming to America, leaving that ferocious hellhole far behind.

Over the months, however, their image of America began to tarnish, and a few began to change their minds. Not because they no longer saw America as the land of freedom and infinite possibilities, but because they did. With freedom came risks and few guarantees. Some were concerned that they might not get a job, or a good job, in the States. In Iraq, after all, everyone was assured a job, even under Saddam. Some told me they worried that, after coming to America, they might be evicted from their apartment, or fired for no good reason. Stories were everywhere that in America the boss could give your job away to someone else, or the company might go under, or the landlord might think he could get more from other tenants — and they’d all wind up homeless. Yes, many of them had relatives in America who told them that it wasn’t anything like that; but they all now had TV, and they all heard the endlessly hyped media stories about the homeless, the unemployed, and the uninsured.

 Yes, they knew that in a free country there might be no limit to how far one might rise, or what one’s children might accomplish. But there were no assurances either, and many of them had been so cowed by tyranny and enervated by an always-watchful socialist state that they were scared: beaten down and, in a sense, infantilized. Freedom now seemed not exhilarating but frightening.

If the first concern the Iraqis had about freedom was the uncertainty of it, the second and far more serious problem was what they saw as freedom’s destructive side — especially its seemingly corrosive effect on religion, on morality, and on the family. This was a much deeper problem, one that couldn’t be deflected by any talk of social-welfare projects and safety nets. I remember one earnest young man from the State Department telling a group of tribal leaders that, yes, Americans enjoyed extensive freedom of religion. In the U.S., a person could practice his religion without fear of persecution. As far as I could tell, this seemed to everyone assembled a reasonably good thing. The young man then added that not only would no one be persecuted for his beliefs, but religious people of every creed lived peacefully and equally with one another, even with people who chose not to believe in God at all. With that, you could see the thought come across every face: “Why is this so good? Why would anyone be proud of a place where ignoring God is something people praise?” Finally someone asked what amounted to this: “Could a person in America be free to speak against God, or curse God?” To which the awkward response was, “Well, yes. I mean, in America we have freedom of speech as well as of religion, so, er, while I’m not saying that would be a good thing…” The answer was, of course, true, and for any number of important reasons we Americans would not change it. But to the assembled believers, what we see as central and vital freedoms seemed impious, wicked, and dangerous.

There were, to be sure, even more awkward things about American liberty that my Iraqi friends had never heard of. I’m certain they did not know that a few years before, public funds in America were used to subsidize the showing, as “art,” of a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine. When Christian groups protested, they were met with jeers from those lawyerly and sophisticated Americans who proclaimed that freedom of expression and artistic rights could not be trammeled. Christians in Iraq were few, but even non-Christians might feel that if this was what Americans thought of as “freedom,” they’d just as soon forgo the pleasure. Nor could they have seen a future time when our State Department would denounce, as a flagrant violation of political rights and free expression, the imprisonment of a group of Russian women who styled themselves a “pussy riot” after having desecrated the sanctuary of St. Savior’s Cathedral in Moscow. Was this what America’s great defense of “rights” had degenerated to — defending the desecration of churches?

But the discomfort I saw among so many in the Middle East went beyond the way liberty seemed to undermine traditional religious notions. I was present, in 2004, for the revelations in Iraq about the abuses at the prison at Abu Ghraib. As reported in the press, Abu Ghraib was the locus of American coercion and torture. But that wasn’t exactly how the Iraqis viewed it. Torture, as every Iraqi knew, sometimes firsthand, was done with acid, amputations, red-hot metal, or electric drills to the back. Here, instead of torture and physical pain, Iraqis saw debasement — sexual humiliation, not disfigurement. Iraqi men were forced onto other men while American soldiers, including women, watched. Iraqis were made to strip naked and walk on all fours like dogs, with a smiling woman reservist holding the leash. Iraqi prisoners were raped by other men, or forced to watch while a female American soldier had sex with her paramour. In the end, what my Iraqi friends saw was the joy the Americans seemed to display at degrading not only Iraqis, but themselves as well. This was moral, not physical, degeneracy — disfigurement not of the body but of the soul.

Is this what they do in the land of the free? Those of us who were in Iraq at the time tried to portray the happenings at Abu Ghraib as an aberration. But the Iraqis saw it as something cultural, something that grew naturally out of a society that had now “liberated” itself from all the shackles of conventional morality. To those I met abroad there was — and will be for many years — nothing more important than religion, honor, and family. And it seemed that it was exactly those things that contemporary America has set in its sights to flatten.

Let me be as blunt as I can: To much of the world, America seems to have reached a point today where there is no longer a line separating rights from desires, or liberty from what used to be called licentiousness. Indeed, many of our fellow citizens agree that any attempt to draw such a line must stem from either nasty prejudice or religious hokum. Even within the Republican Party, the partisans of traditional morality, of “family values,” seem to be losing ground every day to a surging libertarian wing, a faction whose policies on drug use, unfettered freedom of expression, and sometimes abortion seem indistinguishable from those on the left. How many of the old political and social constraints on what used to be viewed as wrong or immoral behavior are now gone, in the name of personal freedom and various “rights”? Of those that still exist, how many are ridiculed all across the nation, particularly on the coasts?

We talk endlessly about how we have to understand others in this more multicultural age. But we seem blind to the most important things that make other cultures “other.” So we act in ways they find perplexing at best and shameful at worse, then wonder why the seeds of democratic liberty we have tried to plant abroad seem not to take root. We have viewed every desire a potential “right”; weakened conventional social order in the name of self-expression and freedom; set aside older views of obligation, self-restraint, responsibility, decency, and morality; and condemned as religious prejudice any preference for traditional family arrangements. And having done all this, we’ve made freedom the father of what the vast majority of the world understands to be ignoble and immoral.

 To the world, what was once a most beautiful thing, the American promise of liberty, now seems to have lost much of her loveliness.

It would be wrong to leave you with the impression that the problem with our postmodern understanding of liberty is primarily an issue of foreign policy or a problem of how others view America from abroad. These new understandings of liberty have had at least two deleterious effects on our country domestically, too.

First, the development of new “rights” — usually rights imposed judicially or developed in bureaucratic offices — has undermined what have long been thought to be the most basic rights of a free society. Can a family business conduct its affairs with deference to its religious beliefs, or even its philosophical beliefs, or must it bend its practices to the demands of others claiming newer rights? Will religious groups be able to believe whatever they choose, but not act on their faith? How many will be shamed into silence for fear of losing their jobs, or be accused of bias, prejudice, or even hatred, for expressing what were, until yesterday, ordinary opinions and traditional views?

Let’s turn from the public square to the halls of academia. I’ve been a professor long enough to know that there is more freedom of discussion around any random family dinner table than there is on most university campuses. What were once America’s foundational freedoms — religion, property, speech, deliberation — have all been truncated in university settings under enforced “sensitivity” and the latest versions of contemporary “rights.”

But the problem goes further. Liberty, it is true, has always had a worrisome side. Left free, speech could be fraudulent, libelous, obscene. The rightful pursuit of property could sometimes become mere selfishness, rapaciousness, greed. Laws, of course, could rectify the worst abuses of liberty. But a decent society always relied on a few things more. Let’s call them “conservative” things: traditional moral teachings, religion, admonitions to self-restraint, and long-respected historical conventions. These, often more than laws, had the potential to keep liberty from degenerating into license. But it is exactly these things — religion, convention, tradition, morality — that are now seen not as moderating our selfish demands and helping to make our liberty civil, but as the enemies of liberty itself.

Finally, since these new rights are, as I said, most often imposed judicially or proclaimed by administrative fiat, what is lost is perhaps the most central and inestimable right that any free society can have: the right of the people to govern themselves.