From Liberty Cabbage to Freedom Fries

Or: The Ethical Crisis of the Contemporary American Left

Like many twenty-something liberals, I suppose, until the fall of 2001 when the advent of the War on Terror put a final end to any lingering vestiges of the Long Boom, my political ethics were largely a matter of faith. Raised by moderate parents and educated in schools where leftist catchphrases (for my circle of friends) held something like the status of pep-rally slogans, my political views consisted largely of a laundry-list of government dos and don’ts, cobbled together from the rhetoric of Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, bell hooks, and various NPR personalities. I knew that the government should spend more on schools and less on defense, that the war on drugs was wrongheaded, that big corporations got away with murder and that the environment needed saving.

Although I knew these things, the ethical underpinning of my liberalism was not a subject that I ever much questioned. Or more accurately, it was a question that never arose in a particularly forceful way. And then, with September 11 – and even more acutely when the United States went to war against Iraq – the issue reared its head in a manner that could not be ignored. And to many liberals like myself, more than any other events in recent history these two moments made clear that the American political left is experiencing an ethical crisis, an internal schism over priorities and beliefs that has called into question what it means to be a liberal.

The nature of this crisis was illustrated by Salon.com editor Edward Lempinen when he wrote, in a recent article on the war against Iraq, “it sometimes seems that the left is so averse to war, especially war waged by America, that it is prepared to turn a blind eye to even the most ghastly realities.” It is this crisis that is largely responsible for the inability of the American left to meaningfully address the events surrounding September 11, and that is revealed in almost every conversation about the war against Iraq among liberals when someone says: “I know Saddam is a terrible dictator, but…” and then proceeds to list a catalogue of U.S. hypocrisies and blunders.

What is Liberty? What is Freedom?

By an odd coincidence, the origins of the ethical schism dividing the American left are reflected in two gestures of American defiance via culinary nomenclature. On March 11, 2003, a sign appeared beside cash registers in the Longsworth Cafeteria in Washington, D.C. informing customers that within the establishment French fries would henceforth be known as “Freedom Fries.” It was, as U.S. Representative Bob Ney said, “a small but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France” in opposing the U.S.-led war against Iraq. Similarly, during World War I in response to anti-German public feeling mobilized by Woodrow Wilson’s Committee of Public Information (which distributed pictures of the Evil Hun), the condiment formerly known as sauerkraut became known as “Liberty Cabbage.” This shift – in the use of “liberty” to that of “freedom” as an article of self-description – provides a framework for understanding the crisis of the modern left.

Historically, the English language got “liberty” from the Norman-French liberté and the Latin libertas, abstract nouns which also gave us “liberal” and “liberate.” In medieval history, we can follow the course of libertates, privileges granted by sovereigns to nobles and landed gentry, which in the 17th century became the basis for a generalized notion of liberty. “Freedom,” on the other hand, is a word with Germanic origins: frijon (to love), freis (free) and freihals (freedom), all of which carry the connotation of “without restraint” or “at will.” As far as philology goes, liberty is a privilege granted to individuals while freedom is what arises from the absence of external restrictions.

The difference between liberty and freedom was formalized by John Stuart Mill in his distinction between “positive” and “negative” freedom. According to Mill, negative freedom is the elimination of restraints on individuals; my freedom from mandatory military service, for example, is a negative freedom. If negative freedom is freedom from, positive freedom is freedom to: the empowerment of individuals to realize their goals or needs. Unlike negative freedoms, which result from governments leaving people alone to do what they want, positive freedoms stem from rights that are granted to citizens by a government and typically depend on our following a set of rules. Unemployment insurance and Social Security are examples of positive freedom.

Of course, negative and positive freedoms often depend on each other. My freedom from discrimination (a negative freedom) is only meaningful if I also have the right to find redress for discrimination in court (a positive freedom). Still, the distinction between these two flavors of freedom is an important one, particularly in ethical terms.

Ethically, as far as negative freedom is concerned, almost all roads lead to relativism. This is because if freedom is defined as the absence of restrictions, then any absolute ethical standard becomes a violation of that freedom. Only the ideals of positive freedom, which require a decision about which negative freedoms will be limited for the greater good, can lead to an ethic of social justice that goes beyond simply allowing individuals to live unmolested. After all, any effort for social justice must begin – as Jefferson began the American democratic experiment – with the assertion and defense of truths.

The ethical split within the American political left has corresponded largely with the spread of relativism. A distrust of positive freedom is nothing new in American history, but the decades since the start of the Cold War have seen a dramatic decrease in the faith of Americans that governments can do good – in Mill’s terms, a rejection of the possibilities of positive freedom. Politically, this movement may have its roots in the fact that in the same way Libertarians advocate an extreme version of negative freedom, Communists stand for an extreme application of positive-freedom ideals. (It was this fact that led Isaiah Berlin and other thinkers to conclude that positive freedom ideals often paved the road to totalitarianism. As Berlin pointed out, at the heart of the Fascist and Communist projects was a determination to use political power to liberate human beings whether they liked it or not.)

Today, the Republican Party has cast itself as the defender of negative freedom in the United States. It is the logic of negative freedom that unites the Republican support of the 4th amendment, the reduction of government size, and the rhetoric of “choice” that is employed by Republicans in favor of privatization. Republican fiscal policy bills itself as “free trade,” the economic application of negative freedom.
The most vocal advocate of relativism has not, however, been the Republican Party; it has been the intellectual left. Consider two examples: first, most of the contemporary academic figures who have been influential on the political left (think Barthes, Derrida, etc.) have argued against the possibility of a single, authoritative truth or interpretation for the world. Their emphasis on individual contexts and readings rather than shared experiences forms a philosophic justification for relativism and the ideals of negative freedom.

Second, consider the practical applications of multiculturalism, an iconic cause for the American left. Multiculturalism arose to expand the freedom of individuals to live outside a painfully restrictive idea of social norms. In the real world, this happens through the elimination of laws and mores restricting acceptable behaviors – a textbook example of negative freedom ideals. More loudly than any other group, the mainstream intellectual left has implored liberals in America not to do each other the violence of absolutism, the violence of interpretation.

A Global Sense of Social Justice

This brings us – circuitously – back to the ethical schism of the contemporary American left. In political terms, relativism is invoked most often, and most easily, and the national level. This goes: “I am good liberal because I understand that over in [insert place name], [insert harmless example of cultural difference], and I choose not to pass judgment because for them it means something different.” (For example, try “Papua New Guinea,” and “coming-of-age rituals for boys involve performing fellatio on older men.”) Because of this, it is around foreign policy decisions that the ethical demands of relativism are most acutely felt, accompanying fears of colonialism and cross-cultural misinterpretation (the new bogeyman of the American left).

During much of the Long Boom, American political debate focused on domestic policy issues. For a number of years, this allowed the ethical conflicts of relativism to lie dormant. Since the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks however, the existence of a world larger than North America has impressed itself on American political consciousness. And confronted with issues of foreign policy that demand a response, the ethical contradictions in the American left have become impossible to ignore.

Simply, the widespread acceptance of relativism as a guiding principle in leftist thought has made it difficult for American liberals to formulate an ethics – particularly an international ethics – of positive freedom that does not involve contradiction and hypocrisy. The fact that the comments made by the American political left regarding the War on Terror and the war against Iraq have been couched in almost entirely negative terms is a symptom of this ethical confusion. Similarly, the phrase “I know Saddam is a terrible dictator, but –” is not simply about the weighing of a greater evil against Saddam’s; it also evokes the sense of uncertainty, of unwillingness to judge others, that relativism has taught liberals is key to being an ethical person.

Of course, the difficulty of reconciling relativism with positive freedom ethics is hardly confined to the American political left. Even the Bush administration, that bastion of “moral clarity,” seems ethically confused; at least one reason why Bush’s explanations for the need to fight a war against Iraq have seemed so garbled is that they slip and fumble between positive-freedom explanations (human rights) and negative-freedom ones (self-defense), and in the process lose much of their power. The political left, however, has been affected by the rise of relativism far more seriously than the right, if only because the right traditionally represents negative freedoms (smaller government, less legislation) while the left’s iconic achievements and purpose center on social empowerment via institutions of positive freedom.

In the face of this dilemma, what’s a liberal to do? The understanding and appreciation for difference that relativism provides is too important ignore; relativism cannot simply be discarded. At the same time, it is important to remember that positivism and intervention are also part of the tradition of liberalism. During the Spanish Civil War, leftist intellectuals and artists from around the world took up both metaphorical and literal arms against Franco in the name of civil rights, and later (eventually) supported World War II as a humanitarian struggle.

This is not to suggest that the political left should support the war against Iraq: there are excellent reasons why it should not. Instead, the significant point is that the left has failed to offer any meaningful alternative to the war at all. For example, if anti-war protesters are motivated by concern for the Iraqi public (as many claim) and if Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator (as is broadly acknowledged), where are the marches to help the people of Iraq, to deal with the tyrant in non-military ways? The fact that there are not reveals the relativism at the core of the liberal position: “it’s terrible, but who am I to pass judgment? They’ve left us alone, so let’s leave them alone.” (A mantra that sounds more like indifference each time it’s repeated.)

In the same way that the political left has done little more than condemn the war against Iraq, the left has failed to address the core issues of the War on Terror. Leftists have grumbled about loss of civil liberties, but no real alternative to the Republican logic – “we fight terrorists by bombing them” – has emerged. Where are the liberals arguing that, say, providing education and addressing economic inequality may be a better means of fighting the root causes of terrorism than cruise missiles and listening posts? It is as if the political left has turned its back on foreign policy for reasons of “cultural sensitivity.”

Ironically, in an increasingly interconnected world a global sense of justice is what the political left needs most. Despite the protests of a few, globalization is bound to continue. The spread of the Internet, as well as new global communication and transportation technologies, will lead trans-national organizations like the UN, WTO, and IMF, to play a role of growing importance in shaping the ways we live. Without a willingness to deal in international terms, there is no means for understanding or working with such international organizations.

Some groups, like Greenpeace and Amnesty International, have been remarkably successful at developing a global vision and adopting global tactics. On the whole however, most liberals – and in particular mainstream liberal politics – have failed to do so, or have done so in largely negative terms. To simply complain about the existence of organizations like the WTO (or to embrace isolationism, as many unions have done) is to miss the point: to remain relevant, the American political left must address foreign policy issues rather than hiding its collective head in the sand. And ultimately, such a sense of global justice will need to spring from a reconciliation of relativism and the need for basic human liberties that transcend national boundaries.

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