From Liberty Cabbage to Freedom Fries

Or: The Ethical Crisis of the Contemporary American Left

Like many twenty-something liberals, I suppose, until thefall of 2001 when the advent of the War on Terror put a finalend to any lingering vestiges of the Long Boom, my politicalethics were largely a matter of faith. Raised by moderateparents and educated in schools where leftist catchphrases(for my circle of friends) held something like the statusof pep-rally slogans, my political views consisted largelyof a laundry-list of government dos and don’ts, cobbledtogether from the rhetoric of Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, bellhooks, and various NPR personalities. I knew that the governmentshould spend more on schools and less on defense, that thewar on drugs was wrongheaded, that big corporations got awaywith murder and that the environment needed saving.

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

The nature of this crisis was illustrated by Salon.com editorEdward Lempinen when he wrote, in a recent article on thewar against Iraq, “it sometimes seems that the leftis so averse to war, especially war waged by America, thatit is prepared to turn a blind eye to even the most ghastlyrealities.” It is this crisis that is largely responsiblefor the inability of the American left to meaningfully addressthe events surrounding September 11, and that is revealedin almost every conversation about the war against Iraq amongliberals when someone says: “I know Saddam is a terribledictator, but…” and then proceeds to list a catalogueof U.S. hypocrisies and blunders.

What is Liberty? What is Freedom?

By an odd coincidence, the origins of the ethical schismdividing the American left are reflected in two gestures ofAmerican defiance via culinary nomenclature. On March 11,2003, a sign appeared beside cash registers in the LongsworthCafeteria in Washington, D.C. informing customers that withinthe establishment French fries would henceforth be known as“Freedom Fries.” It was, as U.S. RepresentativeBob Ney said, “a small but symbolic effort to show thestrong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actionsof our so-called ally, France” in opposing the U.S.-ledwar against Iraq. Similarly, during World War I in responseto anti-German public feeling mobilized by Woodrow Wilson’sCommittee of Public Information (which distributed picturesof the Evil Hun), the condiment formerly known as sauerkrautbecame known as “Liberty Cabbage.” This shift– in the use of “liberty” to that of “freedom”as an article of self-description – provides a frameworkfor understanding the crisis of the modern left.

Historically, the English language got “liberty”from the Norman-French liberté and the Latinlibertas, abstract nouns which also gave us “liberal”and “liberate.” In medieval history, we can followthe course of libertates, privileges granted by sovereignsto nobles and landed gentry, which in the 17th century becamethe 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, libertyis a privilege granted to individuals while freedom is whatarises from the absence of external restrictions.

The difference between liberty and freedom was formalizedby John Stuart Mill in his distinction between “positive”and “negative” freedom. According to Mill, negativefreedom is the elimination of restraints on individuals; myfreedom from mandatory military service, for example, is anegative freedom. If negative freedom is freedom from, positivefreedom is freedom to: the empowerment of individuals to realizetheir goals or needs. Unlike negative freedoms, which resultfrom governments leaving people alone to do what they want,positive freedoms stem from rights that are granted to citizensby a government and typically depend on our following a setof rules. Unemployment insurance and Social Security are examplesof positive freedom.

Of course, negative and positive freedoms often depend oneach other. My freedom from discrimination (a negative freedom)is only meaningful if I also have the right to find redressfor discrimination in court (a positive freedom). Still, thedistinction between these two flavors of freedom is an importantone, particularly in ethical terms.

Ethically, as far as negative freedom is concerned, almostall roads lead to relativism. This is because if freedom isdefined as the absence of restrictions, then any absoluteethical standard becomes a violation of that freedom. Onlythe ideals of positive freedom, which require a decision aboutwhich negative freedoms will be limited for the greater good,can lead to an ethic of social justice that goes beyond simplyallowing individuals to live unmolested. After all, any effortfor social justice must begin – as Jefferson began theAmerican democratic experiment – with the assertionand defense of truths.

The ethical split within the American political left hascorresponded largely with the spread of relativism. A distrustof positive freedom is nothing new in American history, butthe decades since the start of the Cold War have seen a dramaticdecrease in the faith of Americans that governments can dogood – in Mill’s terms, a rejection of the possibilitiesof positive freedom. Politically, this movement may have itsroots in the fact that in the same way Libertarians advocatean extreme version of negative freedom, Communists stand foran extreme application of positive-freedom ideals. (It wasthis fact that led Isaiah Berlin and other thinkers to concludethat positive freedom ideals often paved the road to totalitarianism.As Berlin pointed out, at the heart of the Fascist and Communistprojects was a determination to use political power to liberatehuman beings whether they liked it or not.)

Today, the Republican Party has cast itself as the defenderof negative freedom in the United States. It is the logicof negative freedom that unites the Republican support ofthe 4th amendment, the reduction of government size, and therhetoric of “choice” that is employed by Republicansin favor of privatization. Republican fiscal policy billsitself as “free trade,” the economic applicationof negative freedom.
The most vocal advocate of relativism has not, however, beenthe Republican Party; it has been the intellectual left. Considertwo examples: first, most of the contemporary academic figureswho 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. Theiremphasis on individual contexts and readings rather than sharedexperiences forms a philosophic justification for relativismand the ideals of negative freedom.

Second, consider the practical applications of multiculturalism,an iconic cause for the American left. Multiculturalism aroseto expand the freedom of individuals to live outside a painfullyrestrictive idea of social norms. In the real world, thishappens through the elimination of laws and mores restrictingacceptable behaviors – a textbook example of negativefreedom ideals. More loudly than any other group, the mainstreamintellectual left has implored liberals in America not todo each other the violence of absolutism, the violence ofinterpretation.

A Global Sense of Social Justice

This brings us – circuitously – back to theethical schism of the contemporary American left. In politicalterms, relativism is invoked most often, and most easily,and the national level. This goes: “I am good liberalbecause I understand that over in [insert place name], [insertharmless example of cultural difference], and I choose notto pass judgment because for them it means something different.”(For example, try “Papua New Guinea,” and “coming-of-agerituals for boys involve performing fellatio on older men.”)Because of this, it is around foreign policy decisions thatthe ethical demands of relativism are most acutely felt, accompanyingfears of colonialism and cross-cultural misinterpretation(the new bogeyman of the American left).

During much of the Long Boom, American political debate focusedon domestic policy issues. For a number of years, this allowedthe ethical conflicts of relativism to lie dormant. Sincethe September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks however, the existenceof a world larger than North America has impressed itselfon American political consciousness. And confronted with issuesof foreign policy that demand a response, the ethical contradictionsin the American left have become impossible to ignore.

Simply, the widespread acceptance of relativism as a guidingprinciple in leftist thought has made it difficult for Americanliberals to formulate an ethics – particularly an internationalethics – of positive freedom that does not involve contradictionand hypocrisy. The fact that the comments made by the Americanpolitical left regarding the War on Terror and the war againstIraq have been couched in almost entirely negative terms isa 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 againstSaddam’s; it also evokes the sense of uncertainty, ofunwillingness to judge others, that relativism has taughtliberals is key to being an ethical person.

Of course, the difficulty of reconciling relativism with positivefreedom ethics is hardly confined to the American politicalleft. Even the Bush administration, that bastion of “moralclarity,” seems ethically confused; at least one reasonwhy Bush’s explanations for the need to fight a waragainst Iraq have seemed so garbled is that they slip andfumble between positive-freedom explanations (human rights)and negative-freedom ones (self-defense), and in the processlose much of their power. The political left, however, hasbeen affected by the rise of relativism far more seriouslythan the right, if only because the right traditionally representsnegative freedoms (smaller government, less legislation) whilethe left’s iconic achievements and purpose center onsocial 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 relativismprovides is too important ignore; relativism cannot simplybe discarded. At the same time, it is important to rememberthat positivism and intervention are also part of the traditionof liberalism. During the Spanish Civil War, leftist intellectualsand artists from around the world took up both metaphoricaland literal arms against Franco in the name of civil rights,and later (eventually) supported World War II as a humanitarianstruggle.

This is not to suggest that the political left should supportthe war against Iraq: there are excellent reasons why it shouldnot. Instead, the significant point is that the left has failedto offer any meaningful alternative to the war at all. Forexample, if anti-war protesters are motivated by concern forthe Iraqi public (as many claim) and if Saddam Hussein isa brutal dictator (as is broadly acknowledged), where arethe marches to help the people of Iraq, to deal withthe tyrant in non-military ways? The fact that there are notreveals 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’srepeated.)

In the same way that the political left has done little morethan condemn the war against Iraq, the left has failed toaddress the core issues of the War on Terror. Leftists havegrumbled about loss of civil liberties, but no real alternativeto the Republican logic – “we fight terroristsby bombing them” – has emerged. Where are theliberals arguing that, say, providing education and addressingeconomic inequality may be a better means of fighting theroot causes of terrorism than cruise missiles and listeningposts? It is as if the political left has turned its backon foreign policy for reasons of “cultural sensitivity.”

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

Some groups, like Greenpeace and Amnesty International, havebeen remarkably successful at developing a global vision andadopting 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 negativeterms. To simply complain about the existence of organizationslike the WTO (or to embrace isolationism, as many unions havedone) is to miss the point: to remain relevant, the Americanpolitical left must address foreign policy issues rather thanhiding its collective head in the sand. And ultimately, sucha sense of global justice will need to spring from a reconciliationof relativism and the need for basic human liberties thattranscend national boundaries.

Share this story