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 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


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


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


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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