There’s a lot of talk about "freedom" these days.
A lot of very noisy talk demanding the "liberation" of the entire world. About giving people their freedom because, well, it really is God’s gift after all. We are just enabling them — and their women, we must never forget their women — to be free. And because we will never be safe until they are free.
We are an empire, but an "empire of liberty," they say. And that’s not such a bad thing. Love and obedience, yes, we demand that, but it’s not like we’re Commies or Nazis or anything…
Actually, I don’t really know for sure what freedom’s partisans are imbibing, not first hand. I don’t listen to the kinds of people who self-righteously and angrily thump their chests in favor of other people’s "freedom." Oh, I wander around the op-ed pages and get the more reputable versions of this nonsense, the version brewed and distilled by the likes of Anne Applebaum or Charles Krauthammer.
And that version, frankly, is stomach churning enough, without grasping for the bottle of "XXX" homebrewed by bloggers across the country.
But I’ll be honest. I don’t have the stomach or the will to wander into the jungles of darkest Blogistan with a machete and a platoon of sepoys and face the monsters — sorry, the liberators — on my own. I have an honest day job, plus theology (The Book of Concord; if I have become Lutheran, then I ought to know what it is I’ve gotten myself into), metallurgy and music to study and work on. I have a life, my own life, and damned if I’m going to let a cohort of freepers, lurking GOP brownshirts or American Prospect "intellectuals" anonymously push all my buttons for no good reason.
Besides, others have trekked deep into that jungle for me (or mixed that firewater drink, since I hacked those metaphor to pieces and served them shaken and stirred). So I’ll cautiously take their word for it.
It’s an odd freedom they, and our president, the noble Bush Jong Il, say their believe in. Bush talks a good game of liberty, that it is God’s gift to humanity, but you can tell that neither he, nor any of his minions, really believes it.
No, from all their actions and all their policies, they clearly believe that freedom is the gift of good government. This whole Middle East crusade is ostensibly billed as an attempt to create good government so that men and women can be free. (That sets aside the whole "beat the crap out of the Arabs so they’ll get they need to bow and scrape to the Americans and the Israelis forever and ever" motive, which clearly moves some inside and around this administration, but probably doesn’t make Bush Jong Il’s top-ten justifications; and it sets aside the whole "let’s grab the oil," which I don’t believe was a significant motive for anyone but Dick Cheney, who is not — repeat NOT — a real oilman by any stretch of the imagination.) Yet it is clear that Team Bush — and the whole polluted conservative, crony capitalist establishment — acts little differently than would a salon of Fabian Socialists. Freedom is the "gift" of good government, of enlightened and rightly guided elites, and nothing more.
Put a different way, their words say freedom is freely given to men by God, but their actions betray their own belief that they are the church that holds the keys and controls access to that sacrament. They have the power to bestow it and deny it. They can bless. And excommunicate.
Given this, it’s clear — they don’t really believe that people are born free.
Near as I can tell, there are several very funny things about this stunted government freedom. First, it has no real definition. It is merely what "being American" is. It’s an essence, and I suppose if we could bottle it, we could eventually bottle it more cheaply overseas (which I think is what we’re trying to do). Now, I’ve grown to love this country (I didn’t always), mainly because I’ve been abroad enough to realize it’s my home. But I’ve also lived abroad enough to know… No, that comes later.
It’s the biggest single problem Americans have always had — we espouse a universal ideal, in this case freedom and liberty, but also seem to believe that no one other than us is capable of really living up to it (because they aren’t white, or Christian, or whatever). We are freedom incarnate in the same way Christ was God incarnate. Only we’ve come to sacrifice the world to our nobility and goodness.
(How many times have I heard nationalistic yahoos on the shortwave talk about America the "Christ-like" nation, and did they ever consider the implications of that theology?)
The second thing is that this is a freedom that is inseparable from being governed. And from government. This is the kind of nonsense you might hear at an unending Socialist Workers Party meeting or if you spent too much time fund raising and campaigning for one of these supposed non-governmental organizations. There is no personal, no being left alone, no non-political space, no place where the power of the state or ideology do not intrude.
Nice to know the Republican Party swallowed — and was swallowed by — the New Left. Did it taste good?
Why are we here, at this web site? Because, I’m guessing, most of us have an idea of freedom that didn’t come from George Soros, or a Georgetown graduate seminar in political theory, or a Young Americans for Freedom rally, or rural county Lincoln Day dinner with a bunch of farmers and ranchers demanding state-mandated school prayer, war on the darkies and higher crop subsidies.
We are here, I think, because we understand that freedom comes first. Freedom is not the result of good government, it is the cause of good government. We believe — no, we know — that men and women are free by their nature, and do not need or desire government programs, support or "encouragement" (the tips of bayonets and the turrets of tanks) to be free. We know that freedom is not about political parties, about ideologies, about programs. Freedom is about choices — what does life mean, how will I live it, what will I live for, who will I love, who will I hate, what will I die for.
We also know that while governments often get in the way of these choices, men and women — regardless of what society they live in — will make those choices, no matter what the state, culture, religion, family and tradition say.
I lived in Saudi Arabia for six months last year. Not as long as a lot of Americans, but I had several advantages many didn’t — a desire to get out and meet people, a working knowledge of the local language, and a limited understanding of the place from knowing a number of Saudi Islamic scholars (a few dissidents among them) and working at their embassy here in Washington, D.C., for a year. I know something about the place, and not just because I palled around with a few junior Al Saud princes or public relations people either.
A few people on this website have gone so far as to describe Saudi Arabia as a fascist state. And a few (many?) of Bush Jong Il’s more fervent supporters would like to add the kingdom to the list of places slated for regime change because it is one of the least free places on earth, a veritable North Korea with a whole lot of oil. (What they want to change it to they don’t say. Hashemites, I’m guessing, but why a change from one royal family to another is "democratic" is beyond me, unless pliability is another great quality of other people’s "free" governments.)
Now, I didn’t get the chance to wander the entire country. Visa problems made that impossible. I spent my entire time in Jeddah, a very liberal city in a not-so-liberal country. Not having spent quality time in Riyadh, Dammam, Madina, Makka, Asir province or Qassim province, I cannot speak for the whole country.
But to call Saudi Arabia a fascist state, or an aspiring member of the "Axis of Evil" is foolish. It is neither. In fact, I would wager that the average Saudi, especially small business owners, probably spends less time dealing with the state (there is only one "the government" in Saudi Arabia, as opposed to all the various levels of "the government" we have here) than his or her typical American counterpart. So far as I know, there are no income, sales or property taxes in Saudi Arabia. And joining the WTO will actually allow the kingdom to raise its tariffs.
A state that does not tax has a hard time collecting data or regulating anything. Remember that.
Fascism, as we understand it, required veneration of The Leader. The only pictures of "the leader," the incontinent and incoherent King Fahd bin Abd al-Aziz, were to be found on television during either the news (and not always) or the nightly patriotic montage that Channel 1 would run before shutting down for the night. (Remember that quaint custom of actually not broadcasting at all hours?) The "leader" who mattered was the founder, King Abd al-Aziz, and the only public pictures of him you’d see were usually drawn by children on the outside walls of National Guard bases. And there was only one in the city I knew of that I passed regularly, so that was the only image of any leader I ever saw.
The kingdom is a creaky autocracy. Yes, you can go to jail if you say too loudly in public that "the king is a fink" (and the polls numbers here of the people who would like criticism of Bush Jong Il and his esteemed government outlawed for "the duration"?), though you can sometimes be assured that family connections will keep the damage to a minimum. But I never met a Saudi afraid to criticize the government in the privacy of their own homes, an office or even in a public place — that kind of fear is largely absent. It’s no police state either. There simply aren’t enough cops on the street for the place to qualify as a police state, and the cops you see — traffic cops — aren’t well-armed enough and too busy motioning the cars on. Yes, there is a "church police," the mutawwa, but I only saw them once during my whole six-month stay in Jeddah, one night in Balad (the giant souq at the center of the old city), when two of the robed enforcers of virtue and preventers of vice encountered two young Filipinas walking about with their heads uncovered. They shook their fingers vigorously at the two young women who in turn… walked on, beautiful black hair blowing free in the breeze.
And nothing happened.
More importantly, many Saudis understand the freedom of choosing how to live. I met many liberal Saudi Muslims who understood there is little difference between the bearded people of the Ministry of Religion and al-Qaeda and wanted neither, I met a few Saudi atheists, Saudi communists (inspired more by Franz Fanon than by Marx), and a couple of gay Saudi men (I understand that Riyadh has quite a gay nightlife, or was that not the kind of freedom you wingnuts were thinking about?) who live cautious but fairly satisfied gay lives. I worked with Saudi women who, with the encouragement of family, were striving to learn what it took to be a reporter in a country with very little culture of openness or press freedom. In a country where mixed gender offices are haram — forbidden.
Now, Saudi Arabia is not a Hoppean monarchy by any stretch of the imagination. It is a "modern" state in form and structure laid upon a non-feudal monarchy consisting not of cascading layers of sovereignty and separate noble families, but a single extended royal family that is often so interwoven with that state it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other starts. There is no questioning the rule of that royal family. People do disappear. And you can lose a government job for criticizing the government. But those things happen in a lot of places. Places the US government — especially the Bush family — likes. A lot. Like Saudi Arabia, come to think of it.
Where the Saudis really have it wrong, in my view, is the fact that being a Saudi automatically makes one Muslim. Kierkegaard pointed out that when the state imparts a religion as a right of birth, then the religion itself becomes meaningless. I’ve had a few Saudis themselves point out that prayers made at the threat of a caning are prayers that cannot mean much. However, Saudis — Nejdis, Hejazis, Asiris, whatever — are unwilling to consider a definition of being Saudi, individually or collectively, that does not include being Muslim.
(But near as I can tell, their notion of non-compulsion of faith is little different than Martin Luther’s in his Small Catechism.)
And this brings us to an important point. This government freedom espoused by our opponents on the Right and Left — in the blowhard think tanks and the money-wasting foundations — has one more unfortunate trait — it believes both in correct practice and correct outcome. It is not just necessary that Ukrainians (as an example; don’t take this as an endorsement of any side in Ukraine, because I simply do not care how they govern themselves, or not, as the case may be) have "free" elections, but they must elect the right leader in order for that election to be "free." Freedom is both right process and right outcome, is whatever "we" would do if we were them. But what if a group of people freely arrive at a conclusion that we would not arrive at? What if they freely want something that we don’t want?
The "freedom" peddled by our opponents fails to consider this as a legitimate possibility. And that it is because it is no freedom at all. Arabs and Muslims clearly want for themselves something we do not want for them. Now, I have problems with a lot of what they want, because they are focused on wanting to be powerful and important people, wanting to live in a powerful and strong nation like it was 1,000 years ago. I don’t want that for my own country (I honestly don’t, and I’d really like someone to explain to me why a military and politically powerful United States is in my personal interests, and why it merits the loss of a single human life), much less anyone else’s. It is too collectivist an idea, too much focuses on we and us. Many of the people know what they don’t want — theocracy, secularism, pluralism, domination by the US and Israel — but they aren’t sure quite how to get what they want.
But that is for them to sort out. And given what I saw in Jeddah, I’m fairly confident they will eventually get the answer on their own, through a lot of trial and error, while posing little danger to us.
After the Great War of 1914—18, a darkness settled upon the world, and men and women gave up their faith in liberty. They sought comfort in conformity, in the romance of collectivism, in surrender to the state. They sought succor in a Leader who could articulate a vision and represent the nation. Between the wars, liberalism — as we understand it — had few defenders on either side of the Atlantic, subsumed as it was in a fight over which form of illiberalism would win.
We are entering, I believe, another illiberal age, an age in which frightened men and women who have known little real hardship and have had their fears and anger stoked to white heat surrender to a Leader with a Vision. Whether this new illiberal age will prove as destructive as the last one remains to be seen. Regardless, the desire to choose one’s own meaning for life will survive, even prosper, because there simply is no way of making unfreedom a permanent part of the nature of men and women short of breeding it out. And I don’t see that as a possibility either.
So go live your lives. And loudly encourage others to do so as well. It is the most important and subversive thing you can do. Ever. Anywhere.
Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.