offoffoff opinion
 RELATED PROJECTS

      







 ADVERTISEMENT













Site links
  • OFFOFFOFF Home
  • About OFFOFFOFF
  • Contact us

    Get our newsletter:
     
    Search the site:
     



    Current Opinion


  • Interview: Eric Foner on freedom
  • Interview: George McGovern on Vietnam, Iraq and the election of 1972
  • Interview: Maurice Isserman on the 1960s, Vietnam and Iraq
  • Interview: Thomas Keck on judicial activism and the conservative Supreme Court
  • Interview: Bard O'Neill on Insurgency and Terrorism and the Iraq War

  •  INTERVIEW: ERIC FONER

    Eric Foner on Freedom

    Columbia Professor Eric Foner talks about our ideas of freedom from early America to the current election.

    Continued | Back to part 1

    Q: You also suggest that when the civil rights movement and other social movements came along in the '50s, '60s and '70s, they consciously co-opted the language of freedom to describe what they were after.

      
    ERIC FONER
     

    Columbia Professor Eric Foner, best known for his histories of the Reconstruction era, also published "The Story of American Freedom" in 1998, looking at what the idea of freedom has meant to Americans throughout our country's history. As the word "freedom" cropped up repeatedly in presidential politics, I wanted to talk with Professor Foner about the resonance and meaning of the word and the ideal. Here is an edited transcript of our interview, conducted shortly before the Republican convention in New York.

    Related links: Official site
     RELATED ARTICLES
    State of the Nation

    Interviews about the state of our country from the election to the inauguration.

    • George McGovern on Vietnam, Iraq and the election of 1972
    •  Thomas Keck on judicial activism and the conservative Supreme Court
    • Bard O'Neill on Insurgency, Terrorism and the Iraq War
    • Maurice Isserman on "America Divided"
    • Eric Foner on freedom
     BOOKS FOR SALE 
    Available from Amazon.com:



    Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877



     

    The Story of American Freedom



    ERIC FONER: Yes. Freedom is such a deeply held value in American culture, it's such a positive idea, that various groups have literally worked to try to capture it, going back to the abolitionist movement and then many others later on. And certainly the civil rights movement and then many others inspired by it — they called themselves the freedom movement, they had freedom rides, freedom songs, freedom schools, their cry of "Freedom now!" "Freedom" had been the key word of the Cold War, but in the Cold War version, it had no domestic substance. It didn't allow for any critique of American society. It was just us vs. the Russians.

    The civil rights movement took that idea of freedom and turned it into a demand for change within the United States. And of course, many groups, inspired by this, picked up the word "freedom," or "liberation," which is a kind of a cognate — women's liberation, black liberation, Chicano liberation, Indian liberation. All these groups with grievances picked up the cry of freedom to pick up their own interests and desires. So the '60s were a very volatile time for this idea of freedom.

    Q: It seems to me that the word "freedom" gets conflated with other ideas — and maybe it's inseparable from other ideas — like rights, democracy, self-determination.

    ERIC FONER: Well, freedom is so deeply rooted a value in American life. And I'm not saying other people don't enjoy freedom and desire freedom — obviously they do. But it does seem to occupy a more prominent place in our vocabulary than in many other countries. And as a result of that, as you say, many other values and ideas get absorbed into freedom, so sometimes when people talk about freedom they're really talking about equality, sometimes when they talk about freedom they're really talking about rights, sometimes they're talking about opportunities. But it seems like "freedom" becomes the catch-all to encompass these various kinds of desires and aspirations — which is one of the reasons it's such an amorphous and contradictory term, because two different points of view, quite opposed in many ways, can both claim to be representing freedom.


      
    "Freedom" had been the key word of the Cold War, but in the Cold War version, it had no domestic substance. The civil rights movement took that idea of freedom and turned it into a demand for change within the United States.  

      
    Q: I think if you wanted to, you could look at any of these groups of people trying to claim freedom — including blacks after Reconstruction, for example — and say, well, you're free. You're not in jail, you're not enslaved ...

    ERIC FONER: Well, that depends on what you mean freedom is. But most people have a more substantive view of freedom than just saying, well, if you're not a slave you're free. There are other things that come with it. And at different points in our history, the substantive content of freedom has changed. I mean, back in the Jeffersonian era, if you didn't own land you weren't considered free. The really free person was the person who was economically independent. Well, today that's not relevant, obviously. Most people are not farmers working on their own soil. At other times, one group's freedom may represent a threat to another group. For example, men have often felt like being head of a family is part of their freedom, but that often depends on the subordination of women, and when women, at various points, have claimed their own definition of freedom, it has been very challenging to a lot of men. So this is a never-ending story of a constant redefinition of what this value really represents.

    Q: Is freedom necessarily individual?

    ERIC FONER: Not at all. When the black movement of the '60s saw it as a collective endeavor by a people to gain greater dignity and rights and self-determination, it involved both individual rights and a community advancement, so to speak. In American history, generally speaking, I would say freedom tends to be associated with the free individual, but there are plenty of examples the other way, also.

    Q: One of the things that struck me in your book was when you wrote: "President Jimmy Carter himself warned that the nation faced a 'crisis of confidence.' He blamed it, in part, on Americans' 'mistaken idea of freedom' which privileged 'self-indulgence and consumption' at the expense of devotion to a common national purpose." I might think of a "common national purpose" as contrary to individual freedom.

    ERIC FONER: Well, Carter was grasping at straws to some extent. This was the famous "malaise" speech, where the country was in serious economic straits in the mid- to late 1970s. Carter came from a very religious background, as we know, and there is this strand in America — it's a subordinate strand, but it's certainly visible and it's around today — in which freedom means subordinating yourself to a moral cause.

    Back in 1645, John Winthrop, the governor of colonial Massachusetts, gave this famous speech which I quote at the beginning of my book. He said there are two kinds of freedom. There is what he called "natural freedom," and that's what we think freedom is — the right to do what you feel like. He said that's not freedom at all, that's the freedom of animals. Animals run around doing whatever they want — that's not a human freedom. The human freedom is self-restraint. It's committing yourself to a Christian ethos, and abiding by rules that you choose to abide by, and devoting yourself to a higher cause than just self-indulgence.

      
      Carter is saying, 300 years later, pretty much what Winthrop did in the 17th century. That's a different vision of freedom, a Christian freedom, it's the moral freedom. You might say it's the difference between freedom being the right to choose, or freedom being choosing the right.
      
    So in a sense, Carter is saying, 300 years later, pretty much what Winthrop did in the 17th century. That's a different vision of freedom, a Christian freedom, it's the moral freedom. You might say it's the difference between freedom being the right to choose, or freedom being choosing the right. And it goes back to the ancient Greeks. There were those who said you can be a slave to your passions. The person who just seeks immediate gratification is not free — he's enslaved to his immediate desires. The truly free person is the one who can exert self-discipline over himself. Well, that's not a main theme in America — certainly not today, where going to the mall and shopping is considered a key element of freedom — but Carter is in that subordinate, but definitely present, tradition.

    Q: I was going to ask you about going to the mall and shopping, because it seemed to me that before '89, we defined ourselves in contrast to the communists as not only being free but being envied for what we have.

    ERIC FONER: Prosperity was part of freedom. Yeah, that's true, and we would always denigrate the fact, correctly, that the Soviets did not have a lot of consumer goods and they were shoddy. You know, in 1959, Richard Nixon, then the vice president, went over to Russia to open the American Exposition, Nixon gave a speech that was entitled "What Freedom Means to Us." And he didn't talk about civil liberties, he didn't talk about democracy — he talked about the fact that we've got 72 million TVs in this country, and 65 million cars, and you can buy a refrigerator in white or green or mauve or any color you want, and it's this freedom of choice in the marketplace, and consumer prosperity, that is the essence of freedom. Now that's not what Jefferson would have said, you can be sure of that. That's a modern, 20th-century vision of freedom as being able to partake in this cornucopia of goods that are produced for the marketplace.

    And today, after all, what did President Bush say we should do after Sept. 11 to fight terrorism? Did he say we should sacrifice? Let's raise taxes to raise money to go fight? No. He said, go out and spend. Go about your life, go spend, because that is your freedom. That will show them that we are not altering our lifestyle because of the threat of terrorism. Going with your credit card to the mall became a form of standing up for freedom, and that's a very modern, recent idea of what freedom is all about.

    Q: Although you could say that it's consistent with the freedom from want.

    ERIC FONER: Yeah, but this is far more than freedom from want. This is freedom of indulgence. In fact, during the Second World War, when there were these famous paintings that Norman Rockwell did of the Four Freedoms, and one of them was the freedom from want — this family at the dinner table with this gigantic Thanksgiving turkey — some people criticized it as, "This is not freedom from want, this is freedom of gluttony. This is overkill, really." There's a line going through this, but it was really, as you say, in the Cold War that this became a main point of distinction between the United States with its vast array of consumer goods and the Soviets, who didn't have that.


    Continued: Previous | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next

    OCTOBER 25, 2004
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK



    Post a comment on "Eric Foner"