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  • 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


    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 2

    Q: If you took an American off the street today and asked them what freedom is all about, what do you think they would think of?


    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.

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    Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877


    The Story of American Freedom

    ERIC FONER: Freedom has become very personalized. Very often people say, "It's the right to pursue my own lifestyle." It's to choose how you dress, and how you behave yourself, and how you wear your hair, and what your sexual orientation is. How you conduct your life, in a private, personal manner, is what freedom seems to mostly be. Then, of course, there are the civil-liberties people who say freedom of speech, freedom of expression, the right to criticism the government, etc. But most of our thinking about freedom is very much in this individualized form, and often very "negative" in that there's this lack of restraint — being able to do things without anyone else putting restraints on you. So it's a series of negatives — it's not paying taxes and not having a government bureaucracy and not being beholden to anybody.

    Q: There's certainly a strong sentiment among Republicans today that economic freedom is one of the paramount freedoms.

    ERIC FONER: But their definition of economic freedom — which is the right of the free flow of capital around the world, the international globalization of things without any restraints — that's one definition of freedom. There's another definition out there — the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote a book called "Development and Freedom," in which he said poverty is the greatest threat to freedom. Economic insecurity is the greatest threat to freedom. People who are living in impoverished circumstances are not really free. In fact, the free flow of capital around the world actually creates economic instability in many places. So, as always, these things are debated. There is today a dominant view, but it's not by any means the only one out there.

    Freedom has become very personalized. Very often people say, "It's the right to pursue my own lifestyle." It's to choose how you dress, and how you behave yourself, and how you wear your hair, and what your sexual orientation is. How you conduct your life, in a private, personal manner, is what freedom seems to mostly be.  

    Q: Few people, aside from actual Libertarian Party members, are willing to go all the way and say we should have as close to absolute freedom as we can. There are few people who want people to freely be able to use drugs, for example.

    ERIC FONER: Right. There are contradictions all over the place, but that's the nature of this debate about freedom. As you said, the Republican Party contains both very strong libertarians, who believe that the government should not in any way interfere with your life — you want to take drugs? Victimless crimes. Obviously, if you go out and shoot someone, that's a crime and the government should do something. But taking drugs is your own decision for yourself, and they say that's not for the government to interfere with.

    On the other hand, the Republican Party also contains the strong Christian right element, which wants the government to interfere in anything — to tell you what your sexual behavior ought to be, whether you bear a child or not if you're a pregnant woman, what moral standards you ought to hold, enforced by the government. And so those are very, very different visions of what freedom is, but they're both out there in the same political party.

    Q: I was going to ask you about that, because a friend of mine who has a blog and was born again a few years ago started mentioning earlier this year arguments against gay marriage. And I sent her an e-mail saying that I didn't think it was appropriate for her to use religious arguments as a basis for laws that would hold over everyone. And she wrote in response to that, "You talk about the freedom of gay people. What about my freedom to live in a country where marriage is defined as between a man and a woman?" I thought it was interesting, this idea of my freedom to determine —

    ERIC FONER: — what you do.

    Q: Yeah.

    ERIC FONER: Well, Jefferson talked about a "wall of separation" between church and state, and he said that, oddly enough, because he wanted to protect religion from political interference as much as protecting government from religious interference. This is a diverse society. This is a heterogeneous society. There are many religious groups, there are many racial groups, obviously, there are many regional groups. It is very hard to imagine that there can be a total unanimity on basic issues in this country. Now, in a democracy, the majority rules, but within a context in which the minority's basic rights are respected. So when she says, well, I have a right to live in a country where I determine the definition of marriage for everybody, to my mind that's very undemocratic, actually. No one is forcing her to marry a gay person, and yet why should she be in a position to tell two gay people that they are not entitled to the benefits and privileges of marriage? She may not like it — that's her right, of course — but to be able to impose her moral values on them is very dangerous in a pluralistic democracy.

    Q: I think it makes sense in the minds of a lot of people — in the South, especially, where it is more homogeneous — that freedom includes their right to express their beliefs through their government.

    ERIC FONER: Right. Although that coincides with a very anti-government stance. For example, what about my right to live in a society where you don't have guns all over the place? Obviously, a lot of people don't believe I have that right. No one's forcing me to own a gun — I don't own a gun, I wouldn't want to own a gun — and yet I don't have the right to tell people around me, you can't carry guns around. And the same people who say, well I want to ban gay marriage, are generally not willing to say, well, I want to ban guns because they are creating dangers in the society too. So all this is rather selective, it seems.

      The people in power now think that they have a monopoly on an understanding of what freedom is. They don't accept my point, which is that this is a constantly contested idea and there are many different versions and views.
    Q: Let me ask you about what the president has said. He explains the Sept. 11 attacks by saying, "They hate our freedom." Just a couple days ago at the United Nations, he said, "This is liberty's century."

    ERIC FONER: Well, good, I hope it is. But I have two problems with this. One is, "They hate us because we're free," or, "They attacked us because we're free," is a myopic view of the world. It makes it impossible for us to take seriously and give serious consideration to legitimate criticism from other places of our policies and our beliefs. Once you say, "Anyone who's against us hates freedom," well, there's nothing to discuss. In fact, they hate us — perhaps for very bad reasons — [but] it's not our freedom but our power and our use of our power. Osama bin Laden — I'm sure he's bothered by the fact that women in the United States don't go around with veils and all that, but he's also bothered by the presence of American military bases in Saudi Arabia, and he's bothered by American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue. That doesn't mean we should change our policy because Osama bin Laden doesn't like it, but to simply say, "He hates our freedom," ignores the fact that our actual policies have generated a great deal of opposition around the world — mostly among people who are not terrorists bombing tall buildings.

    And if they "hate us because we're free," why aren't they bombing Canada? Canada's a free country. Why aren't they setting bombs in Denmark? There are plenty of free countries in the world — some of them are even freer than the United States, in some ways — and yet they are not under attack. So it's not simply freedom that's the target. It's the uses of American power that alarm many people around the world — some of whom take horrible criminal action, which is indefensible. But it makes it impossible for us to take seriously the criticisms of people in the rest of the world. So I don't take this seriously except as political rhetoric, and I think it's very self-defeating to put ourselves in that kind of framework.

    Q: I suspect that he said that as a message to Americans rather than a message to the world.

    ERIC FONER: Of course. It's a rallying cry. It's a rallying cry. When he went to the U.N., even there it was a political speech for the election, obviously. "Liberty's century"? Yes — the more liberty the better. But the problem is that the people in power now think that they have a monopoly on an understanding of what freedom is. They don't accept my point, which is that this is a constantly contested idea and there are many different versions and views.

    If you go back and read the national security strategy document which was published in 2002 and is on the Web site of the White House and was the document that announced this doctrine of pre-emptive war, it begins not with a disquisition on weaponry or anything like that, but with a discussion of freedom. The first few paragraphs are about freedom, and it says: There is one set of meanings of freedom which are true and right for all people in all circumstances. And these are, I don't remember exactly, but freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise — that is, freedom of globalization, you might say. Now, the idea that there is one true meaning of freedom is a profoundly illiberal idea. It makes it impossible to have debates over these things. The idea that the United States has found the secret to freedom and we should just tell everyone else what it is ignores the fact that other countries have thought about freedom and may have come to slightly different conclusions than we have, and yet we may have something to learn from them, as well as lecture to them, about what freedom means.

    But unfortunately, we are in a frame of mind today, ever since Sept. 11, of, I would have to say, hubris, whereby we feel we have a monopoly on truth and our job is to go out and spread it around the world, and if they don't like it, tough luck. We have the power and we're going to do it. And I think that's an utterly self-defeating attitude, and it has succeeded in alienating most the world against us, which is a horrible fact. And when you consider that after Sept. 11 there was this tremendous wave of sympathy and unity with the United States all over the world, and now three years later public opinion polls in every country in the world — even our allies — show that people think we are the greatest threat to peace in the world. To have accomplished that transformation of world opinion is an amazing feat by the current administration.

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

    OCTOBER 25, 2004

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