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 3

    Q: So why do you think that statement, "They hate us because of our freedom," makes sense to a lot of Americans?

      
    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: Because most Americans know nothing about the rest of the world. But we do have a very salutary pride in our freedoms. We are the inheritors of a vision of the United States as the embodiment of freedom around the world — going back to Jefferson and Tom Paine and many others. We like to be told we're free. We like to think we're free. And very few Americans in public opinion polls have any sense of what grievances other countries might have against the United States and the fact that some of those grievances may indeed be legitimate. So I think it's a combination of pride — legitimate pride — ignorance of the rest of the world, a sense of outrage at having been attacked on Sept. 11. American public opinion today has this very bizarre combination of victimization and expression of power at the same time. On the one hand, we feel we're totally vulnerable, and on the other hand we feel we have the power to remake the world in our own image. And that is an odd and, I think, not healthy combination of sentiments.

    Q: In fact, the administration has talked about the Iraq war as being the beginning of the flourishing of freedom and democracy throughout the world.


      
    One thing that the history of freedom shows is that freedom is not something that can be given to people as a gift. That's not how freedom develops. People develop it themselves.  

      
    ERIC FONER: Good luck! I think one thing that the history of freedom shows is that freedom is not something that can be given to people as a gift. That's not how freedom develops. People develop it themselves. It generates out of a society's history. It may take a slightly different form depending on a society's history. The notion that we can just go around the world offering people freedom like it's a little gift is an anti-historical idea. It ignores the history of any particular society out of which these values flourish.

    Q: Let me ask you this: I've been reading your book over the last couple weeks, and a couple of times, on the bus or in the elevator, somebody has asked me what I'm reading. So I show them the cover, and when they read the title, I immediately start to think, "They're going to get the wrong idea about what I'm reading."

    ERIC FONER: [Laughs] Well, the title is meant to be slightly ironic. Perhaps it doesn't succeed that way. On the one hand, it's meant to recall, among people my age, the high school textbooks we used to have — "The Story of a Free People," things like that — which were completely ridiculous. You know, they were totally celebratory, and they didn't suggest there were any problems in American society. We began perfect, and we've been getting better ever since!

    The irony is, what is a story, anyway? A story is a narrative of events — it's a history. A story is also a mythology — it's made up. When my daughter, when she was younger, said, "Tell me a story, daddy," she meant make something up. I'm trying to say that the idea of freedom in America is both a real history and a mythology at the same time. So I don't know what people think they're going to get out of the title. I hope people will read it. It has been read by a reasonable number of people; I hope it continues to be. I guess I should go look at those Amazon things and see what they have to say. It might be interesting.

      
      It is the century of freedom. But what is freedom? Is the person who lacks a job truly free? Is the person who lacks health care truly free? There are elements of freedom that we have to talk about that are more than just walking around and casting a ballot.
      
    Q: I just thought that maybe it's the current environment.

    ERIC FONER: Yeah. That book was published in 1998 or something, so it was a whole different world, obviously. And since 2001, since Sept. 11, the Bush administration — like others in the past — has made a very conscious effort to capture this word "freedom," as you said. To use freedom as an explanation for the attack, for the war on terrorism — after all, what is the war in Iraq called? "Operation Iraqi Freedom." They have really appropriated the word "freedom" as a rallying cry and a justification. So in a way, today, if you use the word "freedom" it seems like you're part of the Bush machine, but I certainly wasn't thinking of that when I wrote that book in the mid-1990s, obviously.

    Q: So is that word being contested, or should it be contested?

    ERIC FONER: It should be contested! I keep saying — to nobody in particular, to myself — Kerry should not cede the word "freedom" to Bush. Kerry should revive other ideas. You know — yeah, we offer freedom. It is the century of freedom. But what is freedom? Is the person who lacks a job truly free? Is the person who lacks health care truly free? There are elements of freedom that we have to talk about that are more than just walking around and casting a ballot. The Bush administration is saying, "Well, we're going to have an election in Iraq in January and then that's freedom." Well, that's part of freedom but it's certainly not the whole thing. And I believe Kerry should be contesting, should be going out there and saying, "We have different visions of what freedom is, and here's my vision." But he's ceding this very powerful rhetorical weapon to Bush. A mistake — but he seems to be making a lot of mistakes in this campaign.


    Go to: Previous | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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



    Post a comment on "Eric Foner"