We know there are many obstacles, and we know the road is long. Albert Camus said that, “Freedom is a long-distance race.” We’re in that race for the duration — and there is reason for optimism. Oppression is not the wave of the future; it is the desperate tactic of a few backward-looking men. Democratic nations grow in strength because they reward and respect the creative gifts of their people. And freedom is the direction of history, because freedom is the permanent hope of humanity.
George W. Bush, Brussels, February 22, 2005
It’s just painful to hear and see a smirking Bush invoking Albert Camus, the French writer who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, from a podium in Belgium. No doubt the speechwriter thought, “Okay, the prez will be in Brussels, surrounded by Old Europe elites. He’ll state, forgivingly, that our disagreements with Europe are all in the past. But he’ll lecture the Europeans about how the war on Iraq that they’ve opposed so strenuously is all about freedom, and not as they suspect about empire-building. The European snobs read literature. So we’ll include this Camus quote to show that Bush reads too, and he respects even great French authors who favor freedom. How conciliatory!”
What an insult to Camus, whose notion of freedom was very different from that of the president! His was the radical freedom that comes from abandoning myth and dogma, and questioning the existence of any meaning in the universe other than that which the human mind creates. The powerful novel The Stranger ends with its hero, convicted of murdering a man in a moment of confusion, a protagonist who throughout the narrative has been thoroughly dispassionate, finally exploding in indignation at the attempt of a priest to comfort him before his execution.
“I hurled insults at [the priest]. I told him not to waste his rotten prayers on me; it was better to burn than to disappear. I’d taken him by the neckband of his cassock, and, in a sort of ecstasy of joy and rage, I poured out on him all the thoughts that had been simmering in my brain. He seemed so cocksure, you see. And yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair.” As the startled priest is removed from his cell, the convicted murderer stares out through his prison bars, opening himself to the “benign indifference of the universe.”
Camus’ freedom involves rejecting religion and accepting that meaningless universe. It also means abandoning any notion of a “direction of history.” Indeed, Camus’ critique of Marxism, in his philosophical work The Rebel, imputes to Marx a theory of historical inevitability and utopianism subconsciously rooted in biblical millenarianism. (I think he’s wrong about that, but the discussion is thought provoking.)
For Bush, a cocksure man full of worthless certainties, who seeks to impose fundamentalist Christian morality, sideline science and actually diminish freedom in the name of the “war on terror,” to invoke Camus is an outrage. Surely some in the Brussels audience wanted to puke.
Here are some really pertinent passages from Camus. On the morality of the “war on terror:” “By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”
On the manipulation of the U.S. press by the administration: “A free press can of course be good or bad, but most certainly, without freedom it will never be anything but bad”
On censorship: “The aim of art, the aim of a life can only be to increase the sum of freedom and responsibility to be found in every man and in the world. It cannot, under any circumstances, be to reduce or suppress that freedom, even temporarily.”
On bad leaders: “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.” “The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” “Stupidity has a knack of getting its way.”
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org