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Freedom on Steroids

A writer at The Times counted 27 references to freedom in Bush’s inaugural speech. The speech contained not one reference to his ugly war in Iraq, but for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis the only freedom established by Bush’s invasion was their freedom to miserable deaths or future lives as cripples.

Bush promised he would bring freedom to the world’s dark corners. It is worth noting that none of the world’s people asked Bush to assume such a task, and every poll of those living outside the United States shows Washington now widely regarded as one of the world’s darkest corners, a source of fear itself rather than freedom from fear.

But I guess that’s how it is with freedom. Much as when the Incas and Aztecs were offered the freedom of Christianity under the drawn swords of blood-spattered Conquistadors, the world will just have to accept Bush’s benevolent gift. Bush has said many times he won’t be consulting the world’s people about what America does, and at least in this one particular, I think we can take him at his word.

Perspective is important to understanding the significance of any act or words. Bush’s promise was made from behind a bullet-proof podium under the eyes of snipers and police dogs. It was made with missile batteries in plain sight and heavily-armored police menacingly occupying every corner of central Washington. In various parts of the world, Americans were keeping thousands of people in cages as he spoke. Torture, centuries after being banned in England, came to America’s service in the fight for freedom, even achieving a certain respectability as a discussion topic over dinner. A plane, returning an Australian home after his release from Guantanamo’s grotesque tortures, was refused passage across American airspace because the Australians refused to keep him shackled.

Does anyone think Bush’s vision of liberty includes people like coup-installed General Musharaff of Pakistan or the hideous General Dostum, now set up cozily as a warlord in Afghanistan under American protection? Would Bush mean old friends like President-for-Life Mubarak or General Pinochet who keeps eluding any justice after killing and torturing thousands in Chile on America’s behalf?

Somehow we know that Bush means only the unelected who oppose America’s view of how things should be organized. On second thought, he likely includes the elected, too, having already deposed the elected President of Haiti, attempted to depose the elected leader of Venezuela, and having browbeaten and insulted many of the world’s truest democracies such France, Germany, or Canada.

Bush’s pledge is the kind you make when you don’t want to be honest about your intentions. It’s an ad for American foreign policy photographed through one of those silk-screen filters Hollywood used to turn the mummy lips and cracked surface of aging-ingenue faces like Doris Day’s into glorious Technicolor fuzziness.

Freedom is an abstract words like happiness, rich with favorable associations, because there are many unpleasant things in human experience from which we would like to think ourselves free. But abstract words have only abstract meaning without reference to real situations. You must be free from or of something specific. Apparently the something specific Bush has in mind is freedom from America’s telling you what to do.

Freedom is a much-abused word, being, after all, the proud subject of one of the state’s three basic slogans in 1984. Hitler used the word often. Dr. Johnson punctured the pretentions of American revolutionaries when he pointed to the bitter irony of “drivers of Negroes” making exalted claims about freedom.

Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father most beloved by America’s ragtag army of super-patriots, con men, Aryan types, and militias, spoke often of the Empire of Liberty. At a quick pass, Jefferson’s phrase could seem high-minded, but it truly represented the darkest part of the American character. What Jefferson – and close associates like Madison – worked toward was an entire American hemisphere ruled by the privileged group in frock coats who ruled early America, an aristocracy where the vast majority of people enjoyed no more right to vote and no more of any other rights than they had enjoyed under British colonial rule. It was, of course, an aristocracy built upon slavery. It’s only real merit from a local point of view was that it was local.

Jefferson wrote catchy slogans on liberty and freedom, effectively becoming his own best public-relations man. The fact is he opposed liberty for slaves in Haiti. He opposed liberty for slaves in the U.S. He opposed liberty for women. He opposed liberty for those with no financial assets. He ruthlessly opposed any effort for parts of the Louisiana Purchase – people and their lands callously sold to Jefferson by a bloody European dictator – to become independent of the United States. He even opposed the role of America’s Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution for the states, wanting the Bill of Rights to remain another public-relations piece with no force of law (something he and his followers largely succeeded in achieving for a century to come).

Now Bush threatens to place the entire planet under the shadow of Jefferson’s piratical banner, using phrases like “the power of freedom.” Ask yourself why an idea like freedom require B-52s and cluster bombs for its spread? And why isn’t there room for more than one version of freedom?

Bush’s “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” is a ominous formula for a new shadowy tyranny under a rich bully. Freedom, as Orwell so succinctly put it, through slavery.

JOHN CHUCKMAN lives on the shores of Lake Ontario.

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John Chuckman lives in Canada.

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