19 April 2008

Some freedom lessons are sobering

The presentation by Aigul Beishimbvieva (back row, far right) comparing traditional wedding ceremonies of the Oglala Sioux and Kyrgyz cultures, which included an re-enacted betrothal ceremony, was one of the highlights of the fifth annual American Studies in Central Asia symposium 18-19 April in Bishkek. The text of my keynote address, "Meditations on Freedom and Responsibility (in the United States and Kyrgyzstan)" follows.

After having been in Kyrgyzstan for about two weeks in August 2006, I found myself standing outside a grocery store talking with another new faculty member from the United States about the relationship between the Kyrgyz government and the private sector and development of the national economy.

“Well, you know what they ought to do…”

“Stop right there, please,” I said. Based on an early conversation, I was aware that each of us knew next to nothing about Central Asia before we arrived here. “I’m sorry, but after two weeks you and I don’t know enough to make recommendations about anything in Kyrgyzstan. To think we can is arrogant. The best thing we can do now is shut up and listen.”

I have found my own advice difficult to follow at times, but in the last two years, I have learned a great deal about your nation. And, thanks to being here and the critical distance it has afforded me, I’ve also gained some deeper understanding of my own nation, society and culture.

American-style freedom is something that is comes up constantly in the courses I reach at the American University of Central Asia, especially from those students who have been to the States, usually through one of the State Department exchange programs. It’s easy to assume we all know what we’re talking about when we use words like freedom, but I don’t think that is often true. Freedom is incredibly nebulous term, which means different things to different people and is molded by the social and cultural contexts in which it is imagined. In my time here, I have thought a great deal about what freedom, liberty, and responsibility means in the United States and how those concepts might be envisioned different in Kyrgyzstan.

When I asked my students in the United States what freedom meant to them it often seemed to get reduced to the ability to exercise unlimited consumer choices, some variation of “to do anything I want,” which, when elaborated, meant having enough money to buy any product or service they wanted. Another typical explanation came from a political science student of mine, who also worked as radio dispatcher for the New Mexico State Police. She told me freedom was the right to wear whatever she wanted to her job. What difference did it matter, she reasoned, what she looked like in her office when her work consisted of disembodied communication with officers and other personnel in the field. Freedom, for her, meant her right to wear a mini-skirt to work.

I thought her notion of freedom was shallow. At best, it was only half of one of the “four essential human freedoms” articulated by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941: freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of religious worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.[i] Perhaps she was free from want and fear, unlike many Americans who went through the Great Depression when FDR defined the concept for his time. Perhaps she could also worship in the manner she wanted. If so, that could have elevated the personal importance of freedom of expression.

When I have asked my AUCA students what freedom meant to them, they most often described freedom of speech and expression. Speech is well understood, but expression not includes and clothing, but also physical appearance (for example, makeup, body piercing, and tattoos), as the well the ability one’s choice in romantic, sexual and marriage partners. My Central Asian student helped me to understand that freedom of expression is something that I had taken for granted in the United States.

I had almost forgotten that in East Los Angeles in 1943 simply the appearance of African-American and Mexican-American men dressed in outlandishly oversized “zoot suits,” complete with a fancy hat, a drooping chain linking your wallet to your belt, and highly polished shoes, was enough to inflame the passions of the predominately white U.S. servicemen who attacked them during the ugly “Zoot Suit Riots.” I had also forgotten that when I was in college during the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s what I perceived as my “right” to wear my hair as long as I wanted was very important to me. My students reminded me that freedom of expression is not to be taken lightly.

There is in the United States a long history that links freedom or liberty to property ownership. Freedom had to have some kind of material base from which it could stand upon and be exercised, according to conventional wisdom in the early republic. John Locke, the 17th century British philosopher who was intimately familiar to America’s “Founding Fathers,” believed that property ownership was an almost sacred right that preceded government. Locke also espoused a “labor theory of value,” which said that property was created by labor. So, for example, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, most Americans did not consider it possible for anyone who worked for wages to be free. After all, you had no ownership of what your labor created. Whatever the worker produced belonged to someone else, who could do with it as he or she saw fit. Furthermore, the employers, the capitalists, determined when the laborers worked, how much they were paid, as well as the conditions under which he or she worked. Within this understanding of freedom, workers were “wage slaves.”[ii]

There is also a heavy focus on the present in the U.S. notion of freedom. America was created, in large part, by immigrants, whose presence also helped to dispossess and eliminate the indigenous Americans. The immigrants who voluntarily came to what is now the United States—and that excludes all the Africans sold into slavery—were leaving their past. The voluntary immigrants included persecuted religious groups from England in the 17th and 18th centuries, indentured servants hungry for a new start on life, Germans fleeing civil unrest; peasants from famine-ravaged Ireland in the middle of the 19th century; the desperate poor from southern and eastern Europe and Asia, especially China, at the turn of the 20th century, not to mention waves of Mexicans, people from other Americas, southeast Asians, and in the waning years of the 20th century Russians and other members of former Soviet Union.

Most of the voluntary immigrants, many of whom were lured here by employers seeking a cheap source of labor, were leaving a society and a past in which they had been unable to flourish. They came to America to bury the past and to start anew by reinventing their lives, their present and their children’s future. Freedom was the possibility of a new life starting today.

In United States, freedom and liberty are often used interchangeably, even though many political theorists argue they shouldn’t be. The subjects, their differences, have obsessed American political theorists and the volume of literature is staggering

. Some political philosophers posit differences between “negative” and “positive” liberty. The most popular notion of negative liberty is the “absence of external restraints,” which emphasizes those restraints that exist outside the self, for example, the actions of others that frustrate or curtail the opportunities and choices available to me.[iii] Here the emphasis is on individual rights. For me, this notion of liberty is my right to be left alone by the state. Stay out of my personal and private life. Who I love, what I read, what I consume, who I speak with, behavior that might appear bizarre to some is not the business of the state--as long as what I do hurts no one else, nor infringes upon their liberties.

Positive liberty, by contrast, focuses on those “internal barriers,” the “fears, addictions and compulsions that are at odds with my ‘true’ self” and shackle my freedom, according to Nancy J. Hirschmann.[iv] We must exercise all of our capabilities to realize our highest potential under this idea of liberty. Therefore, positive liberty would emphasize the collective care for others to maximize our opportunities to exercise our freedoms.

Some feminist criticism, says Hirschmann, claims that the negative liberty’s emphasis on individualism and rights favors men, the dominant group in any patriarchal society, while the values of care and community are of greater historical concern to women and marginalized minorities.[v] For example, the individual right to view pornographic materials, which typically objectify women’s bodies as only a source of male pleasure, contributes to collective pain and popular beliefs that limit the freedom of women to realize their fullest potential.

Hannah Arendt, the German political theorist, perceived liberty in the negative sense, as being free from restraint and oppression, and said that liberty does not require democracy. Liberty could exist under a monarchy or a feudal hierarchy, though not under tyranny or despotism, she claimed.[vi] Freedom, by contrast, required public participation in the political realm and, more specifically, collective political action among equals. In other words, the excise of freedom demands some form of democracy.

Most of you here are far more qualified than I to determine what a distinctly Kyrgyz idea of freedom and liberty might look like, yet I can’t help but speculate about some of the cultural considerations that would be meaningful. I start that inquiry with the conviction there are few, if any, concepts that are universal or “natural.” As Hirschmann explains:

The desires and preferences we have, our beliefs and values, our way of defining the world are all shaped by the particular constellation of personal and institutional social relationships that constitute our personal and collective histories. Even the most intimate and supposedly “internal” aspects of our being, such as our sexuality, must be understood in terms of the historical relations and actions that have imported meaning to our bodies. Context is what makes meaning and meaning makes “reality.” Thus the value we place on freedom, as well as the meaning we give to the world, is in no way essential or natural but the product of particular historical relationships that we have developed through time.[vii]

Bakyt Beshimov, until recently the Vice President of Academic Affairs at AUCA and now a member of the new Jogorku Kenesh (national parliament) elected in December, has described the nomadic Kyrgyz people as the “main anarchists of Central Asia,” explaining that traditional Kyrgyz society is culturally predisposed to be freedom-loving, anti-authoritarian and democratic.[viii]

Aigerim Dyikanbaeva, Chair of AUCA’s Anthropology Department, explained to me that in the oral culture of Kyrgyz pastoralists meaning tends to be more fluid than in the literate cultures of many of its Central Asian neighbors. In literate cultures, written words, their meanings, and recollections of the past are more likely to be codified and fixed. Meaning is more malleable, more affected by specific context, in oral cultures.

She also said that the strong affiliation of ethnic Kyrgyz to their extended family, clan and tribe diminishes the importance of individualism, which is of paramount significance to most Americans. Also, the adaptability and collective self-reliance required by the nomadic lifestyle, which could involve moving four times each year in search of pasture lands, instinctively resists centralized state authority.[ix] Additionally, Dyikanbaeva said there is also a strong tradition in Kyrgyz culture of “free speech,” the conviction that every adult has the opportunity to speak his or her mind on matters of community importance.

All of these qualities were evident in the anti-government street protests in November 2006 and May 2007, which I believe, contrary to the opinion of most of my students and colleagues, did more than just exhibit the importance this society places on free speech, free expression and the right to dissent, without which democracy is impossible. The state also displayed a level of tolerance, though it is now diminishing, that was unimaginable for any other post-Soviet state of Central Asia.

What Arendt reminds us, and what is too often neglected in many discussions of freedom and/or liberty in the United States and Kyrgyzstan, is that any worthy notion of freedom must be accompanied by equally powerful sense of responsibility. Who or what has the responsibility of guaranteeing that our liberties and freedoms will not be trampled upon? Who or what has the responsibility for removing any boot that would squash our rights?

The state, any state, is a coercive institution by definition. It may be one of the “necessary evils” required by human communities because it is in our collective interest to sacrifice some of our individual liberties for the freedom and security of all. Nonetheless, one of the chief roles of the state is enforce compliance of the political “rules of the game.” But who has the responsibility of ensuring that the state doesn’t put its self-interests, or those of some constituency, above those of all the people it claims to represent?

Ultimately, it is the citizens of the state. Each of us (and all of us together) has the responsibility for ensuring that our government fulfills it obligations to us. Our freedoms are ensured to the degree which we, as members of the political public, refuse to allow our governments the chance to deny or suppress them.

Over the last decade in the United States, a large share of the American public and the overwhelming majority of the two dominant political parties have sat on their hands while the current administration has unleashed a dramatic assault on freedoms and liberties many Americans assumed to be their birthrights. This offensive was legitimized by the War on Terror, the administration’s response to the tragic attacks of 9/11, and rationalized Patriot Acts I and II, countless executive orders, constitutional reinterpretations, and policies that have trampled upon privacy rights and personal freedoms. The U.S. government can enter my home without my knowledge and search my private records and computer files on the basis of nothing more than a suspicion and without first having a court order. It can eavesdrop on my private telephone conversations, again without a warrant. It can jail Americans suspected of terrorism indefinitely without a trial. These draconian measures have been attacked by critics on the left and the right, yet Congress and much of the general public appears largely unfazed. [x]

I am reminded of the warning, inaccurately attributed to Benjamin Franklin, which states, “People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.”

Policies developed by this administration toward non-Americans in the wake of 9/11 are even more contrary to the best of American ideals. The legal term “enemy combatants” was invented to allow the United States to ignore Geneva Convention as well as U.S. military standards governing the basic rights of prisoners, including freedom from torture. Habeas corpus, the right to seek relief from unlawful imprisonment, has been cavalierly discarded. [xi] And in recent days, newly discovered evidence indicates that the torture policies that have disgraced our nation were approved at the highest level of the administration with the knowledge of President. [xii].

Our individual freedom and liberties in the United States are guaranteed by our Constitution, which was designed to prevent an authoritarian state by separating government powers into three branches. Yet, Congress, the elected representatives of the American people, has discarded those safeguards, from the very outset, by ceding its constitutionally mandated authority to declare war to the presidency. Time after time, it has approved or funded laws and failed to challenge the executive decisions that have diminished American freedoms and trashed the Constitution. It has failed to consider impeachment, the constitutional provision designed to respond to extraordinary usurpations of power. In failing to exercise their responsibilities, the Congress is as complicit as our imperial executive branch.

Who is left to challenge the presidency and the Congress in the United States when they fail to safeguard the constitutional freedoms of its citizens? Thankfully, that is a simple answer: the American public. Yet, sadly, despite deep and vocal dissatisfaction at the grassroots, public opposition has failed to achieve the critical mass that would compel our government to salvage our freedoms and the constitution that was designed to protect them.

As I said earlier, I am not qualified to determine, or even assess, what a culturally and historically appropriate concept of freedom is for emerging Kyrgyz Republic However, I suspect your ideas about freedom will not be as tied to private property as ours have been in the United States. Kyrgyz freedom may be less focused on the present and more connected to your extraordinarily rich past. Perhaps collective concerns will have a higher priority than those of individual rights in America. But I am comfortable saying that any indigenously developed definition of freedom and liberty will require that someone is ultimately responsible for guaranteeing them. Who do you want in that position? Who are you willing to trust with that kind of responsibility? What will you do if your legal representatives or your courts fail to fulfill their obligations to you? Are you up to the task? Can you do better than the citizens of the United States have done in recent years? I certainly hope so.

[i] Franklin D. Roosevelt cited in Address to Congress 6 January 1941. Congressional Record, 1941, Vol. 87, Pt. I.
For an insightful view of how one strain of Lockean thought evolved in the United States, see Richard J Elli, “Radical Lockeanism in American Political Culture,” The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Dec. 1992), pp. 825-849.
Nancy Hirschmann, “Toward a Feminist Theory of Freedom,” Political Theory, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Feb. 1996) pp. 46-67.
[iv] Ibid, p. 49.
[v] Ibid, p. 51.
Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, “Are Freedom and Liberty Twins?” Political Theory, Vol. 16, No. 4, (Nov. 1998), pp. 523-552.
Hirschman, “Toward a Feminist Theory of Freedom,” pp. 51-52.
[viii] Bakyt Beshimov cited in John Feffer, “Kygyzstan: Exporting the Tulip Revolution,” Inter Press Service Agency, 29 March 2007 Avaliable at http://www.ipsnews.net/print.asp?idnews=37143 (accessed 30 March 2007).
[ix] Interview with Aigerim Dyikanbaeva, Chair of AUCA’s Anthropology Department, on 31 March 2008.
Critics range from the American Civil Liberties Union to conservative minister and radio talk-show host Chick Baldwin, a vice-presidential candidate of the Constitution Party in 2004. See Baldwin’s “Freedoms Lost Under G.W. Bush, The Baltimore Chronicle (1 February 2005). Available at http://www.baltimorechronicle.com/020105ChuckBaldwin.html (accessed 17 April 2008) and the ACLU’s “Reform the Patriot Act,” available at http: //action/aclu.org/reformthepatriotact/whereitstands.html (accessed 17 April 2008).
American Civil Liberties Union, “Protecting the Rule of Law,” Available at http://www.aclu.org/safefree/detention/johnadams.html (accessed 17 April 2008).
Liliana Segura, “Memo Shows Bush Administration Says to Hell With Fourth Amendment Rights, AlterNet (10 April 2008), available at http://www.alternet.org/story/81905/ (accessed 17 April 2008); Robert Parry, “Will the Constitution Be Altered to Eliminate Key Liberties?” Consortium News, posted 14 April 2008 on Alternet, availalble at http://www.alternet.org/story/81638/ (accessed 17 April 2008); Ruth Conniff, “Torturers in the White House: Why Is This Story Being Ignored?” The Progressive, posted 17 April 2008 on AlterNet, available at http://www.alternet.org/story/82483/ (accessed 17 April 2008)

No comments:

Post a Comment