Since September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has relentlessly invoked the word “freedom.” The United States can strike preemptively because “freedom is on the march.” Social security should be privatized in order to protect individual freedoms. In the 2005 presidential inaugural speech, the words “freedom,” “free,” and “liberty” were used forty-nine times. “Freedom” is one of the most contested words in American political discourse, the keystone to the domestic and foreign policy battles that are racking this polarized nation. For many Democrats, it seems that President Bush’s use of the word is meaningless and contradictory—deployed opportunistically to justify American military action abroad and the curtailing of civil liberties at home. But in Whose Freedom?, George Lakoff, an adviser to the Democratic party, shows that in fact the right has effected a devastatingly coherent and ideological redefinition of freedom. The conservative revolution has remade freedom in its own image and deployed it as a central weapon on the front lines of everything from the war on terror to the battles over religion in the classroom and abortion. In a deep and alarming analysis, Lakoff explains the mechanisms behind this hijacking of our most cherished political idea—and shows how progressives have not only failed to counter the right-wing attack on freedom but have failed to recognize its nature. Whose Freedom? argues forcefully what progressives must do to take back ground in this high-stakes war over the most central idea in American life.
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George Lakoff, recently featured in The New York Times Magazine, is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a founding senior fellow of the Rockridge Institute, a center for research devoted to promoting progressive ideas. He is the author of the influential Don’t Think of an Elephant! and Moral Politics, as well as seminal books on linguistics, including Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things and Metaphors We Live By (with Mark Johnson). He lives in Berkeley, California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Excerpted from Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea by George Lakoff. Copyright © 2006 by George Lakoff. Published in July 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
IN THE NAME OF FREEDOM
Ideas matter. Perhaps no idea has mattered more in American history than the idea of freedom.
The central thesis of this book is simple. There are two very different views of freedom in America today, arising from two very different moral and political worldviews dividing the country.
The traditional idea of freedom is progressive. One can see traditional values most clearly in the direction of change that has been demanded and applauded over two centuries. America has been a nation of activists, consistently expanding its most treasured freedoms:
· The expansion of citizen participation and voting rights from white male property owners to non-property owners, to former slaves, to women, to those excluded by prejudice, to younger voters
· The expansion of opportunity, good jobs, better working conditions, and benefits to more and more Americans, from men to women, from white to nonwhite, from native born to foreign born, from English speaking to non-English speaking
· The expansion of worker rights—freedom from inhumane working conditions—through unionization: from slave labor to the eight-hour day, the five-day week, worker compensation, sick leave, overtime pay, paid vacations, pregnancy leave, and so on
· The expansion of public education from grade school to high school to college to postgraduate education
· The expansion of knowledge through science from isolated figures like Benjamin Franklin to scientific institutions in the great universities and governmental institutions like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health
· The expansion of public health and life expectancy
· The expansion of consumer protection through more effective government regulation of immoral or irresponsible corporations and class action suits within the civil justice system
· The expansion of diverse media and free speech from small newspapers to the vast media/Internet possibilities of today
· The expansion of access to capital from wealthy land-holders and bankers to all the ways ordinary people—more and more of them—can borrow money today
· The expansion, throughout the world, of freedom from colonial rule—for the most part with the backing of American foreign policy
These are among the progressive trends in American history. Progress has not always been linear, and the stages have been far from perfect, but the trends have been there—until recently. The rise of radical conservatism in America threatens to stop and reverse these and other progressive trends together with the progressive ideal of freedom that has propelled them all.
Indeed, the reversal has proceeded at a rapid pace. Voting rights are being threatened, good-paying jobs eliminated or exported, benefits cut or eliminated. Public education is being gutted and science is under attack. The media is being consolidated, corporate regulations eliminated, the civil justice system threatened, public health programs cut. Unions are being destroyed and benefits taken away. There are new bankruptcy laws limiting access to capital for ordinary people. And we are seeing the promotion of a new form of free-market colonialism in the guise of free-trade agreements and globalization, and even the use of military force to support these policies.
But for radical conservatives, these developments are not movements away from freedom but toward their version of freedom. Where most Americans in the last century have seen an expansion of freedoms, these conservatives see curtailments of what they consider “freedom.” What makes them “conservatives” is not that they want to conserve the achievements of those who fought to deepen American democracy. It’s the reverse: They want to go back to before these progressive freedoms were established. What they want to conserve is, in most cases, the situation prior to the expansion of traditional American ideas of freedom: before the great expansion of voting rights, before unions and worker protections and pensions, before civil rights legislation, before public health and environmental protections, before Social Security and Medicare, before scientific discoveries contradicted fundamentalist religious dogma. That is why they harp so much on narrow so-called originalist readings of the Constitution—on its letter, not its spirit—on “activist judges” rather than an inherently activist population.
We will be asking three questions:
· How are radical conservatives achieving their reversal of freedom?
· Why do they want to reverse traditional freedoms?
· What do they mean by “freedom”?
Freedom defines what America is—and it is now up for grabs. The radical right is in the process of redefining the very idea. To lose freedom is a terrible thing; to lose the idea of freedom is even worse.
The constant repetition of the words “liberty” and “freedom” by the right-wing message machine is one of the mechanisms of the idea theft in progress. When the words are used by the right, their meaning shifts—gradually, almost imperceptibly, but it shifts.
The speeches at the 2004 Republican National Convention constantly invoked the words “freedom,” “free,” and “liberty.” George W. Bush, in his second inaugural address, used these words forty-nine times in a twenty-minute speech—every forty-third word. And if you take into account the opposites—“tyranny,” “dictatorship,” “slavery,” and so on—as well as associated words like “democracy,” the proportion rises higher. From freedom fries to the Freedom Film Festival, the right wing is claiming the words “liberty” and “freedom” as their brand: Jerry Falwell’s National Liberty Journal, Liberty University, Liberty Counsel, Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and the list goes on.
To many progressives, the right’s use of “freedom” is pure hypocrisy, and George W. Bush is the leading hypocrite. How, liberals ask, can Bush mean anything at all by “freedom” when he imprisons hundreds of people in Guantánamo indefinitely with no due process in the name of freedom; when he sanctions torture in the name of freedom; when he starts a preemptive war on false premises and retroactively claims it is being waged in the name of freedom; when he causes the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians in the name of freedom; when he supports oppressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, while claiming to promote freedom in the Islamic world; when he sanctions the disenfranchisement of African-American voters in Florida and Ohio in the name of freedom; when he orders spying on American citizens in America without a warrant in the name of freedom; when, in the name of freedom, he seeks to prevent women from making their own medical decisions, to stop loving couples who want to marry, to stop families from being able to remove life supports when their loved ones are all but technically dead.
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