His Rhetoric, Our Reality

Beyond Buzzwords

In his second inaugural address, George W. Bush preached that freedom (mentioned 27 times) and liberty (15 times) are powerful medicines – they “break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant.” And he warned that unless we prescribe freedom and liberty globally, through peaceful conversion or combat, America will never be secure. “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”

Yet the “Author of Liberty,” as the president surreptitiously alluded to himself, having pronounced that voting will set us free, did not instruct a shocked and awed nation as to how they were to determine how free they really are.

I’ll take a bash.

For a start, let’s keep it concrete; don’t equate freedom with symbols, and rhetoric with reality.

Freedom will have arrived when elections don’t matter. I’ll consider myself free when I no longer must fret about who wins my state’s endless election for governor, Christine Gregoire or Dino Rossi. Or when I can sleep through a federal election, because, Kerry or Bush, Democrat or Republican – in a free society neither will be able to unjustly tamper with me or take what is rightfully mine.

Freedom will have arrived when there is no need to celebrate Tax Freedom Day. And when the government ceases its stalemated War on Drugs.

In a free society, the “vision thing” is left to private individuals; civil servants are kept on a tight leash, because free people understand that a “visionary” bureaucrat is a voracious one and that the grander the government (“great purposes” in Bush Babble), the poorer and less free the people.

Free people grasp that our “great institutions” – Bush’s words – are not the “Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, and the G.I. Bill of Rights,” but rather the institutions of private property, freedom of expression and worship, and the right to defend hearth and home.

A Friend to Liberty Everywhere, Not Its Guarantor

Bush also paid lip service to “reaffirming all that is good and true that came before – ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Evidently those no longer include the ideals of our Founding Fathers. An all-powerful, globe-girdling government is inimical to republicanism and limited government. Or so Pat Buchanan reminded Joe Scarborough, Andrew Sullivan, and Larry Kudlow. He was rudely informed that he was imprisoned in a pre-9/11 mindset.

If appeals to the Founders and the Constitution are no longer valid in post-9/11 America, let’s try a tack our internationalists ought to find less disagreeable.

Bush is certainly correct in his assertion that every person has the natural right to be free. And that, “Every man and woman on this earth has rights … because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.”

We must, however, distinguish between the right of people to be free and the obligation of others to free them. We have a solemn duty not to violate the rights of foreigners everywhere to life, liberty, and property. But we have no duty to protect them from dying, being raped, robbed, or falsely incarcerated.

What then of Bush’s claim that, although difficult to fulfill, “Our country has accepted obligations that … would be dishonorable to abandon.” As philosopher David Conway has pointed out, “People can have no duty severally or collectively to do what is impossible for them to do.” Since it’s clear we are losing in Iraq (although it is entirely possible Iraqis may win without us), one might add that persisting in what is impossible to achieve constitutes a transgression against our sacrificed soldiers and suffering taxpayers.

Those with messianic complexes should reconsider what is meant by tikkun olam. Starting with the barefaced Thomas Friedman, Jews and non-Jews alike have bastardized this beautiful, but modest, Jewish obligation. In an attempt to lend spiritual credibility to hubristic insolence, Friedman has praised Tony Blair for “always [leaving] you with the impression that for him the Iraq war is just one hammer and one nail in an effort to do tikkun olam, to repair the world.”

Developed by the scholars and sages of a dispersed people, tikkun olam was intended as a humble and modest thing – it is the duty of the Jewish individual to help, bit-by-bit, to bring about a better world in unassuming, day-to-day righteous acts.

The People’s Voice Is Not God’s Voice

If we don’t “support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture,” and if we don’t aim to end “tyranny in our world,” we’re in big trouble, Bush declares. Why? Because tyranny is the root cause of the terror campaign against us.

“For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny – prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder – violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat.”

Bush argues that tyranny abroad gives rise to the resentment against us. The resentful say our meddling does. Who is right?

It seems irrational and exceedingly authoritarian to foist on others one’s own interpretation of their motivation. After all, they ought to know why they do what they do. Furthermore, understanding the reasons for our enemies’ hatred, however unjustified we believe these are, is not tantamount to excusing their aggression.

But what is the excuse for our failure to translate real-life observations into precautions that will protect American lives? Border protection and immigration reform, for starters. These our politicians and their intellectual enablers refuse to discuss. Instead, they prefer to blather on about root causes: the old favorites poverty and ignorance, plus a new contender, lack of democracy. Such explanations lend themselves conveniently to governmental intervention: carrot or stick, foreign aid or foreign bombs.

Liberal root-causes thinking is clearly compatible with neoconservative philosophy. Why wouldn’t it be? Being both therapeutic and authoritarian, it offers countless possibilities. We can patronize and pulverize.

Most important, root-causes thinking allows us to dismiss reason.

Our Demagogue-in-Chief insists that democracy will both empower and pacify Muslims. He seems to have forgotten that democracy means majority rule. Democratic elections across the Muslim world would see the pan-Islamists take power everywhere; then elections would cease. It is impossible to see what democracy in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Algeria (the last democratic vote there gave a majority to the Islamic Salvation Front), for example, will do other than bolster the reign of hatred and resentment.

Be careful what you wish for, Mr. President.