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Freedom on the march

Onward, Christian soldiers

Yesterday was Memorial Day in the United States, and George W Bush gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. He took advantage of the occasion to drive home the current propaganda message:

Because of the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, two terror regimes are gone forever, freedom is on the march, and America is more secure.

The hastiness of this shorthand, cramming three precision-tooled soundbites into a single sentence when you are supposed to be commemorating soldiers who have died as a result of your policies, looks almost insulting. But the catchphrases are useful. Let us note in passing that the reference to two “terror regimes”, ie Afghanistan and Iraq, makes it clear that Bush is still peddling the lie that Saddam Hussein had something to do with global terrorism, a lie that Dick Cheney, who has lied about ever committing the lie in the first place, is also perpetuating, as his appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live confirmed yesterday:

America will be safer in the long run when Iraq, and Afghanistan as well, are no longer safe havens for terrorists or places where people can gather and plan and organize attacks against the United States.

In fact, as is well known, before the 2003 invasion, no attack against United States interests had been planned in Iraq since 1993, when airstrikes ordered by President Clinton destroyed Iraq’s military-intelligence headquarters. The attacks of September 11, 2001 specifically were planned in places like Egypt, Germany and the United States, at least the last of which Cheney presumably has no plans to invade.

But the larger absurdity is contained within the now-familiar slogan “Freedom is on the march”. Perhaps Bush hopes that the constant repetition of this idea will dull its oxymoronic edge . . .

To be “on the march” means to be unfree, to be subject to military discipline. So freedom is not actually free. Now, it is true that this apparently contradictory idea has a pedigree. Hegel thought that liberty consisted in one’s freedom to obey the police. And Rousseau, in The Social Contract, made the following pert observation:

At Genoa, the word Liberty may be read over the front of the prisons and on the chains of the galley-slaves. This application of the device is good and just. It is indeed only malefactors of all estates who prevent the citizen from being free. In the country in which all such men were in the galleys, the most perfect liberty would be enjoyed.

The idea of being on the march is also useful rather in the same way as is the concept of a “road map” for peace in Israel/Palestine: one does not claim to be at any specific destination. Thus, should a curmudgeon complain that the US is failing to condemn the violent repression of democratic revolt in Uzbekistan, perhaps because of that country’s oil and gas reserves and its special status as a favoured franchisee for outsourced torture, one can merely reply that, well, it’s not there yet – of course, freedom cannot march everywhere at once – but don’t worry, it’s on its way.

When it gets there, what will happen? Will freedom just hold a big party to celebrate itself? One may be forgiven for supposing that “on the march” means to be in a belligerent attitude, to be on one’s way specifically to battle. The point of battle is to coerce one’s enemy through violent means to do what one wants. Thus we must picture battalions of the unfree, marching in step so as to curtail the freedom of the commanders of other equally unfree battalions. Out of all this unfreedom we can happily derive an image of overarching freedom by the Rousseauldian method.

One cannot of course be completely confident that Bush and his speechwriters are making learned reference to the ironical formulations of a philosopher, long dead, who lived in France. And it happens that there is an alternative explanation for “freedom on the march”, one to which you could recruit Rousseau only with the greatest difficulty. The key is provided by Mr Bush’s 2004 Inaugural Address, according to which there is a person known as the “Author of Liberty”, who not only invented freedom but controls world affairs: “History also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.” Interestingly, Condoleeza Rice reused this phrase on Friday, when she called Thomas Jefferson the “author of liberty” (even though he was “imperfect in his beliefs in liberty”). This looks like a deliberate ruse, albeit historically nonsensical, to secularize the notion. For it is clear that when Bush spoke of the “Author of Liberty” he meant the Christian God. Note that the official White House transcript capitalizes the words “Author of Liberty”; and the phrase is also a deliberate echo of George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, that spoke of God as “the Great Author of every public and private good”.

So if freedom is on the march, and the guy who “authored” freedom is God – itself another oxymoronic idea, for what is authored cannot be free – then what Bush really envisages is the global hegemony of a specifically Christian army. Bush may have been hastily advised to stop using the word “crusade” shortly after 9/11, but that doesn’t mean he has to stop thinking it.

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