Parsing “Freedom”

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been making passes at a screed against the Harper government’s so-call anti-terrorism bill, C-51. When I started this blog, this was the kind of topic I did not intend to address. But the more I think of it, and the more I watch the rhetorical crimes committed by Harper et al on this topic, the more I’m convinced this is a watershed moment in Canadian history.

Language matters. The way we frame things to ourselves matters. And as much as I think this bill is a bit of political misdirection, keeping our eyes off the cratering economy, it still has real-world effects that terrify me. And should terrify you.


Several weeks ago I read a post by Conor Friedersdorf, a right-leaning libertarian blogger at The Atlantic. I admire Friedersdorf’s writing, though I often disagree with what he says: he’s a keen critic, the kind of conservative you want on the other side of the table, both because his intelligence keeps you sharp, but also because his is a voice of reason. And one of the things he frequently blogs about is the intellectual poverty and epistemic closure of the American Right, especially as far as talk radio and Fox News is concerned.

In the post in question, he took issue with the fact that too many bloviators on the right employ the term “conservative” uncritically, making frequent appeals to “conservative values,” staking out their own bona fides by invoking the word, and calling for Republican candidates who embody “true conservatism,” without ever explicating what they mean. The problem, Friedersdorf argues, is that “conservative” has become mere boilerplate and has lost meaning. The solution, he suggests, is that candidates and commentators should make the word Taboo. Not taboo in the religious or moral sense, but as in the game Taboo, in which players draw a card with a word on it and have to get their teammates to guess what it is without using that word or the most obvious words to describe it. Anyone presenting him or herself as conservative, Friedersdorf says, should avoid using the word and in the process be forced to articulate a series of positions, beliefs, and/or policies rather than invoking a term that has become increasingly meaningless except as a tribal badge.

I think this is a fantastic idea, and we should adopt it in a host of other spheres of political and cultural discourse. And apropos of the latest wind emanating from the PMO, I think “freedom” should be the word Canadian politicians make Taboo.

The drumbeat for Bill C-51 and the attendant rhetoric has been deeply depressing, not least because we seem to have gone irrevocably into Orwellian territory. When a spokesperson for the PMO can claim the bill “protects freedom,” and a Conservative fund-raising email can say it’s necessary because we’re at war with jihadists because “they hate us because we love freedom and tolerance,” I start wondering when Jason Kenney is going to start issuing assurances that we’ve always been at war with Eurasia. If the Prime Minister loves freedom so much, why is he so keen to radically curtail it in this bill? If he loves tolerance, where’s his reasonable accommodation for a new Canadian who wants to wear a niqab? How do you protect freedom by criminalizing protest and dissent?

I’m not going to parse the particulars of the bill—that has been done by a host of individuals far more conversant in legislative language than me. Do yourself a favour, however, and click those links and take the time to read. Like much of the legislation Harper has rammed through Parliament since taking office, he relies on obfuscation and the public’s short memory. This one is too important to let pass.

No, what I’m interested in today is playing Taboo with the concept of freedom. It’s one of those concepts that is central to our sense of ourselves as a liberal democracy—what is the point of democracy if not the promulgation of a free society?—but which too often gets cheapened in political discourse, used as an empty but resonant signifier to score rhetorical points. I want our politicians and our political bloviators to consider the term Taboo: instead of saying something like “our brave soldiers died protecting our freedom,” please replace “freedom” with as many words as you like describing precisely what you mean.

By way of example, I have heard more people than I care to count use that precise phrasing with regards to our fallen in Afghanistan. Which is not to say I don’t admire and respect their sacrifice—I do, in thunder. We owe anyone who puts him or herself in the line of fire our regard, even if we vehemently dispute the cause. But to say that soldiers were sent to Afghanistan to fight for our freedom has a fundamental misunderstanding of geopolitical realities. Canadian freedoms and liberties were denuded not a whit by the Taliban’s reign of terror in the decade or so before we joined the post-9/11 coalition. It might be more accurate to say that our soldiers fought for the Afghanis’ freedom, and indeed the most heartbreaking stories I heard of our incursion there were all about the valiant attempts by Canadians to establish schools and to keep the tide of theocratic fundamentalism at bay. But the primary purposes of our actions in Afghanistan are, when examined, an inextricably complex political morass. That we won (tragically ephemeral) freedoms for otherwise oppressed populations is a point of great pride for us as a country—but to suggest that that was the first and last purpose of our engagement is to deceive oneself.

Let’s consider what would appear a more straightforward example, the Second World War. Of all the conflicts of the twentieth century, the fight against Nazism stands as perhaps the most unalloyed example of struggle between freedom and tyranny. Surely, we’re correct to say our soldiers fought and died for our freedom there?

Well, only if you’re historically illiterate enough to imagine that the Third Reich posed Canada an existential threat. We should be endlessly proud of our military’s role in defending Britain and winning the freedom of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. But we, as a nation, were never under genuine threat. And we need to always remember that in order to defeat Hitler, we allied ourselves with a totalitarian regime that was at least as evil, if not more so, than the Nazis—and as the price of that allegiance consigned half of Europe to forty-five years of darkness.

As for the First World War … anyone opining that we fought that war in the name of freedom has to go sit in the corner. We fought in WWI because we were obliged, as a Commonwealth nation, to enter into the conflict on the side of Britain. Canadians fought bravely; Canadians fought so well, in fact, that we became the shock troops of the Allies. But that doesn’t change the fact that tens of thousands of young men, almost an entire generation, were killed or crippled in the name of an unnecessary war. Freedom? There wasn’t much to differentiate monarchical Britain from monarchical Germany. This was a war fought largely in the name of the Great Powers’ colonial holdings: there was tension in Europe itself, but what put the powder in the keg was the encroachments of an ascendant Germany into Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Call it cruel irony if you like: the former colony Canada (alongside Australia and New Zealand) sacrificing its young in the name of the mother nation’s other colonies.

All of which is by way of saying that “freedom” as a concept has become so abstracted that we don’t blink at its egregious rhetorical misuse. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that we’re so accustomed to the freedoms we do enjoy that we don’t notice them, and hence don’t notice when they’re eroded by a government so addicted to power and control that it is utterly cavalier in the way it snatches them away, all the while piously asserting itself as freedom’s last bulwark. The tempest in a teapot over Zunera Ishaq’s determination to wear her niqab at her citizenship ceremony is a case in point: whatever one thinks of this particular religious garment, one of our most basic freedoms as Canadians is the right to worship or not as we see fit. The bloviating by Harper and his minions that the niqab is anti-woman and oppressive is criminally disingenuous. The crucial difference between Canada and a theocracy that enforces strict dress codes is that here, Zunera Ishaq has a choice. Is the niqab, in and of itself, an oppressive garment? Not here. What would be oppressive here would be a government restricting one’s choice in the matter, which Stephen Harper is apparently determined to do—in the name, he says, of “freedom.”

The niqab controversy is also instructive because it is an object-lesson in our democracy. For the record, I find the more extreme Islamic dress restrictions for women abhorrent, in the same way I find any customs (religious or otherwise) designed to denigrate, vilify, or otherwise make women (or anyone) second-class citizens abhorrent. This, if you like, is one of my personal prejudices. In reading Zunera Ishaq’s own words on the subject, I come to understand that she makes this choice of her own free will and not because she has been compelled; but even if this were not the case, it is still our obligation to allow her this religious observance, to make reasonable accommodation, however much we might disagree. Because this is the most basic test of freedom: to make such accommodation even if it makes our blood boil with rage. For all of us, there are perspectives and arguments that offend and enrage: for someone like me, listening to Stephen Harper speak is a daily gauntlet of anger and apoplexy.

And what makes my blood boil most about Harper’s position on this controversy isn’t so much that I think he’s wrong, it’s that I’m certain he is being utterly cynical about it. He knows precisely how much the average white, tepid Christian or vaguely secular Canadian looks upon the signifiers of Islam with fear and suspicion. The western media and Hollywood culture industry has screwed up such fears well past the sticking-point. Why attack a woman set to become a citizen from the lofty pulpit of the PMO, and mobilize government lawyers to make the case as high-profile as possible? As an editorial in The National Post, of all places, observes:

[E]ven though it knows it will lose the case, the government thinks there is political gain in misrepresenting the legal issue and putting the niqab question at the centre of the upcoming election campaign. The next federal election will come before this appeal is decided. A government interested only in electoral success will be indifferent to the actual outcome of the case. When the case is eventually decided, the government can once again blame the courts for thwarting the will of the majority.

In the meantime the government can hope that enough voters will see its repudiation of the niqab as part of its larger campaign against terrorism — a campaign that too often trades on the idea that there is “clash of civilizations” involving Muslims and the West. The niqab becomes the symbol, not of religious freedom and diversity, but of a repressive culture that is incompatible with Canadian values.

This pretty much hits the nail on the head, as far as I’m concerned. I think the Prime Minister is operating on several levels with this bill: catering to the politics of fear, playing to his base, distracting from the issue of his mismanagement of the economy, and laying groundwork for a new normal in which those protesting governmental policies—especially environmentalists and First Nations activists—can and will be legally redefined as terrorist groups (seriously, go read the language of the bill).

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to Harper’s practices and agenda for the past nine years. Though he came to prominence as a wunderkind of the Reform Party shouting for transparency in government, and indeed was elected in part because he was able to paint the Liberals as obfuscatory and dishonest, he has done more than any Prime Minister in our country’s history to muzzle dissent, make government opaque, and quash dialogue.

In a slim book published shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, novelist Norman Mailer said that George W. Bush used the word “freedom” as if it was a button he could press to inflate his polling numbers, even as his administration brought the Patriot Act—as Orwellian a bit of naming as ever imagined—to Congress. He also did a bit of cold calculus about the event that gave rise to the Patriot Act. How many U.S. soldiers, he asked, have died in the name of “freedom”? How many hundreds of thousands in WWII alone, that war that has become the watchword for fighting for freedom? As it happens, just over four hundred thousand (Canada lost over forty-five thousand). So, Mailer asks: the three thousand deaths of 9/11—if America truly stands for freedom, why were these people not counted among those who died at Normandy, Bastogne, and Iwo Jima? As Americans who died for freedom, as opposed to an excuse for the government to clamp down on its citizenry?

We should be asking similar questions of our Prime Minister. The country was shocked and saddened by the deaths of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Office Patrice Vincent, but what is the better tribute to these soldiers—to maintain our nation’s commitment to freedom, openness, and democracy, or allow a cynical government to play on our fears and enact legislation that is anathema to these values?

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  1. Pingback: World War One and the Lessons of Pernicious Nationalism | it's all narrative

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