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Our Fragile Liberties

Adam Bellow's thirty contributors shine light on the many perverse new threats to freedom.

By 4.19.11

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New Threats to Freedom
Edited by Adam Bellow
(Templeton Press, 317 pages, $25.95)

Americans tend to think the desire for freedom is so universal that it is beyond discussion. We have it and everybody else wants it.

In fact, freedom is a concept with a thousand shades of meaning so shifty that the editor of this book, Adam Bellow, states upfront he will not even attempt to define it. Indeed, some countries rank freedom and democracy well down their scale of needs -- below food and political stability, for example.

But many of the 30 contributors to his collection of brief essays grapple head-on with various American freedoms and how fragile they are. The arguments deal with new ways of understanding freedom and the counter-forces at work to undermine them, more often from within than from outside.

Several of the writers produced outstanding miniatures, averaging 4,000 words in length, that look at emerging threats or enduring challenges. Bellow consciously steered them clear of what he calls the "drumbeat of current events" but allowed considerable latitude in the choice of theme and style of writing. Thus some come off as quirky -- overtly personal or admittedly "idiosyncratic" -- while others strike a more journalistic or academic tone. Readers will flip through these pages to find palatable styles and subjects.

The real purpose of the collection, says Bellow in his introduction, is to revive freedom as a subject of public discourse and to foster an attitude of resistance to threats -- hidden or open. His slightly alarmist title, "New Threats to Freedom," is well supported by several of these essays.

To achieve his aim, Bellow has assembled an A-list of commentators plus other voices that were new to me. Some of the most penetrating prose comes the Hoover Institution's Shelby Steele on our lost innocence. I was also taken by discussions of broadcasting's fairness doctrine by Peter Berkowitz and David Mamet. Mark Helprin looks askance at anti-religious trends and finds value in conserving some understanding of the spirit. Christopher Hitchens writes on multiculturalism, Robert Kaplan on the 24-hour news cycle, Tara McKelvey on the exportation of democracy, Greg Lukianoff on the college campus today and British politician Daniel Hannan on where Europe is headed (the wrong way). Other themes such as transnational progressivism, anti-capitalism, and complacency round out this smorgasbord of ideas.

Steele's treatment of our national innocence gives the book a certain gloomy gravity, focusing on American hypocrisy and how it undermines our claims to freedom. In the past, he writes, "innocence was always a theme of the American identity, something that set Americans apart as they strolled foreign streets." Since the upheavals of the 1960s, however, the tables have been turned. "The entire American way of life became stigmatized as shallow, bigoted, conformist, and greedy -- given to military adventurism abroad and empty consumerism at home."

The danger, he points out, is that "any politics claiming freedom as its great cause had become stigmatized… with all of America's past sins".

Christopher Hitchens, a naturalized American, weighs in with one of the most subtle arguments, "Multiculturalism and the Threat of Conformity." The danger he sees is that "multiculturalism can become uniculturalism." He quotes a favorite reference of the editor's father, Saul Bellow, "The Good Intentions Paving Company," and warns against "benevolent authoritarianism" that is always trying to make us change for our own good, regardless of our alleged freedoms and individual rights.

Robert Kaplan vents his spleen over news management in the 24-hour cable news cycle, an essay that may surprise news junkies who submit day and night to hysterical set pieces and talking heads. (A prize comment came from a "CNN babe" recently as the budget negotiations moved toward a compromise: "Back in a minute with the potential impact of this potential crisis.")

"It is in the very nature of many news cycles that they are trivial," he writes. Lacking continuity with the previous day's news, "The whole sense of narrative is lost." What are we to conclude? "As with many a commentator or politician, you can be for a war, then against it, as if forgetting that you were once for it." He quotes George Orwell as writing in 1984 that "true tyranny is the abolition of the past," and says we are in the process of doing just that.

Mark Helprin takes on the wave of godlessness and warns that too much of this thinking will "take a great deal of human happiness with it as it sinks into the darkness it congratulates itself for having discovered." He sees dangers in the "grey and bloodless portrait that must arise from a conviction that everything is a themeless accident and to believe otherwise is merely self-deception." He harks back to the Constitutional system that argues for a "gracious balance of faith and reason".

Playwright David Mamet challenges the concept of political correctness. While approving society's rules against racial and sexist epithets, he sees no role for government in the enforcement of these rules. By letting government intrude, he writes, "we are inviting government to police our language, and one aspect of government of which we are aware is that once it begins anything it does not stop." The Fairness Doctrine of the FCC, if employed to bring "balance" to opinion broadcasting, "will be the beginning of the end of free speech," he concludes. "The fewer things we can say, the fewer things we can see."

And Peter Berkowitz takes on the "progressive" view that government is needed in this adjudication. This is tantamount to treating the public as "too simpleminded or mean-spirited to adopt the correct policies for the correct reasons." More importantly, "It overlooks that government is often a bad judge of what citizens deserve and poorly equipped to ensure equal outcomes."

Author and commentator Tara McKelvey worries that despite threats to political freedom in Russia, Pakistan and Ethiopia (and, too late for her publishing deadline, she might have mentioned the entire Middle East), "Americans have begun to show considerably less interest in helping to promote democracy as part of the nation's foreign policy." This represents a sharp break with the past, she continues, "and his (President Obama's) approach to the issue has disturbing consequences".

Commentator Greg Lukianoff examines the atmosphere of fear and oppression on college campuses today, noting that "few Americans are aware of the scale of violations of student and faculty rights." Censorship for political correctness is "just one part of a profound process of miscalculation that has potentially dire consequences for our democratic republic."

Freedom of speech has been suppressed, he says, by language "embedded in university 'diversity' and 'harassment' policies, (with) students being systematically taught that such suppression is not just okay, it is a moral and legal imperative." Censorship policies are considered "at best understandable and at worst noble and romantic efforts to protect the community from offense or discomfort."

Any reader with an interest in Europe will be drawn to the essay by Member of European Parliament Daniel Hannan, a British political figure and a man with strong views on the democratic deficit in the governance of Europe. In fact he makes a contrast between us and them: "Europe tends to favor stability over democracy," he writes, but American values democracy over stability. In his brief history of modern Europe, he says the Brussels Commission, which increasingly governs European nations, was intentionally set up to bypass the electorate. "They aimed to trammel democracy to ensure that public opinion was mitigated by a class of sober functionaries."

Hannan cautions the United States to beware of Europe, this "troublesome diplomatic partner." He urges the U.S. to "stop lending its support to a project that is as deleterious to the interests of Europeans as to those of the United States."

Editor Bellow writes in his introduction that "threats to freedom are much less obvious than they were in the twentieth century and may even appear in the guise of social and political programs."

"Each of us must therefore accept responsibility for confronting the new threats to freedom, which are on the whole much more insidious than they were a few decades ago. As such, they require not only extra vigilance on our part but a real effort to see that they exist."

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.