Monday 31 January 2005

Freedom in Wonderland

War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength

...and "1984" was a fucking TYPO!

Protected from the American public by legions of imperial storm troopers in a city that appeared to be the very model of a high-tech police state, George W. Bush used the word "freedom" 27 times in his second inaugural address. The word "liberty" appeared 15 times. Under the circumstances, it's worth recalling that "freedom" was also one of Adolph Hitler's favorite themes.

What is even more disturbing is that Hitler and Bush are in general agreement about the definition of "freedom," in their historic use of the term. For both men, "freedom" refers to a policy of militant nationalist unilateralism, free from the restrictions of international law and treaties. In Hitler's case, besides the open rejection of the constraints on German militarism in the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the first World War, "freedom" also applied to the policy of "Lebensraum" (translated as "living space"), by which he meant the preemptive right of the German people to expand into neighboring countries.

Bush's definition is uncannily similar. As Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights has described it, "Spreading freedom is [Bush's] code word to hide the continued drive for American hegemony, riches and resources." The so-called "Bush doctrine" is an official policy of taking preemptive military action to advance American "national security" interests (which have historically included America's interest in Middle Eastern oil), and to protect American "freedom."

Thus, Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia and Bush's invasion of Iraq—both employing the rationale of "freedom"—can be seen to have had identical goals: overtly, the "protection" of their respective citizenries; and covertly, the expansion of national wealth and power, and the geopolitical expression of national "will."

Indeed, it is fascinating how often Bush uses the term "will" (or, alternately, "resolve") to characterize what he thinks of as his "triumph" in Iraq. "Triumph of the Will" is, as many readers know, the name of one of the 20th century's most influential propaganda documents: the Leni Riefenstahl-directed film of the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg, Germany, which portrayed Hitler as a kind of political deity. A leader's strong "will" is integral to the "leadership principle," one of the most important components of fascist philosophy.

The Nuremberg rallies were an annual event, organized to build party and national unity. In "Government in the Third Reich," a remarkable firsthand analysis of Nazi Germany published in 1936, Harvard professor Fritz Marx, a German immigrant and a former civil servant in the city of Hamburg, wrote about the 1935 rally:

"The annual National Socialist Party Congress of 1935, held as usual in the castle-crowned city of Nuremberg, met under the official password of 'Freedom.' The freedom that 400,000 went to celebrate was not the liberte of the French Revolution, but . . . regained freedom of action . . ." The reference here is to Hitler's decision to ignore the statutes of the Treaty of Versailles and begin rebuilding the German military—a decision subsequently acceded to by the European powers charged with enforcing the treaty. "In restoring the defensive forces to the prewar tradition of a people's army," Marx continues, "Hitler . . . simply picked the forbidden fruit, and no archangel came to expel him."

The analogy here to Bush's willfully arrogant decision to "pick the forbidden fruit" by ignoring international law and the opinion of the world community when he launched his invasion of Iraq, is hard to miss. This becomes doubly apparent when you realize that both Bush and Hitler believed their actions were divinely inspired. Also analogous is the initial effect on the American public, which is nearly identical to what Marx describes as the German reaction to Hitler's moves:

"It would be a self-deception to attribute the exuberant response of the country to 'freedom' primarily to the effectiveness of National Socialist propaganda. Minister Curtius had measured his words when stressing, in 1931, the nexus between domestic politics and national insecurity—'Germans know from their experience at home how the consciousness of being without military protection . . . besets the soul of a nation and affects every phase of its existence.' What were civil liberties without 'freedom'?"

Marx then goes on to quote from a Nazi government proclamation that is eerily evocative of Bush's inaugural assertion that both "liberty at home" and "peace in the world" depend on "the expansion of freedom abroad," guided, naturally, by American dictate: "The government of the new German Reich, however, desires only one single moral and material power; it is the power to be capable of preserving the peace for the Reich and with it also for the whole of Europe!"

Although there has been some discussion in the international media of Bush's definition of "freedom," there has been (predictably enough) precious little analysis in mainstream American commentary—aside from widespread reflection on the hypocrisy of the fact that, whatever it means, Bush has no intention of expanding "freedom" into countries such as Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan, our torture-loving brothers-in-arms in the "global war on terror."

The problem with "freedom" is that—by its nature, perhaps—it is an expansive word that means different things to different people, depending on the context. My Webster's unabridged dictionary lists 17 specific definitions, some of which may conflict with one another—again, depending on the circumstances. Ronald Reagan, for example, routinely referred to the Islamic fundamentalists who went on to form al Qaeda as "freedom fighters." But are they still "freedom fighters" today, opposing foreign occupation of yet another Muslim country?

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