In his NY Times column Monday, Paul Krugman asks a question whose subtext subsumes its substance:
How many Americans will be denied essential health care in the name of freedom?
In case you haven’t noticed, the response to every critical policy issue proffered by the plutocratic funded Teabagger, Libertarian dominated GOP is a non-answer: no can-do, because, you know, freedom. An easy, bumper sticker slogan that appeals to the low information voter and propagandists alike.
Rational gun safety laws? Farmer Fred might have to drive 30 miles to town to record a transfer of his shotgun to his grandson. (Maybe he could combine it with one of his regular town trips, or like, when he has to register the transfer of a vehicle.) Financial regulation? As the banksters are fond of saying: the invisible hand of capitalism is regulator enough, thank you very much. Pollution controls? That costs jobs and all the freedom that goes with ‘em. Immigration reform? Employers should be free to hire whomever they want, at whatever pay the market will bear. That’s the free market, baby.
Krugman drills down on the healthcare issue:
I’m referring, of course, to the question of how many Republican governors will reject the Medicaid expansion that is a key part of Obamacare. What does that have to do with freedom? In reality, nothing. But when it comes to politics, it’s a different story.
It goes without saying that Republicans oppose any expansion of programs that help the less fortunate — along with tax cuts for the wealthy, such opposition is pretty much what defines modern conservatism. But they seem to be having more trouble than in the past defending their opposition without simply coming across as big meanies.
Specifically, the time-honored practice of attacking beneficiaries of government programs as undeserving malingerers doesn’t play the way it used to. When Ronald Reagan spoke about welfare queens driving Cadillacs, it resonated with many voters. When Mitt Romney was caught on tape sneering at the 47 percent, not so much.
There is, however, an alternative. From the enthusiastic reception American conservatives gave Friedrich Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom,” to Reagan, to the governors now standing in the way of Medicaid expansion, the U.S. right has sought to portray its position not as a matter of comforting the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted, but as a courageous defense of freedom.
Yup, the Romney Revelation required a reboot— blaming the victim can only take you so far, especially when the victims are so close at hand. So, time to step into the Cheney time machine to make old things appear new again.
Conservatives love, for example, to quote from a stirring speech Reagan gave in 1961, in which he warned of a grim future unless patriots took a stand. (Liz Cheney used it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed article just a few days ago.) “If you and I don’t do this,” Reagan declared, “then you and I may well spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” What you might not guess from the lofty language is that “this” — the heroic act Reagan was calling on his listeners to perform — was a concerted effort to block the enactment of Medicare.
So, it’s back to the future, where the right wing antediluvians think they can pour old wine into new wine skins. Their conception of freedom is truncated into the freedom from formulation— freedom from government, which is to say, society as a whole. The other formulation of freedom, freedom to, was long ago perverted into license— license to do whatever the hell somebody with means wants, ignoring the generations of collective effort that made their self-centered notions of freedom possible.
When but a sophomore in high school, I had the good fortune to encounter the writings of the noted psychologist, Erich Fromm, who made clear to me the nuanced differences between freedom from and freedom to. (As a horny teenager, I picked up his classic The Art of Loving, thinking it was a sex manual of some sort, but got hooked instead on his philosophical approach to life.) As long as we are doing a little time traveling, let’s go back another twenty years, to the publication of Fromm’s Escape From Freedom in 1941 (during the height of The Third Reich). From the WikiP entry:
Fromm distinguishes between ‘freedom from’ (negative freedom) and ‘freedom to’ (positive freedom). The former refers to emancipation from restrictions such as social conventions placed on individuals by other people or institutions. This is the kind of freedom typified by the Existentialism of Sartre, and has often been fought for historically, but according to Fromm, on its own it can be a destructive force unless accompanied by a creative element, ‘freedom to’ the use of freedom to employ spontaneously the total integrated personality in creative acts. This, he argues, necessarily implies a true connectedness with others that goes beyond the superficial bonds of conventional social intercourse: “…in the spontaneous realization of the self, man unites himself anew with the world…”
A world unobtainable to the selfish and the cruel. What else explains their desire to destroy a society which they reject, from which they have chosen to ex-communicate themselves? Better its destruction than a constant reminder of their own dysfunction.
WikiP concludes its review with this (italic emphasis mine):
Fromm examines democracy and freedom. Modern democracy and the industrialised nation are models he praises but it is stressed that the kind of external freedom provided by this kind of society can never be utilised to the full without an equivalent inner freedom. Fromm suggests that though we are free from obvious authoritarian influence, we are still dominated in our thinking and behaviour by ideas of ‘common sense’, the advice of experts and the influence of advertising. The way to become truly free in an individual sense is to become spontaneous in our self-expression and behaviour and respond truthfully to our genuine feelings. This is crystallised in his existential statement “there is only one meaning of life: the act of living it“. Fromm counters suggestions that this might lead to social chaos by claiming that being truly in touch with our humanity is to be truly in touch with the needs of those with whom we share the world. This is the meaning of a truly social democracy and the realisation of the positive ‘freedom to’ that arises when people escape the malign influence of totalising political orders.
I heard Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) play the “common sense” card yesterday, trying to explain his support for the watered down gun safety agreement he reached with his Democratic counterpart, Joe Manchin (D-W.VA). “Common sense” is the mantra conservatives are using these days to oppose government regulation of any sort. “The advice of experts” is what fuels the whole deferential beltway pundit mentality. And the advertising industry is exactly the foundation of the modern day political propaganda machine.
The more things change the more they stay the same.