Chapter 26 in The Education of Henry Adams, recently selected as the best non-fiction book written in English during the 20th century, bears the title “Twilight (1901).” In it the author, who taught and wrote remarkably astute history for many years, dons the mask of Janus in order to look forward as well as backward—neither of which filled him with optimism.
Any historian who means to keep his alignment with past and future must cover a horizon of two generations at least. If he seeks to align himself with the future, he must assume a condition of some sort for a world fifty years beyond his own. Every historian— sometimes unconsciously, but always inevitably—must have put to himself the question: How long could such-or-such an outworn system last? He can never give himself less than one generation to show the full effects of a changed condition. His object is to triangulate from the widest possible base to the furthest point he thinks he can see, which is always far beyond the curvature of the horizon.
To the practical man, such an attempt is idiotic, and probably the practical man is in the right to-day; but, whichever is right—if the question of right or wrong enters at all into the matter—the historian has no choice but to go on alone. Even in his own profession few companions offer help, and his walk soon becomes solitary, leading further and further into a wilderness where twilight is short and the shadows are dense.
In a shadowy attempt to be a practical man and a prudent historian, I shall begin by speaking about the future of freedom as it might have looked to some Americans in 1699, 1799, and 1899. Hence my use of plural freedoms in the title of this piece. I will then speculate about the prospects for freedom from our own vantage point as we look forward to a new century as well as a new millennium. Unlike Henry Adams, however, who contemplated a solitary walk into a wilderness where twilight was short, I take comfort from the collaboration of colleagues and friends who may join me in meditating about what may (or may not) lie ahead.
I seem to recall that a full generation ago futurology was all the rage. Speculation was not only deemed desirable, but considered fun and fairly free of consequences. I detect a greater degree of caution today, perhaps because technology, political ideology, and the court system, which all looked so straightforwardly promising in the early to mid-1960’s, have turned out to proliferate unimagined developments and unintended consequences. Hence we are more aware of ambiguous prospects, and we are somewhat less sanguine. As it happens, that is just how most Americans felt when the three previous centuries neared closure, albeit for alternative reasons. Similar moods prompted by different mindsets.
The ambiguities about freedom that were felt in 1699 seem very remote because they arose from scientific ignorance and curiosity combined with two different kinds of religious anxieties—one of them malignant and the other one a mixed blessing. Believe it or not, a single word evoked this multi-dimensional network of feelings. The word was chiliasm, and it meant the end of the world combined with the only kind of potential freedom that ultimately counted: eternal life following the Last Judgment. The sermons of Increase Mather and his mercurial son, Cotton, provide our richest source for this medley of apocalyptic messages and hopeful yearnings.
On the one hand, a bizarre blend of science and theology prompted them to predict an imminent “Deluge” on the basis of what Cotton Mather called “Sober Chiliasm.” As Perry Miller observed almost half a century ago after reading every surviving sermon and tract, “in the late seventeenth century, leaders of the new science devoted themselves to proving that modern physics not only confirmed but actually contrived a final conflagration.” The sense of dread associated with the portentous and “fatal” year 1700 was compounded by the emergence of theological liberalism, manifest in the consecration of unorthodox Benjamin Colman on Aug. 4, 1699 and his actual arrival in Boston on November 1st that year—a terrible portent that foretold the fragmentation of New England’s Calvinist orthodoxy.
On the other hand, the Mathers also anticipated a vast new “reformation” that would mean freedom from sin—the kind of freedom that mattered most to devout believers 300 years ago. It would most likely emerge from their pre-millennial expectations, namely that the Messiah would arrive and begin His thousand year reign. As Mather put it, “tremendous Concussions, and Convulsions, and Confusions upon the nations” would accompany the advent of a new pietistic power, a time when men would be disentangled from the follies to which “Sectaries” had bound them, a time when “this Panting and Heaving Tendency to Reformation will beat down all before it,” and nothing would obstruct the Kingdom of God “from appearing in an Universal Reign of Holiness and Righteousness among the Nations.” Because of our dire Y2K warnings, we say reform your electronic program circuits or else all is chaos. In the years 1699 to 1701 they said reform your commercial practices and your moral pretenses. Fear can be a mighty menace to freedom, whether it is inspired by pentecostalism or misused pentium chips.
A century later, in 1799—1800, we find freedom being invoked and envisioned in a variety of contexts: some of them in praise of the recently established federal Constitution and Bill of Rights as a safeguard of American freedom; some of them conveying anxiety because of the intense partisanship arising from the presidential election of 1800; some of them simply by-words of American republicanism, such as The Herald of Freedom, a newspaper published in Edenton, North Carolina, and The Guardian of Freedom, a newspaper that appeared in Frankfort, Kentucky; but above all, in pamphlets defending freedom of speech and of the press that emerged in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts crisis of 1798—99.
Yet another emphasis emerges if we follow the early settlers who trekked to the Kentucky wilderness at the turn of the century. In the ephemeral writings that they left, the emphasis rests upon seeking freedom from institutional or authoritarian constraints and from a class-conscious society; or else, on the positive side, they stressed the quest for an earthly paradise of freedom and abundance.
Although freedom of conscience had been an important priority for many of those who framed the federal Constitution, state laws remained on the books that, in theory if not always in practice, constrained freedom of inquiry in the U.S. John Adams expressed grave concern about this matter in writing to Thomas Jefferson during their later years. “We think ourselves possessed,” Adams observed, or at least we boast that we are so of Liberty of conscience on all subjects and of the right of free inquiry and private judgment, in all cases and yet how far are we from these exalted privileges in fact. . . . Now what free inquiry when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigation into the divine authority of those books [Old and New Testaments], . . . I think such laws a great embarrassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind.
At the end of the 19th century, ambivalent feelings about the future in general and about the future of freedom more particularly, appeared yet again, though not as commonly from a single-minded array of individuals or groups. Henry Adams, who is always good for a pithy quotation concerning the fin de siècle, highlighted the concept of entropy—mankind figuratively degenerating physically and running out of steam—and wrote obsessively and metaphorically about the dissipation of energy. “I am puzzled to convert our vital energy and thought into terms of physical energy,” he wrote. “As I measure it, our reserves of mental energy are already exhausted.” In a widely noticed parallel to Adams’s pessimism, Halford J. Mackinder, the influential historical geographer, asserted that the end of the century marked the end of the great age of exploration.
Nevertheless, I am not at all persuaded that Adams and Mackinder were genuinely representative of the general mood when the 20th century dawned. Otherwise we surely would not have so many books and essays written about that era calling it “the confident years.” The reasons why are well known: the emergence of the U.S. as a global presence because of newly acquired possessions in Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba; dramatic economic growth and prosperity following the depression of 1893—96; notable innovations in transportation (the automobile, trolley cars, the airplane, refrigerated railroad cars, etc.); and an immense increase in inventions and patents that foreshadowed a major technological revolution with wide-ranging implications.
Turning briefly to the perceived future of freedom during the 20th century, we must acknowledge an array of setbacks: such as the Red Scare that followed World War I and the persecutorial Smith Act of 1940 that made it a crime even to teach about the overthrow of government; such as the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; such as the anti-Communist hysteria that reached virulent levels in the decade following 1946. Because of “true patriots” who supported loyalty tests, guilt by association, and the propriety of persecuting people for behavior patterns and commitments more than a decade earlier, constraints upon freedom at mid-century became tragically commonplace. Moreover, FBI surveillance of countless individuals—prominent as well as obscure—combined with betrayal by informers of erstwhile friends and activists led many into disgrace, loss of employment, exile, and even suicide. A bittersweet irony lingers on in the words of “Pogo” cartoonist, Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Meanwhile, a significant development that first emerged during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal has expanded incrementally ever since and is regarded by many Americans, particularly conservatives, as an encroachment upon freedom. Their nemesis can be summed up in a single word-concept: planning. In The Road to Serfdom (1944), a text that became canonical in some circles, Friedrich von Hayek declared that planning led to fascism. As the state has assumed greater responsibility for everything from agricultural production and price supports to regional flood control and, especially, broad oversight of economic growth and inflation, complaints have arisen that systematic planning stifles free market forces and strangles the vaunted individualism that “built America.” Everyone does not agree, of course, and authorities now differentiate between liberal and conservative modes of planning in the realm of political economy. Be that as it may, planning certainly seems to be here to stay. The debate is bound to continue over whether it diminishes personal freedom; and, if so, whether the benefits of planning provide adequate compensation for the decline of individual initiative.
Just as planning can be viewed from both a positive as well as a negative perspective, some people have felt the same way about such scandalous stains upon American freedom as Watergate, or the covert bombing of Cambodia, or the illicit support for Contra activities in Central America during the 1980’s. Watergate, for example, led to a phenomenon that sociologist Michael Schudson has called the “year of intelligence.” He refers to the way that revelations began to emerge in 1973—74 about abuses of power by former presidents, such as John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, along with illegal activities by the CIA. Many believe that the net effect of these revelations has been to enhance freedom—manifest especially in the form of civic awareness and greater investigatory aggressiveness by the press, which often exercised various forms of self-censorship as recently as the middle third of the 20th century.
Finally, as a significant segue from the 20th century to prospects for freedom in the 21st, there is the complex yet fascinating relationship between liberty and equality. In 1920 historian Carl Becker offered this historical perspective on that relationship: “In no country was the eighteenth-century philosophy of liberty and equality so confidently, or perhaps so unconsciously, accepted as in the United States; to no country was it so well suited; in no country had it (until recently) worked so well or been so long unquestioned.”
Writing four decades later, however, historian David M. Potter observed a tension where Becker had perceived compatibility. Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Jackson Turner, Potter noted, “believed that love of equality and love of liberty go together.”
For Jefferson the very fact, stated in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal,” carried with it the corollary that they are all therefore “entitled to [and would be eager for] liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” From this premise it is easy to slide imperceptibly into the position of holding that equalitarianism and individualism are inseparably linked, or even that they are somehow the same thing. This is, indeed, almost an officially sanctioned ambiguity in the American creed. But it requires only a little thoughtful reflection to recognize that equalitarianism and individualism do not necessarily go together. Alexis de Tocqueville understood this fact more than a century ago, and out of his recognition he framed an analysis which is not only the most brilliant single account of the American character, but is also the only major alternative to the Jefferson-Turner image.
I find Potter’s position more nuanced and persuasive than Becker’s. In 1986 I published a book that traced changing perceptions of liberty in American culture. I argued that liberty as a concept in political thought could best be understood in relationship to other constructs with which it was customarily coupled by historical contemporaries. Therefore I posited liberty and property as the most salient pair for the colonial period; liberty and order as the meaningful linkage for the 19th century; and then liberty and justice as the subsequent and essential pursuit for 20th-century Americans. Liberty and equality, I suggested, would be the most problematic conjunction for the 21st century, because the two certainly had not yet achieved a satisfactory reconciliation in American thought and culture. Too many individuals still believed that efforts to engineer greater equality inevitably diminished liberty, whereas many supporters of enhanced equality saw no significant threat to liberty or else believed that if one of the two values had to be diminished in order to fulfill the other, equality deserved priority.
Although considerable progress has been made during the 20th century in achieving liberty with justice—above all, perhaps, by making the Bill of Rights applicable in state as well as federal courts, a truly notable augmentation of freedom in the U. S. —a great deal still remains to be done in this area. As I turn now to the future of freedom in the century that lies ahead, I begin with liberty and justice in the realm of law, and then turn to problematic ways that government still constrains freedom. I will conclude with some problems involving personal liberty, problems that unavoidably involve government and law, yet require changes in public opinion in order to genuinely enhance American freedom in conjunction with equality.
Starting with liberty and justice, then, let’s notice an issue that is not widely discussed by the public, but is increasingly a matter of concern to judges and a small group of legal scholars: namely, who determines the appropriate punishments once a conviction has occurred, and on what basis? The surface issue is flexibility. The underlying one is freedom for both the judges and, in many instances, the judged. The problem emerged from a bipartisan reform movement early in the 1980’s that sought to achieve “certainty and fairness” in the federal sentencing process by eliminating “unwarranted disparity” among sentences for similar defendants committing similar offenses. The transformation is best described in the words of its two most eloquent critics, a former federal judge and a professor of criminal law at the Yale University Law School.
On November 1, 1987, two centuries of sentencing practice in the federal courts came to an abrupt end. A regime of “Sentencing Guidelines” prescribed by a federal administrative agency went into effect. The purpose of the new regime was to divest the independent federal judiciary of the power to determine criminal sentences. Federal judges would still be the formal authority through which criminal sentences would be pronounced. But the new regime sought to strip them of authority to determine the purposes of criminal sentencing, the factors relevant to sentencing, and the proper type and range of punishment in most cases. Henceforth, these powers would rest with a newly formed bureaucracy, the United States Sentencing Commission, located in Washington, D.C.
Critics are not at all sanguine that change or reversal will occur any time soon. Among the benchmarks of American freedom affected by this law were the elimination of parole in many instances and, for the first time, the provision for appellate review of sentences. Its critics believe that the new system developed from disquiet with the concept of authoritative discretion, and from a “naive commitment to the ideal of rationality, and an enduring faith in bureaucratic administration.” The net result is a mighty boost for an indiscriminate policy of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”
Although the critique that I have just cited was prepared by two specialists in the realm of judicial procedure, there is an interesting convergence when we turn to public opinion, which is not known to be especially erudite about legal technicalities or even broader questions affecting American freedom. In 1999 the American Bar Association reported the results of a survey of 1,000 adults conducted in August 1998. Forty-seven percent of those polled believed that the courts did not “treat all ethnic and racial groups the same.” Thirty-nine percent said that minorities received equitable treatment and 14 percent had no opinion. Also, 90 percent of the respondents felt that affluent people and corporations enjoyed an unfair advantage in court. It would appear that public opinion may very well help to keep the new federal sentencing guidelines in place. Is that a desirable outcome? Despite all of the courtroom dramas that now appear on television, more than one-third of the respondents in this same poll held the mistaken belief that in a criminal trial, it is up to the defendant to prove his innocence!
The public’s perception that minorities are not treated equitably is borne out by a study showing that police routinely violate the restrictions against unreasonable searches and seizures and in many instances that the practice is tolerated by the Supreme Court. For example, a 1992 study of traffic stops in Florida found that while 5 percent of the drivers on the road were black or Hispanic, nearly 70 percent of those stopped and 80 percent of those searched were black or Hispanic. A study of all reported federal decisions from January 1993 to August 1995 involving bus and train “sweeps” in search of drugs found that nearly 90 percent of those targeted were people of color. As a result of a Supreme Court decision declaring such searches “consensual” rather than a “seizure” (Florida v. Bostick), police remain free to engage in dragnet-like searches in situations where it is extremely difficult for any citizen to refuse to cooperate. As David Cole has written, “by adopting a standard that ignores the coercion inherent in such encounters, the court permits the police to engage in a wide range of coercive intrusions on privacy without any basis for individualized suspicion.”
Then there is the frequency with which the police not only make mistakes by arresting or even shooting the wrong person, but violate due process and an entire array of citizen’s rights in so doing. In one instance that occurred in 1999 in my own community, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department cooperated with the New York City Police, no questions asked, in seizing an individual who was then transported 250 miles to New York City for a court session. He did not even know he was under arrest because his rights were never read to him and he was treated like an ally of the police (a possible witness, perhaps) rather than as a suspect in a very serious case involving 35 counts of rape and sexual assault in New York City and its surrounding area. The suspect turned out to be innocent and the sheriff’s department eventually issued a statement acknowledging that he had “been the victim of unethical police conduct by virtue of the rather odd mechanism by which an extended compelled interview with him was engineered by NYPD officers during the approximately four-hour Voluntary’ ride back to New York City.” Mean-while, the citizen’s reputation had been sorely tainted by all of the attendant media coverage and adverse publicity. Instances of this nature are manifold, some of them fatal while others result in avoidable assaults because police fail to take seriously a complaint concerning rape complete with a detailed description of the rapist. When the police do not themselves violate the freedom of citizens, they have been known to jeopardize freedom by dint of negligence or cynicism.
During the summer of 1990 I served as a member of the jury in a nasty homicide case in Tompkins County where I live. One of the most credible and persuasive witnesses for the prosecution in that case (the jury found the defendant guilty of second degree murder) was a detective for the New York State Police who was subsequently found guilty, along with several colleagues, of presenting false evidence, tampering with evidence, and lying under oath in various cases. Each detective was eventually sentenced to a jail term of four to seven years; but the cases in which they rigged evidence had to be re-tried, the credibility of the New York State Police in central New York was severely tarnished, and several persons were wrongly incarcerated as a result of the detectives’ overzealous desire to achieve convictions. It is truly tragic when the police deliberately contribute to the denial of freedom and maliciously sully the reputations of individuals.
Quite a hullabaloo occurred in March and April 1999 when it was revealed that sheriffs and prosecutors in Illinois had actually framed a man for murder in order to assuage public outrage when a heinous homicide put tremendous pressure on law enforcement authorities to make an arrest and secure a conviction. Although there is little reason to believe that that was a unique or isolated incident, we have no quantifiable idea how common such vicious practices are.
For a variation on this theme, it should also be noted that in February of 1999 the federal Secret Service helped to finance a national data bank of driver’s license photographs. I will return momentarily to the massive menace to freedom posed by electronic data banks. The government is doing very little to help protect our right to privacy. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that government has been part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
For a well-publicized instance where the freedom of some is being diminished in order to protect the safety of others, we should acknowledge that New York City recently became the first American city to actually confiscate the cars of accused first-time drunk drivers. Even if the drivers are found not guilty in criminal court, the city intends to keep the cars and their drivers will have to win civil court cases in order to have their vehicles returned! A number of cities have contacted the office of Mayor Rudy Giuliani asking for details. (The NYPD is relying upon a city rule designed to punish hard core drug dealers.) Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union is contesting this innovation on grounds that it is unconstitutional because it gives the police too much authority to mete out punishment. According to the executive director of the New York ACLU, the new procedure “is excessive and un-American. It says less about drunk driving than it does about Rudy’s authoritarianism.”
Amidst so much negative news about encroachments upon American freedom by law enforcement authorities—even when the issues at stake involve a delicate equilibrium between freedom and responsibility—it is comforting to learn from Lee C. Bollinger, an eminent authority on First Amendment rights, that freedom of speech is safeguarded more effectively today than at any time in our history. Indeed, Bollinger goes even farther. “Our nation stands alone in the world,” he argues, “in terms of the degree of protection that we afford speech. All other Western countries, in particular, have more potent limits on free speech.”
Turning to national government and constraints upon freedom, we cannot avoid speculation about whether the United States will significantly protect or enhance freedom abroad in the years ahead; or whether the CIA will continue its disreputable record of violating freedom beyond our own borders for specious reasons of U.S. national security or else to repress regimes whose ideologies we do not approve, such as socialism. Considering the past half-century as a whole, the CIA has a repugnant reputation—actually one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere if we look back to interventions in Guatemala in 1954 and again more recently, to Chile in 1973, and then to intervention in domestic elections in Italy and Japan at mid-century in order to secure governments most likely to cooperate with our own. The CIA has so persistently contributed to unfreedom and the victimization of innocent people that the U.S. role (and pressure for democratic reforms) in Haiti, Nigeria, East Timor, and Kosovo seems modest by comparison.
That issue leads directly to the question of documentary declassification, an urgent problem for historians but also, increasingly, for policy makers. A New York Times editorial in March 1999 explained the stakes this way.
Beginning with an investigation by a Senate committee in 1975, tantalizing bits of information have emerged about failed Central Intelligence Agency efforts to keep the Socialist Salvador Allende from becoming president of Chile in 1970, and the CIA’s ties to Mr. Pinochet’s intelligence organizations. Now, if the Clinton Administration carries out a well designed plan to declassify its information on Chile, the details of America’s role may be known.
The editorial concluded with implications for covert operations and national embarrassment at our role in denying freedom to others.
The C.I.A.’s reluctance to declassify documents on Chile in the files of its Operations Directorate is particularly unfortunate. The 1975 Senate investigation of C.I.A, activities found that the agency had run numerous covert operations to keep Mr. Allende from becoming president. Declassified documents show that in 1970 President Nixon instructed the C.I.A. to organize a military coup. The Senate report also mentioned the agency’s ties to the most sinister of Mr. Pinochet’s secret police organizations. The C.I.A. recently released crucial documents on its role in Guatemala’s violence. It should now reveal the truth about all its activities in Chile.
I would like to believe that these kinds of actions will not recur in the future; but sometimes my cynical side gets the better of me.
On the very same day that that editorial appeared, John Podesta, a member of President Clinton’s staff, served as the keynote speaker at the National Freedom of Information Day Conference held at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Virginia. He emphasized that openness is a singularly American concept and “provides the United States with an exceptional advantage in the world.” (Sic!) Podesta noted that the president had requested $30 million for declassification in the budget for 2000 and that Clinton’s request marked the first time that any president had recommended funding at that level for an openness initiative. Podesta went on to praise the president’s 1995 executive order 12958 because more material had been declassified in the two years since that order went into effect than in the previous 16 years combined. All well and good, but there remains considerable room for improvement in federal declassification of historic documents and in the prompt release of information under the Freedom of Information Act.
Perhaps the most “notorious” (i.e., widely noticed and discussed) threat to freedom results from an interface between government and the private sector. Although much has been said about it already in recent years, we can expect to read and hear even more as the new century opens. I have in mind, of course, intrusions upon our privacy that result from the compilation, sale and resale of electronic data bases. We receive unwanted junk mail, we experience credit card fraud, and we discover that all sorts of corporations and agencies have astonishingly complete profiles of our spending habits, taste preferences, and commercial vulnerabilities. The origins of the problem, moreover, go back farther than most people think.
The inappropriately named Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 did not provide for customers’ secrecy but, instead, facilitated the legally mandated retention of clients’ records and the subsequent creation of reports that have “a high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax, or regulatory investigations or proceedings.” This act gave the secretary of the treasury broad powers to require banks to keep records of all transactions, to require the reporting of all transactions above certain amounts, and so forth. The courts upheld the act in the face of challenges in 1974 and 1976. In the latter year, the Bicentennial of American Independence, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a bank customer had no Fourth or Fifth Amendment interest to assert when the government demanded access to records that an organization maintains about him or her. In yet another 1976 case, Fisher v. United States, the High Court held that an individual had no Fifth Amendment right to protest against an order to his attorney to produce records of his financial affairs that had been constructed by an accountant. As H. Jeff Smith has put it, “the legal wall of financial privacy was clearly crumbling.”
In response to problems and complaints that arose, two pieces of legislation restored a modicum of financial privacy for citizens during the later 1970’s and 1980’s. The Tax Reform Act of 1976 and the Right to Financial Privacy Act of 1978 both require the federal government to provide individuals with a notice of a summons before seizing records from financial institutions; and there is a “waiting period” during which a person can challenge the release of the records through legal action. Nevertheless, as computers and electronic networks have become more comprehensive, interconnected, and manipulable during the 1990’s, legislative safeguards provide diminished protection. We all have vivid memories of the televised Senate Finance Committee hearings in 1998 that revealed how vicious, exploitative, and intimidating the Internal Revenue Service can be and has been for years. It remains to be seen whether the IRS will clean up its act.
Although a Center for Democracy and Technology now exists in Washington, it can do little more than provide us with warnings (and horror stories) concerning the invasive potential of electronic technology, problems involving privacy and health information systems, freedom of expression on the Internet, the risk of social security fraud, the loss of innocence (and money) suffered by many who make credit card purchases via the Internet, and so forth. Electronic technology is amazing and beneficial, but also fraught with hazards to the health of our freedom.
Turning finally to what I have categorized as threats to personal liberty, it should be acknowledged that several of them result from state laws and court decisions. Consequently we are not quite finished with government as an obstacle to the achievement of freedom. A few examples should suffice. Oregon is the only state in the Union with a legally sanctioned assisted-suicide program. Despite evidence that abuses have not occurred (only 15 such deaths occurred in 1998), there is clearly no rush among the other states to join Oregon. Same-sex marriages remain problematic, of course, and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund publishes “case updates” that describe a broad array of discriminatory acts, public humiliations, and frequently worse—beatings and even homicide.
If one were Pollyanna-ish, it might be tempting to make the following, historically informed prediction. The beginning of this century was notable for the emergence or perpetuation of constraining orthodoxies, such as legally sanctioned racial segregation, canon formation, dress codes, scientific management (Taylorism), and technological wisdom rationalized by a culture of expertise. Perhaps the new century that lies just ahead will witness an increasing acceptance of heterodoxy, led by the advocates of multiculturalism (in the most inclusive sense) who have sought to reverse the sins of omission associated with social homogenization and Americanization, the creation and imposition of a national narrative, and an exclusionary mode of canon formation—even though the reversal is sometimes achieved, alas, by dismissing or minimizing the notion that a common core of privileges, responsibilities, and values provides the glue that keeps us together as a nation if not as a society.
Cassandra might very well respond, however, that there are numerous indications that vocal minorities are now determined to reject a social philosophy based upon the premise that allowing a thousand flowers to bloom makes for a very pretty paradise. (The French phrase for such a social philosophy is chacun a son gout.) In February 1999 an evangelical pastor in my community published a lengthy editorial in the local Gannett newspaper that began: “Our society is becoming intolerant of intolerance.” He continued in this vein.
Adultery, lying, cheating—taboos from a past era, but now tolerated by many. But intolerance? That’s the pariah sin in our culture, a chief social offense. . . . To be honest, I am sick of the word tolerance—at least as used in general conversation. While the most tolerant person doesn’t tolerate everything, our society is tolerating much that God says is intolerable.
Just a few days before that odd (and subsequently controversial) essay appeared, I received in the mail an issue of Nexus: A Journal of Opinion published at the Chapman School of Law in Anaheim, California. At first glance, the essays devoted to Planned Parenthood and abortion issues suggested that this must be a liberal journal of opinion. Seeing the two essays about “partial-birth abortion” indicated quite the opposite. But I like to believe that I am a tolerant fellow; so I read what conservative doctors, clergy, and legal authorities had to say. Imagine my dismay, however, when I reached Appendix C of this issue, titled “Selected Authorities on Abortion,” a 15-page alphabetical list of “influential people on abortion,” followed by Appendix D, a 16-page list of such people organized conveniently by state. The lists are complete with addresses, telephone numbers, and in some instances even e-mail addresses. In short, these are “hit lists” designed to elicit intolerant mail responses at best, or perhaps an e-mail virus or worm at worst. It’s a little hard to imagine a law school fostering social hatred—but then, what do I know about private law schools in California?
Hunting for heresy with search and destroy missions has been a fierce and persistent nemesis of freedom, whether it be religious or secular freedom. That was true in 1699, 1799, and 1899.It remains true today.
Now that knowledge is much less compartmentalized than it was at the beginning of the century when the AAUP provided an operative meaning for academic freedom, the range of remarks or assigned readings in many college courses has become increasingly broad and eclectic. I suspect that that means both good news and bad news for the denizens of academe—permanent as well as transient. For the professoriat (permanent), it may mean a wider range of issues about which to make ex cathedra pronouncements. For the transient students, however, it can mean listening to ideologically grounded opinions that actually lie outside the instructor’s area of expertise (which is all that “academic freedom” was designed to protect in the classroom).
Given a recent development in Georgia, by the way, we might look forward to appeals by politicians for some equivalent of “academic freedom” in the guise of persuasive license. A bill is now pending in the Georgia House of Representatives that would make it a violation of the state’s ethics laws for a candidate to lie while on the campaign trail. (The bill is silent about lies told by those actually elected to office.) I would not be sanguine about the likelihood of that bill passing. In 1998 the Washington State Supreme Court struck down a law that banned false political advertising on the grounds that it infringed upon free speech. Libertarians, I suppose, may feel reassured that dishonesty is now protected by the First Amendment.
Trying to take the public’s pulse at century’s end is very tricky business, in part because “the public” is fragmented rather than being a monolith; in part because we increasingly resent the reliance that politicians put upon polls, and also because we believe that polls encourage a herd instinct when it comes to opinions and voting behavior. Above all, perhaps, the public feels ever more manipulated and resents the loss of freedom that results from corporate schemes and the commodification of almost every aspect of American life. I regard the following extract from a recent editorial written by a Cornell undergraduate as representative. (Owing to constraints of space, it must suffice as my sole illustration.)
I’ve been thinking about freedom. That’s a word you hear often, in this country especially. We’re really afraid of losing it. Actually, we’re really afraid of losing it to our government.
I’m afraid, too. But I’m afraid that I never had anything that I might consider freedom in the first place. I’m afraid that if I have any real freedom to lose, I’m losing it now. But not to the government. My freedom is being sacrificed on the altar of huge corporations and engineered culture. Uncle Sam has never encroached upon my freedom, but Ronald McDonald has; and so have Joe Camel, Colonel Sanders and those hip swing dancers who wear Gap clothes.
Am I alone in being troubled by the fact that, right now, a bunch of old men are sitting in a board room trying to figure out what the “average American consumer” wants, produce it, and then try their darndest to make everyone who isn’t dead average want it as well?
I firmly agree that the media as well as corporations diminish our freedom by catering to what they perceive to be the lowest common denominator.
While we are looking ahead to the 21st century and speculating about the future of freedom, we must conclude with the acknowledgment that a small minority (including secular as well as religious persons) shares apocalyptic anxieties about the advent of the year 2000. “The approach to 2000,” according to the director of a Boston-based Center for Millennial Studies, “promises to provide a range of apocalyptic activities on a scale rarely seen in the recorded history of civilization.” I happen to regard that as a serious overstatement; but it is undeniably true that some fundamentalists feel certain that 2000 will mark the start of the “thousand-year” reign of Christ on earth (based upon verses in the Book of Revelation).
On the other hand, the Reverend George Montague, a theology professor at St. Mary’s University and the author of The Apocalypse and the New Millennium, aptly observes that using the Bible as a crystal ball is a mistake, especially for those who believe that the ultimate freedom will be found in life everlasting. “Symbols in the Bible aren’t meant to be interpreted in terms of specific events in the present age.”
So chiliasm still lives, though I believe that in 1999, as in 1699, it lives among a relatively small number of nervous Nellies. The greater, more worrisome threats to our freedom come from the misuse of electronic data bases, from imprudent government legislation, from environmental degradation, and from those whose business it literally is to manipulate the marketplace. I suppose, therefore, that I am more worried about the world ending with a credit card meltdown resulting from self-indulgent consumerism than with a big bang for purgatory. Apocalypse now concerns me less than the penetrable parameters of consumer freedom next year. On that account, once again, I find words of anticipatory wisdom in the posthumously published essays of historian David M. Potter.
The modern American, still thinking of freedom in the old-fashioned way as independence from coercive authority, may very well overestimate the extent to which he is free. In fact, compared with the Negro slave and exploited factory worker of the nineteenth century, he probably has a relatively unclear idea of how his freedom is limited. Perhaps what all this means is that freedom for the modern American depends less than ever before on resistance to the controls exerted by others and more than ever on his own willpower and self-control. External vigilance remains the price of liberty, but the first person to watch is oneself.
I hope that a century hence our posterity will be able to look back and say that we warranted an elegy to freedom instead of a eulogy for it. In this instance, being non-U, is the preferable mode. Whether we merit an elegy rather than a eulogy, however, is up to U. It may also be up for grabs.