Sunday, November 9, 2008

A New Birth of Freedom: The Inaugural Theme

Bill Moyers asked during a joint interview with professors Eric Foner and Patricia Williams what they thought about the purported theme of Barack Obama's upcoming inaugural address "A New Birth of Freedom." Here are the responses beginning with Eric Foner the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University.
"I think President Bush, in an odd sort of way, has devalued the concept of freedom by the cynical and militaristic way he has employed it. Freedom meant invading another place and giving them freedom, whether they wanted our freedom or not. But I think Obama has a great opportunity to rekindle all other ideas of freedom which have existed in our history. Freedom as economic security, freedom as a sort of sense of dignity and empowerment for people who maybe have lacked that in the past, freedom as a collective sense of the society becoming freer, not just individuals"
Patricia Williams the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia Law School followed up with these thoughts
"I think freedom has been really collapsed or restrained to a kind of arch libertarianism, which is deeply economic. So freedom is really a free market. I mean, it's sort of been conflated with the free market, which is not to say that it doesn't have something to do with the free market.

But the other larger constitutional definition of freedom is dependent upon things like due process. It is dependent upon the amendments to the Constitution. And those have been given very short shrift in recent years. And so the re-acquaintance with our Bill of Rights as a foundation of freedom without a price tag of freedom as a notion of the beloved community is something that I think hopefully we'll see more of."


In and interview I saw a few years ago a reporter asked 10 Americans in a grocery store what they thought America was fighting for in Iraq. Out of those questioned 8 of the 10 responded with one word - freedom. Of all the underlying themes in American history this one goes back to the meetings at Independence hall and was paramount in the frontal lobes of Franklin, Jefferson, Sherman, Livingston, and Adams. And yet, like the word "God" the word "freedom" can be hijacked and used as a brand, as it was so effectively to rouse emotion and allegiance to nefarious or misguided causes, and to manifest the designs of architects of war, as evidenced in the grocery store responses above. In my mind there is no greater threat to "freedom" as defined by our framers as "the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint" than the the culture of fear promulgated by the Patriot Act. As Patricia Williams points out the constitutional definition of freedom is dependent on the maintenance of due process and habeas corpus. Though neither candidate spoke of freedom very much during the campaign process Barack did mention over and over his desire to "turn the page" and begin "writing a new chapter in American history" I hope that people will latch on to the narrative of freedom and that American consciousness will be raised to realize the broader more encompassing definition of this evolving meme.

Listen
to Obama's first radio address as President-elect.
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