Liberty’s Deafening Bells
Matthew Yglesias writes:
Probably the weirdest thing about the Glenn Beck / Tea Party nexus to me is that it tends to rely so heavily on libertarian rhetoric and fear of incipient authoritarianism. These kind of sentiments would be a lot easier to take seriously if not for the fact that we didn’t see these people marching out in the streets when George W. Bush used the threat of terrorism to justify secret, illegal warrantless surveillance, detention without trial, torture, etc. Indeed, the very same people who spend Monday, Wednesday, and Friday complaining that Barack Obama’s “czars” are a threat to liberty not only weren’t worried about czars in the Bush years, they spend Tuesday and Thursday worrying that Obama’s not doing enough to ensure that intelligence operatives can break the law with impunity.
Jonah Goldberg, it seems to me, was the real pioneer in this brand of hypocrisy-driven hysteria—holding captives in secret where they’re hung by shackles from the ceiling and occasionally beaten to death is fine by him, but efforts to curb smoking are “liberal fascism.” And now this line of thinking seems to have completely taken over the right.
Yglesias, I think, misses the point. As I’ve tried to set forth in my review of Ted Widmer’s book, the concept of liberty has no inherent existence but is, rather, always situated within a larger view of the way things are.
For liberals like Widmer, the word liberty carries with it the concept of rights, specifically as articulated by Roosevelt in the 30s, and, later, by the civil rights movement in the 60s. The conservative tradition, by contrast, defines liberty as economic liberty — as the freedom not to pay for someone else’s health care or education. This tradition also posits that liberty depends on national security, which is why conservatives do not object to torturing suspected terrorists, or detaining them without trail. The upshot of all this is that, when Yglesias complains that the Tea Party /Glenn Beck crowd didn’t take to the streets during the Bush years, he is essentially complaining that conservatives are conservatives.
So arguing about “liberty” is mostly a fruitless exercise. Still, liberty is among the most powerful weapons in the polemicist’s arsenal, and there are few better ways to manipulate people than to blather on about freedom, especially if you happen to be FreedomWorks or FoxNews.
From a more relativistic vantage point, it is interesting to note that liberals and conservatives sometimes end up using identical words to express radically opposing agendas. On the one hand, you have the popular pro-choice slogan “keep your laws off my body”; on the other, the sign held by the woman at the center bottom of this photo: