Freedom: Who Needs It?

What has happened to the idea of freedom in the United States? A lot that is not good, the eminent writer and NEW YORKERcorrespondent Richard Rovere believes. Especially among the young and supposedly radical thinkers, impetuous verbiage obscures a disregard verging on contempt for the basic individual liberties. Mr. Rovere’s newest book (his seventh), WAIST DEEP IN THE BIG muddy, has just been published by Atlantic-Little, Brown.

THE Atlantic FOUNDED IN 1857


INDIVIDUALITY is the aim of political liberty,” James Fenimore Cooper wrote in 1838, in The American Democrat, and a decade later, in his Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau insisted that “there will never be a really free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”

How wrong — how mistaken in prophecy — our American moralists have been! Had Cooper and Thoreau been right, the Great Society would be all around us, its every member happy and fulfilled. There would be no civil disorder, and of course no war in Vietnam. “Alienation” might be a legal and pathological term — but not a widespread social phenomenon and the fundamental “issue” in the presidential campaign of one aspirant, Senator Eugene McCarthy. Civility would prevail, and, the state having long since accommodated itself to the examined consciences of “individuals,” there would be no point to the kind of civil disobedience to which Thoreau felt driven by the Mexican War. Thoreau was an eloquent man, a noble spirit in a mean time, but his logic was often flawed, and it was his proposition — one wonders if he could actually have believed it — that if the state liberated the individual, the individual would liberate the state, and everything would be just fine. Jefferson and Toqueville knew better, but they had known more of the world than Concord and did not think that all truth was contained in “the mind and heart of me.”

It seems not to have dawned on Thoreau that the social whole might be something greater than — or at least something quite different from — the sum of its parts. With his view of man and the state, he would have had a hard time understanding what has happened in this republic in the century since his death, which is that the state has come to behave toward the individual pretty much as he thought it should but that it is still, alas, given to folly and wickedness, still very much in need of “enlightenment.”

I am assuming that the individual qua individual (as distinct, be it clearly noted, from the individual as a member of the whole society or of any minority within it) has very little to complain about in the United States at the present time. Though a day may come, and before very long, when this will not be true, it seems to me clear beyond serious dispute that the liberties specified in the Bill of Rights are honored and in general vigorously upheld by the state. The government that Cooper distrusted and Thoreau despised imposes no effective limitations on speech or any other form of individual expression. I may say what I choose and disseminate it in any way I find possible, no matter how much offense I may give society in general or any of the groups that constitute it. In matters political, moral, and religious, my rights as an individual take precedence over any and every consensus of public opinion. I am seldom held to any test of factuality or damage. Indeed, the more powerful my adversary happens to be, the more unrestrained may I be in smiting him, for the courts have ruled that the bigger they are, the harder they may be hit. If I wish to proclaim my hatred and defiance of authority, constituted or otherwise, I can expect objection but not, as a rule, interference; should interference be attempted or proposed, I can demand and get the state’s protection.

It may be objected that what I describe as rights and liberties are in fact privileges and immunities that are largely dependent on status — and, even at that, honored only in certain jurisdictions. Were I a black Mississippian not exercising but merely pleading for my “rights,” I might be speaking my last words on earth. As a white New Yorker denouncing authority in Mississippi. I might meet the same fate. Status is important in this society — in fact, in any society—and if I threaten that of another man in certain circumstances, I may lose my right to live. But if I lost it in such circumstances, I would have lost it to another individual, not to the state, even if the individual happened to be an agent of some provincial government. For the individual, equal protection is assured by the state that exercises national sovereignty. In England, in November, 1967, a Black Muslim named Michael Abdul Malik was given a year’s imprisonment for what the sentencing judge called “attempting to raise hostility” against white people — an offense under the Race Relations Act of 1965. A couple of weeks later, the London Sunday Times was fined $12,000 and court costs for having printed an unflattering but accurate description of the same Malik in a picture caption while his case was sub judice. But in the United States, Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, though they may encounter difficulties over passport regulations and statutes dealing with the possession of firearms, are as free as any benighted honky to preach hatred and incite others to civil disorder, and a journalist is free to use any language he chooses in describing them.

Is THE individual as free to do what he wants as well as say what he wants? Of course not. No society can protect anyone’s rights without a criminal code. However, my freedom of action is probably greater than any that has ever before existed in an organized society. I can adopt any style of living that does not interfere with the right of others to do the same. There are no limits to my freedom of association except the possible reluctance of others to associate with me. There are almost no remaining constraints on sexual activity between consenting adults. In recent years, there has been established a right unnamed and unclaimed seventy-five years ago — the right to privacy. The right to withhold support from and participation in certain undertakings of the state, such as war, no doubt falls short of what Thoreau wished, but it is vastly broader than it was in his day. Conscientious objection to military service is reported under a steadily broadening definition of “conscience,” and it is conceivable that the courts will one day extend a similar respect to the kind of tax-withholding for which Thoreau spent a night in Concord jail. In ways too numerous to cite, the state has yielded to Thoreau’s smug assertion that “any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”

The political order may accord liberties to the individual which the social or economic order may be said to nullify or to diminish in value. As the Marxists used to say, what good is freedom of the press to anyone who does not own a press? A man has to have a home before he can call it his castle. But to repeat, the early libertarians regarded the state — the central, sovereign state — as their antagonist and did not distinguish it from the social and economic orders. Their conflict was with government, and by all the measures most of them employed, the victory is already theirs. Furthermore, when the conflict has been with oppressive social and economic power, the state has as often as not been the ally of the abused individual. Thorcau’s conditions for a “free and enlightened state" have been achieved.

Yet never in our history has the individual seemed as wretched and despairing as he is today; and seldom have free men anywhere felt so thwarted and powerless in their relations to government democratically chosen. I speak particularly, but by no means exclusively, of those who have sought and in some measure achieved “individuality.” The conformists seem hardly less in revolt than the nonconformists. Never have disaffection, alienation, and frustration been more widespread. And, what is the most alarming thing of all, never has the kind of liberty the libertarians valued so greatly been held in such low esteem by those who possess and use it. Thoreau’s hope for the redemption of the state was, of course, absurd. Liberty does not create enlightenment; it merely brings it within the realm of the possible. But at least one might suppose that liberty would be valued for its own sake and be seen by the individual as one means for building a society that would be somewhat closer to his heart’s desire.

It is clear in 1968 that one can suppose no such thing. There now seems to be something new under the American sun — a disenchantment not only with the society in which individual liberty thrives as it seldom has in the past but with the idea of liberty itself. In a survey of attitudes among liberal and radical college students and teachers late in 1967, Nan Robertson, of the New York Times, found that those who have the most grandiose and in some ways the most humane visions of a different, better America place little value on their constitutional rights. “The most radical among them displayed total scorn for individual liberties,” Miss Robertson reported. Nor, evidently, is this contempt limited to the very young, who — lacking much acquaintance with, to say nothing of respect for, history — take freedom very much for granted. Mary McCarthy, a writer with a richly informed sense of the past and an honorable record of libertarian activity, has lately described “freedom in the United States . . . simply as the right to self-expression, as in the dance, psychodrama, be-ins, kinky sex, and baking ceramics.”

The disillusionment of the radical students and of such of their elders as Miss McCarthy has its origins—as what does not in this country today? — in the war in Vietnam. What they have all discovered, though it is hard to believe that Miss McCarthy did not know it all along, is that the war cannot be stopped by the individual’s exercise of liberty. Miss McCarthy was quite explicit about this: “The uselessness of free institutions, pleasurable in themselves, to interpose any check on a war of this character, opposed, though not enough, by most so-called thinking persons, suggests that freedom . . . is no longer a political value.” By “value” she means, I am sure, “weapon,” or, better perhaps, “force.” Certainly this is what Dwight Macdonald means when he explains that he took up “resistance” in the summer of 1967, when “it became evident to me that two years of writing, speaking, and demonstrating against the war had not got through to our President.” (Macdonald is a man of awesome ingenuousness. He has been writing, speaking, and demonstrating for thirty-five years, through live presidencies, without, so far as is known, “getting through to a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Anything. He must have rated Johnson as an especially quick study.)

The bitter truth is that we cannot use our liberty or our individuality to make the President cease and desist in Vietnam. Indeed, when we try, he insists on telling us that he is doing it all so that we can hold on to our right to dissent. Under the circumstances, the most we can do is vote against him when the proper time comes and in the meanwhile try to persuade others to do the same. This kind of activity, however, we undertake not really as individuals, as right-minded majorities of one, but as fragments of society.

I HAVE suggested that there is something new to American experience in this disenchantment with individual liberty. I think it is without precedent. But I also think I detect a common element in the attitudes of Thoreau and Mary McCarthy. Neither is willing to accept liberty as an end in itself. The classic libertarian position, one has always supposed, is that the whole point of the struggle is to get the state off one’s back — to achieve individuality, as Cooper said, and to achieve it for exactly the purpose Miss McCarthy scorns, “selfexpression.” Kinky sex and ceramics could be part of it, as well as a man’s right to hold and proclaim his own vision of God or of beauty. The idea was not to control the state, but to avoid being controlled by it, so that the individual, as Cooper put it, “is left to pursue his means of happiness in his own manner.” But Cooper was a conservative, a right-winger of sorts, while Thoreau and Mary McCarthy represent another tradition — that of “social conscience” and political reform. They ask the state not to leave them alone but to give them power, to let them be part of the life of the state and have a share in what nowadays is called “decision-making” — so that, as Thoreau professed to hope, that state could be made “free and enlightened,” and as Miss McCarthy would have it, freedom could be used to “interpose a check” on the war in Vietnam.

It is easy enough to say that they are mistaken as to the nature and value of individual liberty and have even turned inside out the classic defenses of it. But one is then compelled to ask if these arguments were ever themselves reasonable and honest. Has the desire for freedom ever been only a desire for self-expression or self-fulfillment? The great appeals for liberty have often stated the case in these terms — “Give me liberty or give me death” — but while there have been some valorous and lonely battles waged by individuals, the great crusades for liberty were collective undertakings (not for “me” but for “us”) in which the aim was a collective liberation. Not many of those who have fought for liberty, if only in some bloodless demonstration against oppressive authority, have themselves had much to gain from destroying censorship or establishing the right to free scientific inquiry. No doubt there are in every society a few people who have faith, justified or otherwise, in their individual ability to create something of value or to uncover (some hidden truth about the world and ask nothing of their fellowman but noninterference. But, as the cases of Henry Thoreau and Mary McCarthy so amply demonstrate, even among the most gifted there can be so powerful a yen to change the world that a devaluation of freedom seems called for when it develops that free speech and free thinking and free love are not particularly effective instruments of change. And among the less gifted, those who are incapable of using liberty in a solitary pursuit of truth or beauty, disillusionment is bound to be commensurately greater. Eric Hoffer long ago pointed out that mass movements are built and staffed by “uncreative men of words.”

And so it may be idle, even stuffy and pedantic, to point out that some Americans have misconstrued the nature of liberty and that they ask for more than can reasonably be expected of it. If this is a species of irrationality, it is only one of several that are to be found in this country today. To confront one’s contemporaries with the ideals of the founders and early ideologues may be as irrelevant as attributing to the founders the present maladies of the nation they established. The fact is that the society in which we live is not the one the founders intended it to be or the one the ideologues hoped it would someday become. In it, the individual has a wide range of liberties and, thanks mainly to its affluence, a wide range of opportunities for self-fulfillment. But, as John Kenneth Galbraith has written, “the presumption of this society is no longer individualist but collectivist.” He might have added that this is no recent development. Ours is a mass society in which ideas get lost or diluted or distorted in consensus — and this is not a word that Lyndon Johnson invented or gave currency to but one that Theodore Roosevelt selected as descriptive of the way it is in our political system. Universal education, perhaps the most distinctive of our institutions, created not a nation of individualists but a literate mass that formed itself into a market for mass culture and consensus politics.

IT WAS doubtless inevitable — that is to say, predictable — that there would be extraordinary tensions between the free individual and the free but generally unresponsive society. For freedom and individuality are not sweet but galling when they cannot be put to good use, which for most men means some power to control events. This side of the New Jerusalem, there will always be a reformer of sorts dwelling in every sentient being. Each of us wishes that the mass would adopt at least some of our values, and some of us want a good deal more than reform. “Quite simply, I want a new civilization,” said Ezra Pound, who went mad from wanting.

A classic instance of how galling a powerless freedom can be is to be found in the memoirs of George Kennan, perhaps the most brilliant diplomat of the century. Kennan entered the Foreign Service of the United States in 1925, and the government paid for an education that put him on the road to becoming our leading authority on Soviet affairs and about as well informed as anyone else on Germany and Eastern Europe. From the late twenties down to the end of the forties, he provided Washington with interpretations of men and events that can, in hindsight, be seen to have been almost spectacularly accurate. What use did his government make of the talent it had so wisely developed and of the analyses that might have saved it so much grief? Not until the very end of his career did his superiors — the ambassadors and Secretaries of State and Presidents he had served — trouble to listen to him.

In his memoirs are dozens of memoranda drawn from his and the Department’s files; though some were written more than thirty years ago, they make compelling reading today. Had they been read upon receipt by those to whom they were addressed, this essay might bear happier tidings than it does. But many of them, in all probability, were never read by anyone before they were published by Kennan himself and, ironically, given mass distribution by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Though he is by temperament anything but a whiner, Kennan, as an autobiographer, is an aggrieved chronicler of rejection and of a frustration so deep that, having “no reason to believe that my views would be interesting or welcome in official Washington,” toward the end he almost gave up trying; and, in the end, even after a brief period of belated recognition, he got out, hoping that he would have more impact on events by the writing of history than by writing policy recommendations that policy-makers never read. Out of public life, he has contributed much to enlightenment but discouragingly little to public policy.

George Kennan was not ignored because his views were radical — they were anything but that; he wanted no new civilization — or because he was held in low esteem. It would be closer to the truth to say that he was ignored because his views were complex, and despite the exemplary lucidity of the prose in which they were couched, not easily grasped. The views that Kennan advanced were those of an individual, an Emersonian Man Thinking — thinking as hard as he possibly could, thinking his way through illusions to what he perceived as reality. His views could seldom be reduced to slogans; indeed, they often ran counter to the slogans currently in vogue and obscuring hard truth. The consensus could not accommodate them.

We are, as I see it, in this fix: ours is probably the only kind of society which can liberate the individual, and it is at the same time a society in which he is less likely to find fulfillment than he might under certain kinds of authoritarian rule. Dissent is tolerated and at times encouraged, but unless and until it is organized on a mass scale — developing in the process a new orthodoxy, and inevitably, a new dissent — it is not more likely to influence events than it would be in the Soviet Union. Like the rich man with his money, the free individual learns that freedom cannot buy happiness. He suffers anxieties of a kind he would not know in a totalitarian country, where the notion that a few scattered voices might change national policy could no more take hold than the notion that a local astronomy club could send a rocket to Venus. The anxieties may be endurable when he differs with the society over matters that he regards as being at least debatable and subject to compromise; they become unendurable when he persuades himself that because of his powerlessness men and women in large numbers are dying in hideous ways each hour of every day.

When the failure to prevail through freedom becomes thus unendurable, it is only, one supposes, a short step to a renunciation of freedom itself. This would be particularly the case in a country in which not even the oldest citizens can recall a time when the individual qua individual was subject to the more severe forms of repression. In our time, the civil rights movement and the labor movement have had their martyrs, but even when Joseph McCarthy flourished, no one lost his life as a fighter for the freedom of the individual. (Some may say there were losses no less grave, and this may be true, but the sufferers who live in memory are those who have died or at least bled for a cause.) A right that has long been secured is less prized, and more easily despised, than a right won in our own or our father’s time.

IT IS not, then, difficult to see how in this worst of American times, some of the young and some of the not so young can, as Miss Robertson put it, display “total scorn for individual liberties.” But to understand is not to pardon. If individual liberties are held in contempt simply because they produce no quick political results, liberty of all kinds will be in jeopardy. Of course Dwight Macdonald cannot talk or write the President of the United States out of the war in two years. Nor can Stokely Carmichael create black power by extolling it before a thousand crowds.

The test of liberty can never be narrowly pragmatic. Freedom of expression does not assure greatness: it may, on the contrary, smother it in outpourings of mediocrity. But if for this or any other reason it is to be held in low esteem by those who wish to change society, they will soon enough find that the likeliest kind of change their attitude will promote is in the direction of reaction and regression.

We appear to have reached a point at which there can be no communication between the alienated and those who have, as I do, a continuing commitment not only to the professed ideals of this society, many of which are dishonored every day, but to its political and legal institutions. Alienation is not, I suppose, a point of view that can be dealt with by discourse of any kind. Still, it seems to me that those who are coming to perceive the limitations of liberty owe it to themselves to confront not only the disagreeable facts about those limitations but the facts, many of them no less disagreeable, about the nature of this society and its place in history and in the world.

Such a confrontation can be dispiriting indeed, for it can produce despair not only about American possibilities but about human possibilities in general. It must begin, I think, with an acknowledgment of the fact that the United States was born in a revolution led by men of uncommon intelligence and integrity, men whose ideals were of an elevation rare in the history of revolutions. They provided us with model charters of freedom and with a governmental structure that, whatever its defects, has been workable enough to endure for almost two centuries. They achieved a political unity that was in time, though not without strife, to become continental. The continent we claimed was enormously rich and fertile, and this made easier the maintenance of the liberties for which the charters provided. In the first century and a quarter of our national existence, we attracted from a Europe unable to achieve much in the way of either liberty or unity millions of settlers eager to share the opportunities our continent offered, and for the most part, eager to share our ideals. We enjoyed, in short, good fortune of a kind unknown in the past and unlikely to be known in the future. It is not, I think, chauvinistic to say that if in the end we prove unable to make a go of democracy, there is a fair presumption that no one else will be able to do so either.

The alienated feel that the evidence is already in, that we have compromised ourselves fatally, and that the role of the individual is either to destroy the society or drop out of it. In that case, if I am right, they must concede the futility of the very idea of human community and the fatuousness not only of change but of criticism. For myself, though I have not known a time of greater anguish over our possibilities, I want this society to be preserved, and I hope for the strength to maintain my own commitment to it. Despite the horror of Vietnam, despite the squalor and hopelessness to which we have condemned generation after generation of Negro Americans, despite the vulgarity of much of our culture, we have, I think, done much to keep hope alive in this world. Until the Negro is fully franchised and represented, we cannot rebut those who are cynical about our democratic professions. Nevertheless, our history has been one of a steady extension and strengthening of the democratic procedures — and this extension continues in this period. The rule of law has likewise been extended and strengthened, more in the last decade than in any period in the past. Though our economy can fairly be described as exploitative, we have, by the exercise of democracy on behalf of equality and of compassion, compelled it to distribute the product of our agriculture and technology more equitably than many countries which claim to have institutionalized economic egalitarianism have distributed their products.

As for our failures, they seem to me — to use a phrase expressive of some of our shabbier values — about par for the course. The war in Vietnam is a monstrous miscarriage of a foreign policy that may very well have been ill-conceived to begin with, but I do not think it morally more odious than similar undertakings on the part of other great powers, most notably and most recently, the French in Indochina and Algeria, who now censure us. Among the alienated, it is terribly fashionable now to say that ours is a “racist” society. Of course it is. I should like to know of an organized society anywhere of which this cannot be said. I have yet to visit a country in which the dominant minority, even where it is physically indistinguishable from any of its majorities, is not persuaded of its own innate superiority. I think it far less remarkable that we can be accurately described as racist than that we can be described as a people who have shown some eagerness to be free of this condition and have elected leaders and representatives committed to this form of liberation.

Though I have been writing here of “this society” as if it were an entity that the individual can sensibly be “for” or “against,” this way of approaching the problem has never made much sense to me. There are too many loose and loosely connected phenomena here, too many currents and crosscurrents, too many forces in tension and contention, to speak of the whole thing as a machine in operation. There is plenty to be despised and rejected. There is much that stands in need of radical change or of destruction. There is at the same time much to be defended and preserved, the liberty of the individual being to my mind the first of these because it is the most needed for the realization of any possibilities. The work of any sentient individual, of anyone interested in appraising the utility or inutility of freedom, would seem to me to be to cast a discriminating eye on the nation — not to determine whether it is good or bad but to associate these qualities with the specific values and institutions that come within his field of vision. His judgment will not be reflected in cease-anddesist orders from the President or rewarded by vast transformations of the economic order. But the exercise of liberty will be a defense of liberty, while its disparagement will surely lead to its atrophy and disappearance and to the end of any talk about human possibilities.