For the Right, Freedom Isn’t Free — In Any Sense of the Word

We seem to hear the words “freedom” and “liberty” from some pretty unlikely sources.

Think back to the “liberty cabbage” of WWI — recently updated as “freedom fries.”  The word “Freiheit” figured pretty prominently in Nazi propaganda; Nazi Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels started out as editor of Volkische Freiheit.

I usually don’t write columns about stuff on blogs, because I assume that if people reading a newspaper column were interested in inside baseball from the blogosphere they’d just read the blogs themselves. But in this case, I think Matt Yglesias states things about as well as it’s humanly possible to state them. Reviewing Tim Pawlenty’s latest political ad, which looks like something out of Paul Verhoeven’s version of “Starship Troopers,” he writes (“Tim Pawlenty and the Rhetoric of Freedom” Jan. 25):

“I continue to be fascinated by the way in which the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ is always so closely associated with authoritarian populist nationalist movements. Absolutely nothing in the imagery of the video or the policy agenda of the Republican Party is suggestive of freedom. It’s full of flags and grim-faced folks and bourgeois respectability and military jets flying in tight formation. It’s an ad from a conservative politician that’s about exactly what an ad from a conservative politician ought to be about — about preserving a way of life against Muslims, freeloaders, sexual deviants, and other threats.”

In other words, all images that would have been just as much at home in Nazi propaganda posters, in which the word “freedom” was so ubiquitous.  For the Nazis, “freedom” was about a collective way of life — the right of the German people to their “place in the sun.”  And for the American Right, “freedom” — in their idiosyncratic sense of a collective way of life — seems to be threatened mainly by other people being allowed to do what they want:  Like people with the same sexual equipment being allowed get married, or people with unfamiliar religions being allowed to build places of worship.

In the Lee Greenwood conceptual universe, it’s unclear just what “freedom” is actually supposed to mean beyond a worshipful submission to all manifestations of uniformed authority — except perhaps for a bunch of stuff like baseball games and church picnics that not even Hitler was ever interested in actually stopping anyone from doing.

After 9-11, George Bush suggested shopping and other forms of public relaxation as a way to prove that “the terrorists haven’t won.” Because shopping at the mall, apparently, is the central sacrament in the religion of American freedom. But it’s hard to imagine anyone in the Nazi state objecting to any of the things that Bush celebrated as exemplars of “freedom.”

Can you imagine Hitler complaining about Germans spending money at department stores, attending soccer matches, or using public transit? Do you think that he’d grumble that they were “entirely too free,” and that something needed to be done about it? No, Nazi propaganda posters were full of imagery of happy Germans going about the very same kinds of daily activities to which Bush exhorted Americans after 9-11.

What would have angered the Nazis is precisely the kinds of things that the folks on right-wing talk radio object to today. Hitler would have frothed at the mouth over someone questioning the background of the Reichstag fire or the powers granted in the subsequent Enabling Act. He would have ordered the immediate arrest of anyone who publicly questioned the official account of events in Danzig as a rationale for invading Poland. He would have shut down any publication that challenged the power of the German national security state, the necessity of an expansionist foreign policy to “defend Germany’s freedom,” or the alleged “threats” presented by various foreign powers.

It’s the stuff the people in uniform don’t want you to do that makes you free.

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