Thinking Freedom, Talking Democracy

Recent events have been sobering, making a lot of our public concerns look petty and selfish. It's hard to get righteous about heterosexual marriage when our official national policy includes homosexual humiliation of Muslims. It feels self-centered to whine about gas prices when Iraqi children are dying in our war against their oil-rich country. Tax cuts don't seem so pressing when we see flag-draped coffins. Appeals for campaign contributions sound shrill and mean against news of escalating violence in Gaza.

An ugly underbelly of American culture has been revealed: racism, homophobia, misogyny, hyper-masculinity, and glorification of killing that apparently goes right to the top of the Bush administration.

Most people I talk to are deeply ashamed. A few weeks ago they were willing to defend the Bush administration's conduct of the war and their mistreatment of prisoners as necessary, albeit regrettable, with truisms about the hell of war and the wickedness of terrorists.

Today I hear people volunteering that Bush should fire Rumsfeld and get out of Iraq, and adding that even then they won't vote for Bush. They admit to being sickened by the photographs of torture, appalled at the carnage in the Middle East, and angry about the lies, secrecy and arrogance of the Bush administration and Congressional leadership.

But overwhelmingly, they don't want to talk about it: they just want it fixed.

And there's the rub.

How do we fix it? If smashing cities, killing people and torturing prisoners doesn't fix things, what else is there? If the means -- war -- hasn't worked, what about the end? We attacked Iraq in the name of freedom -- was that right? If freedom is simply the absence of tyranny or constraint, Iraq must be free. But despite the capture of Saddam Hussein, Iraq clearly isn't free, and neither are we.

The philosopher Philip Pettit has proposed a new definition of freedom: freedom is fitness to be held responsible. I'm not prepared to defend his definition to the ground, but it offers a new way to think and talk about a fundamental concept of democracy.

.According to Pettit, individuals are fit for responsibility when they engage in non-dominative discourse with others. If that seems opaque, try its opposite: the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib: talking to people -- and trying to get them to "talk" -- by dominating them with humiliation and pain would be dominative discourse.

People in power tend to decide who is "fit" or worthy of freedom -- and whole classes of people (women, gays, people of color, Muslims, religious fundamentalists, ethnic groups, etc) are regularly deemed unfit or unworthy of taking responsibility ore being held responsible, even for personal actions in their lives.

Under Pettit's definition, freedom in democracy means discursive control of government -- citizens controlling public actions by freely talking with one another (civil discourse) about what they ought to be doing. It assumes that people freely choose actions and take responsibility for them, both individually and as a nation. It also assumes that there are no other determiners of private or public actions -- like a gun at ones' head, campaign contributions, sexual favors; lies or secrecy; physical conditions of hunger, cold or pain; ideological persuasions or religious beliefs. For example, if Catholics can be excommunicated for the way they vote, are they really free?

Without civil discourse democracy falters. When posed the profound moral question "Shall we be loyal to our personal principles or loyal to the values of the community of citizens?" we cannot answer. Without community discussion, we cannot examine our common values, only parrot what we hear or read. Our principles, if any, become mere solipsistic calculations: "gays don't deserve marriage", "my security is more important than the lives of Arab children", "why should I pay to educate someone else's kids"; "terrorists aren't human -- they deserve anything we do to them;" "global warming won't affect me, why should I care about car emissions."

We live in challenging times. It is no longer possible for any one person or small group of people to know enough to form truly enlightened concepts of national actions or international issues. There is too much to know, too much "noise" in the system and too little civil discourse to sort it out. There are also too many special interests with money, and too much meddling by media with private agendas. And at the very time when we need to talk daily with our friends and neighbors about what we cherish and what we fear, we are tempted to sequester ourselves before electronic oracles and avoid thinking about the real world. It's too easy to stop talking to one another and leave the discussions of world-changing actions to ideologues who exclude us from their deliberations.

We are polled about how we rank politicians and issues, but we are not asked to participate in real discussions with incumbents or challengers. "Debates" by candidates are carefully scripted to prevent any discourse at all -- either between the candidates or with the public.

Freedom as fitness to be held responsible? Democracy as control by public discussion? Think about it. Talk about it. Talk and listen with your neighbors.

These are challenging times -- but not hopeless -- as long as we can talk together.

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