Tuesday, 21 December 2004

Apparently I'm Jacksonian (or Scotch-Irish)

Great book review by Virginia Postrel. The author of the book, David Hackett Fischer, is apparently hostile to any individualist notions of liberty:

New England Puritans pursued ’‘ordered liberty,’’ or community self-government, which could impose substantial restrictions on individual freedom of action or conscience. Southern cavaliers believed in ’‘hegemonic liberty,’’ a status system in which liberty was a jealously guarded aristocratic privilege that entitled some men to rule the lives of others. By contrast, Delaware Valley Quakers subscribed to ’‘reciprocal liberty,’’ in which every person was recognized as a fellow child of God, entitled to self-determination and freedom of conscience. Finally, the largest group of immigrants, the borderlanders often called Scotch-Irish, adhered to ’‘natural liberty,’’ a visceral, sometimes violent defense of self and clan. In foreign policy, Fischer’s ’‘natural liberty’’ maps directly to the ’‘Jacksonian America’’ outlined by the political scientist Walter Russell Mead—isolationist by preference but relentlessly violent when attacked.

’‘Liberty and Freedom’’ expands greatly on that earlier book’s discussion, adding other ethnic influences, particularly that of German refugees who sought ’‘a freedom that would allow them to establish their own way of life in security and peace.’’ For German-Americans, the icons of freedom were the fig tree and vine, alluding to the biblical prophecy that ’‘they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.’’ This dream, Fischer observes, ’‘was an image of a world without violence, very different from the bellicose ways of British borderers but similar in a desire to be left alone by government.’’

Yep, natural liberty is certainly the way for me and it describes a lot of my feelings, particularly after 9/11. Virgnia concludes her review:
Its goal, one government official said, was ’‘to re-establish the common ground of all Americans’’ and ’‘to blend our various groups into one American family.’’ Fischer visited the train as a child in Baltimore, and it made a lasting impression: ’‘The train itself and its streamlined cars were emblems of modernity, and its big locomotive (number 1776) was a symbol of American power. By contrast, the documents seemed old and fragile. They were symbols not of power but of right, and their condition made clear their need to be protected in a dangerous world. Altogether the Freedom Train expressed the material strength and moral resolve of a united people.’’

Ah, the good old days. The closer the book gets to the present, the less it discusses popular culture or visual symbolism. It loses its early, charming tone and becomes instead a dutiful, sometimes cranky march through the political movements of the late 20th century. Cliffs Notes versions of ideas and individuals appear, but iconography and material culture almost entirely disappear. Fischer doesn’t mention the Adam Smith neckties conservative activists adopted in the late 1970’s or explain how triangles and rainbows came to symbolize gay liberation. He has room for a mention of Shulamith Firestone’s radical, intellectual feminism but none for Marlo Thomas’s popular record and television special, ’‘Free to Be You and Me.’’ He provides a dumbed-down version of Friedrich Hayek’s classical liberalism but doesn’t mention Ayn Rand’s blockbuster novels. He devotes pages to Stokely Carmichael but says nothing about Afros, dreadlocks or cornrows. He misses the chance to consider California as a symbol of freedom across the political spectrum. In short, once the apparent uniformity of World War II dissolves, ’‘Liberty and Freedom’’ loses interest in popular culture. This absence may reflect the author’s fatigue as the book moves beyond its 500th page. Or perhaps it is simply harder for Fischer to take a sympathetic interest in the mental and material lives of those contemporaries with whom he disagrees. He seems to resent all these contentious people (except for consensus civil rights heroes) who insist on disturbing established institutions and ideas with their demands for liberty and freedom.

Indeed, he implies that they’re downright dangerous. ’‘If a free society is ever destroyed in America, it will be done in the name of one particular vision of liberty and freedom,’’ he concludes. But not, of course, his own.

Count me among those that will be in other peoples’ faces demanding my own version of liberty.

(þ: Knowledge Problem)