The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

What kind of freedom?

Interesting essay on social psychology at the NYT: Is Freedom Just Another Word for Many Things to Buy?

What conception of freedom should Americans pursue? While the upper and middle classes define freedom as choice, working-class Americans emphasize freedom from instability. These perspectives echo the distinction between freedom to and freedom from made by Franklin Roosevelt and by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin half a century ago. For all our red-versus-blue rancor, most Americans agree that ours is a free country. But what freedom is, and where it should be nurtured and where constrained, are hotly contested issues.

Similarly, many of the freedoms endorsed and advocated by U.S. foreign policy may not always resemble those desired by the people whom we hope to help. To govern well, both at home and abroad, Americans would be wise to listen to how freedom rings in different cultural contexts. Knowing that "we love our freedom," as President Bush said in his recent State of the Union address, should be the beginning of a national conversation, not the end of it.
Beyond the political dimensions of the US' "forward strategy of freedom" in the Middle East, there is also a strong ideological pro-free trade element. This was most obvious in Iraq under Paul Bremer, where for a while a neoliberal free trade paradise was created, at least on paper. But you also see it elsewhere, such as the push for FTAs that (for instance in Morocco) do not really seem to be in the interest of most of the people. There is a quite conscious attempt by US policymakers to reach out to the Arab upper middle classes (aren't they the chief target of propaganda efforts?) but no attention given in public discourse to, for instance, the rural poor (although USAID programs in countries like Egypt are doing a lot of good on issues like population control.)

So what's the point of freedom? Becoming consumers like the rest of us? I'm not sure why this essay made me think of that, but it would be great to see a survey being done on Arab vs. American conceptions of freedom.