Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Land of the Free(est?).

Sometimes, when as a foreigner asks permission to do something, in America, some people will reply “Of course, this is a free country”, which undeniably means that if you ask the question, that must be because where you come from is not so free.

Without trying to read too much into a simple expression, this is often said in a tone of voice that transpires pride, patriotism and even a sense of exceptionalism. It may at times make you feel that wherever you come from cannot be as free as the United-States.

If you pursue the question and ask Americans what makes their country so special, most will say that it is their assurance that “America is a free country.”. This is true I if you compare it to, say, Saudi Arabia or Russia, and for that matter if you compare it to most of the world, BUT what about Europe or most of Latin America?

As a Western European, it is hard to fathom how my everyday life is any less free that of an American. Without getting into a controversial political debate, one could even argue that the difference, if it ever existed has almost completely vanished since 9/11 and the beginning of the “War on Terror” anyway. In reality the difference has constantly diminished since the 18th century and is not longer relevant. Yet most Americans are still hung up to the idea that their country is the freest.

This article published in the German Financial Times Deutschland (via Watching America in English) makes the point that this idea that America embodies freedom is the direct consequence of the cult of the Founding Fathers.

...the U.S. draws its pride and the perception of its special calling, at least as much from the achievements of its founding fathers. This manifests itself in monuments like the Jefferson Memorial in the capital, Washington DC, and in the way they carefully maintain the physical condition of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, both of which are ranked as nearly divine in the United States.

Which shapes not only the way Americans see their country but how they see the rest of the world as well:

Anyone who listens to the way Americans discuss themselves is surprised at America's implicit self-comparison, less with real foreign countries than to another, mythical, abroad. And it's this imaginary abroad which is manifestly ruled by an unrestrained monarch where no constitutional court dominates state and government, and where people are not equal and less free than the citizens of the much-blessed United States.


It appears that the abroad against which the United States established and still defines itself is none other than the England of religious persecution lead by King George.
The article also argues that this cult prevents Americans from seeing reality - an idea that seems quite relevant to me - :

In America, the collective image of foreign countries is a mythical one, preserved as if in formaldehyde, handed down from the time of the founding fathers with the Kingdom of England circa 1776 unconsciously serving as the main point of reference.

This allows the United States to persist in describing itself as the freest country on earth, although by nearly every objective criterion, most European nations are more liberal and free than the United States. One only has to recall the repressive American culture of prohibition and punishment.

It is in this way that the tradition-arrested Americans protect themselves against the pressure to compare their own achievements and social structures against real foreign examples. Thus the myth and collective emotion stabilize society. But this happens at the expense of critical thinking and lessons learned. It is a double-edged phenomenon that has worked its way into every aspect of American public life.

To finish on a more sarcastic note, and to make sure the myth is debunked, it is worth keeping in mind that when the words of the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” were written in 1814, with the famous line “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”, the land was full of slaves and slave owners and women or landless men still couldn’t vote. But of course this poem only became the official national anthem in 1931 – long was gone slavery but the land was not as free for everyone either. It is all a question of perspective, isn’t it?


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