Friday, February 27, 2009

The real political divide: freedom vs. control

Pundits and politicians are playing the usual games with labels. President Barack Obama and his supporters are adherents of the "far left"; economists opposing the stimulus bill are partisans of the "extreme right." It's Team Blue vs. Team Red, with everybody expected to swallow the Kool-Aid proffered by one side or another. And it's all so pointless. The real division isn't between right and left; it's between the control freaks and the rest of us.

It's not that there aren't real ideological differences along the political spectrum -- there are. But left, right, up or down, there are activists who focus on ways of expanding freedom, and there are activists who focus on ways of extending government control over people's lives. They may put the emphasis on different issues and strongly disagree on specific policies, but ultimately, righties and lefties who emphasize freedom have more in common with one another t han they do with supposed comrades who are obsessed with control.

Nat Hentoff, the prominent writer and former columnist for the Village Voice, is a noted man of the left who is, therefore, supposed to be a loyal member of Team Blue. But in a recent newspaper column, he took President Obama to task for, among other things his secretiveness and his defense of warrantless wiretaps.

The flimflam candidate had assured his faithful enthusiasts that he would filibuster this bill (which will immunize the telecommunications companies that enabled the president to break the law in his once-secret warrantless wiretapping) that turned our privacy rights upside down and out.

Now, by dismissing the scores of lawsuits against these companies from Americans wanting to know whether they've been ensnared in this giant government-spun Web, the president and such supporters as Obama will have made it close to impossible to conduct meaningful investigations of the intricate nexus of the ways these telecommunications giants can collect leads to Americans with no connections to terrorism — and could continue to so long as they're assured by a future lawless administration that national security demands breaking another law.

Andrew Napolitano, on the other hand, a former New Jersey judge and current legal analyst for Fox News, is a man of the right who we would expect to still be mourning the absence-taking of the last president. But in his 2007 book, A Nation of Sheep, he compared George W. Bush's accumulation of power to "the great dictators of history." In a 2005 interview, Napolitano said of then-President Bush's beloved PATRIOT Act:

Let's put aside all of the procedural problems with enacting it. Forget about the fact that there was no debate. Forget about the fact that most members of Congress didn't even have an opportunity to read it. It is a direct assault on at least three amendments to the Constitution: the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, and the Fifth Amendment. The PATRIOT Act legitimates the notion that if we give up certain freedoms, the government will keep us safer. I reject that notion from a moral and legal point of view. I also reject it from a practical point of view. It doesn't work.

If we buy the right/left divide, Hentoff and Napolitano are supposed to be bitter enemies. But their liberty-based critiques of presidents from their own "teams" makes it clear that they share a stronger fondness for freedom than they do for the artificial red/blue divide. They could probably find plenty of issues on which to disagree, but both have become known as civil libertarians and advocates of limits on government power.

And, in fact, the two men have had kind words for each other over the years.

They should. Like all advocates of liberty, they have in common their love for the freedom of the individual. Working from such a common value, they can actually have meaningful conversations based in mutual respect.

Who else has something in common? Try these two quotes:

Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.


And when we got organized as a country and we wrote a fairly radical Constitution with a radical Bill of Rights, giving a radical amount of individual freedom to Americans, it was assumed that the Americans who had that freedom would use it responsibly. ... [T]here's a lot of irresponsibility. And so a lot of people say there's too much personal freedom. When personal freedom's being abused, you have to move to limit it.

Separated at their philosophical birth, you say? I agree. But who shared such sentiments?

The first quote is from Republican Rudy Giuliani, speaking when he was the mayor of New York City. The second quote is from Democrat Bill Clinton, when he was president of the United States.

So much for those stark contrasts between Team Red and Team Blue, eh? Giuliani and Clinton share common values, too. In fact, the philosophical divide clearly runs much more deeply between Giuliani and Clinton, on one side, and Hentoff and Napolitano, on the other, than along traditional left/right lines.

It should be apparent that the right/left, red/blue divide is ... well ... not meaningless, but much less important than the real political divide, which is between people who care about liberty, and people who prefer control.

That's important to keep in mind during a cold winter when we've made the transition from a president who supports warrantless wiretaps, the performance of unsavory official acts behind the veil of "state secrets" and a government that plays an ever-growing role in our lives to ... well ... another version of the same thing.

There's a political divide out there, but it's not the one that usually distracts us.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

AMEN. I've been trying to tell people this for a long time. It's not about the left or the right. It's about all of us... getting F***ed by the state. These are some turbulent waters we sail in today.

February 27, 2009 12:17 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

I love the "Team Blue/Team Red" line. Politics has become very much like sports. Ideology and philosophy are merely secondary concerns. Anybody who dares question this is a "partisan." I say, thank god for partisanship. Are we not allowed to stand up for ideas? I think the largest fallacy of "teamers" is that they believe that the government is capable of regulating one aspect of private life but not another. Liberals believe the government can restrict earnings and guns, but not freedom of speech and religion. Conservatives, vice versa. The best thing about freedom is that you can do pretty much whatever the hell you want to do. The worst thing about freedom is so can your neighbor.

March 3, 2009 6:10 AM  

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