Puttin’ up with Putin

There is an ominous resonance between the conduct of Russia’s czar Putin and the rhetoric of certain conservatives, particularly Senator John McCain.  Like Putin, McCain seems to think that the solution to pretty much everything is violence.  Like Putin, McCain openly scoffs at attempts at peaceful resolution or sanctions.  Finally, like Putin, McCain takes every opportunity and uses every movement in the world as grounds for condemning those whom he sees as enemies, i.e., everybody who does not agree with him.

     What is most particularly foreboding about this resonance is that Czar Putin has developed support for his usurpations by drumming up nationalistic fervor among his people, and then he has used that support to justify all kinds of oppression, even oppression of those very supporters.  So, for instance, he has instituted censorship of the press.  He has blocked access to the appearance of opposition thought on the internet.  He has persecuted opposition politicians.  In Ukraine, he has only thinly veiled his seizure of the lands of his neighboring sovereign nation by sending thugs to do violence even to his own people and then sending Russian military forces to “protect” them. 

     That is the way of dictatorship —  ridicule and demonize your opposition, suppress dissent and centralize power.  Oh, and all along the way, deny that you are doing it.  Now, look at conservative attacks on the President of the United States, and look at what those conservatives are doing wherever they are in power.  Ridicule and demonize everything and anything the President does, regardless of the ill effects of your conduct on the national and international consciousness.  Limit the right to vote, and limit access to basic needs, education and health care.  Finally, limit the powers of local governments (and, where possible, federal government) and put as many decisions as you can in the hands of the central government.

     This is what Nero did.  This is what Caligula did.  This is what Peter the Great did.  This is what Henry VIII did.  This is what Hitler did.  This is what Stalin did.  To put it succinctly, this way lies dictatorship, whose ruling principle is power.  And, in the end, this way lies revolution, violence, mass destruction. 

     Lest we forget.  Lest we ever, ever, for one moment, forget.


     There have been, in recent times, several blatant attempts to allow oppressive conduct in the name of “freedom.”  The most outrageous of these was the legislation passed by the legislature in Arizona that would allow a business to refuse service to a particular individual if serving that person violated the business owner (or, presumably, emploee) on the basis of a “sincere religious belief.”  It would be, under such legislation, permissible for a restaurant to refuse service to a gay or lesbian customer.  The limit of this is unclear, but we could, of course, imagine that a member of the Church of Christ White Man refusing to serve a customer of color or a Church of Our Lord of the One True and Only Christian Faith Outside of Which There is No Hope refusing to serve a Jewish customer.

     Hmmm.  Sound familiar?  I am not sufficiently versed in philosophical subtleties to distinguish such conduct from anti-Semitism, race bigotry, and gender discrimination.  The proponents of such legislation, however, do see a difference.  They call it “freedom of religion.”  So, in the free exercise of my religious beliefs, I can refuse the ability of others to eat at my restaurant, buy goods from my store, get medical treatment at my hospital.  Presumably, if I am a local government, I could also refuse to provide governmental services to groups offensive to my “sincere religious beliefs.”  Seems to me I saw all this in a history book.

     Okay, I’ve had my fun.  Such legislation, and such thinking, is the stuff of Hitlerism, Stalinism, the Inquisition and all the other oppressive isms that stain the pages of human history.  The question is:  how can such rank oppression ever be cloaked with the word “freedom”?  And the answer is:  you can do it if you redefine freedom.

     There are, therefore, two fundamentally, radically different meanings to the word “freedom”.  The first meaning, the one that is used to justify oppression, is license.  Its sense is essentially negative.  Freedom in this sense is the lack of restraint of any kind.  Freedom as license is the ability to do anything the agent chooses to do without limitation.  In this root sense, freedom is anarchy.  In such a world, the only restraint on freedom is power.  You can do whatever you want, and so can I, and when your doing whatever you want interferes with my doing whatever I want, I get to shoot you.  This is the freedom that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as the natural state of man, that of war of one against the other, a quote which he finished with the famous phrase, “and the life of a man nasty, poor, solitary, brutish and short.” 

     There is, thankfully, a second definition of freedom.  It is the recognition of my inherent rights as a human being, rights that, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, are inalienable.  The difference between this sense of freedom and the definition of feedom as license is that, if I accept my freedom based on my humanity, then I am required, in order to honor my own freedom, to honor the freedom of each and every other human being.  To push this a little bit, I achieve my freedom only by recognizing that freedom in each and every other human being.  Freedom, in other words, is based on a fundamental obligation to honor the rights of my fellow human.

     If we were to use that definition of freedom to critique the conduct of certain interest groups and certain legislation, I think we might find ourselves a bit embarrassed.  Cutting taxes, cutting education, cutting medical care, cutting voting rights — do all of these things serve American freedom?  Well, if you are into anarchy they do. 

     I prefer the Declaration of Independence.  I also fear the fruits of anarchy.  See, for instance, Crimea.