How Americans Lost Their Fervor for Freedom (Review of Louis Menand)Historians in the News
tags: Cold War, book reviews, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, civil liberties, intellectual history, cultural history
In America today, the right has a monopoly on the word “freedom.” Conservatives talk about “freedom” at every opportunity, while liberals and leftists do so only with embarrassment, shielded with qualifying clauses. “First they came for our Free Speech, then they came for our Free Markets, next they’ll come for our Free Shipping on orders $50 or more with promo code: FREEDOM50,” Republican Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina tweeted on January 28, 2021. Cawthorn’s tweet—which rewrites Martin Niemöller’s famous denunciation of German quietism in the face of Hitler’s rise as a sales pitch for his official campaign webstore—is a joke, of course: a play on different senses of the word “free.” But it’s a joke only a conservative could make, because it relies on the assumption that freedom, of whatever kind, is a self-evident, and preeminent, good. A moral crusade against fascism, the unrestrained action of capital, promotional shipping for a cotton t-shirt that reads THE REAL VIRUS IS COMMUNISM: All are worth defending, because all are free.
The rhetorical move Cawthorn so blithely executes—conflating different senses of the word “free,” and declaring them all sacrosanct—is one that Americans on both the left and right used to make regularly. This, anyway, is the claim advanced by Louis Menand’s sprawling new cultural history, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. “Freedom,” Menand remarks in a brief preface, “was the slogan of the times.” In the middle decades of the twentieth century, “the word was invoked to justify everything.” First and foremost, “freedom” was an anti-communist shibboleth: America had free elections, a free press, and free markets, in contrast to the dictatorships, state-controlled media, and planned economies of the Soviet Union. But the word escaped this context easily and often, and when it did, it usually “promised something more, something existential.” “Freedom” was a word to conjure with for both civil rights leaders (Martin Luther King Jr. used it 20 times, and “equality” only once, in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech) and white supremacists (George Wallace, speaking earlier in the same year, appealed to “the call of freedom-loving blood” to mobilize Southern whites to defend “segregation forever”). It was beloved by foreign policy realists advocating containment of Soviet communism, French philosophers wrestling with the legacy of the Nazi Occupation, African intellectuals at the fore of the decolonization movement, libertarian economists agitating for economic deregulation, and student radicals demanding the dismantling of the military-industrial complex.
In the arts, the idea of freedom was equally powerful. “Art is, always, the sphere of freedom,” Susan Sontag wrote in a 1964 review of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, an experimental film starring drag performers that climaxes with a combination rape-earthquake-orgy sequence. “In those difficult works of art, works which we now call avant-garde, the artist consciously exercises his freedom.” A series of precedent-setting obscenity trials pertaining to controversial works of art—Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1957, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1964, and Louis Malle’s film Les Amants the same year—redefined the boundaries of artistic liberty. By the end of the ’60s, Menand observes, bestselling American novels by John Updike and Philip Roth “used words and described acts for which their publishers just ten years earlier would have faced jail.” Other artists exercised their freedom in more peculiar ways: John Cage by composing silent music, Robert Rauschenberg by wrapping an automobile tire around the midsection of a stuffed goat, Ornette Coleman by abandoning chord changes and regular meters, Carolee Schneemann by covering her naked body in snakes and raw meat. All of these gestures, however outré or anti-social, could be claimed as part of a common project: the desire to see how free the free world could get.
Menand’s book has been a long time in the making. It is a sequel of sorts to The Metaphysical Club, his 2001 Pulitzer Prize–winning history of American pragmatism; some of the material in it dates from as far back as the Clinton administration. He’s been writing it, in other words, over the course of the same period that the types of intellectuals Menand is most interested in—artists, writers, and philosophers of a liberal or left-leaning persuasion—lost interest, and faith, in “freedom.” In his preface, he describes the book as a reckoning with a concept he’s not sure he believes in anymore. “If you asked me when I was growing up what the most important good in life was, I would have said ‘freedom,’” he writes. “As I got older, I started to wonder just what freedom is, or what it can realistically mean.” The unvoiced answer that haunts the book is that it might not mean anything at all.
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