The Banality of Freedom?


It's happening. Now that Eastern Europe has mostly dumped communism, Western pundits are starting to have second thoughts. So far, nobody is calling for a return to the good old days of censorship and secret police. But a certain uncomfortable squirming can be detected in the precincts served by the Trump Shuttle.

Washington-based columnist Cal Thomas, late of the Moral Majority, is distressed to find Playboy sold in Hungary and abortion legal in Romania: "If Eastern Europe thought communism was a difficult yoke to bear, wait until it gets a sample of Western-style hedonism." Meanwhile, over at The Nation, Alexander Cockburn bemoans Gorbachev's sudden tolerance for religion in general and the Catholic church in particular.

And from his New York Times podium, Toni Wicker hints that Czechoslovakians may soon be enjoying such American luxuries as street crime, expensive health care, lousy public schools, homeless street people, crumbling infrastructure, overburdened landfills, and a polluted environment. "That Communism has failed," he concludes, "does not make the Western alternative perfect, or even satisfying for millions of those who live under it."

For more than 50 years, the West has defined itself by what it is not—communist, or fascist—and rarely by what it is. Now that our ideals seem to be triumphing, we are forced to consider directly a long-unasked question: What does the free in "free world" mean? And do we like it?

The sudden reversal of communism provides a sort of Rorschach test for the West. What we see when we look at Eastern Europe—at what it is and what it may become—reveals a lot about what we think about our own condition. And many intellectuals seem none too happy with what they find in the ink blot.

Now that it appears to be winning, liberalism—the idea of individual liberty preserved by limited government and the consent of the governed—seems a rather boring philosophy. It's all negative, a bunch of "thou shalt nots." Thou shalt not censor the press. Thou shalt not require or restrict religion. Thou shalt not deprive individuals of the right to own, transfer, or use property. Thou shalt not dictate on what goods or pursuits they shall spend their time or money. Thou shalt not forbid Playboy or the Roman Catholic church.

For ideological warriors long accustomed to struggle, a world in which such rights restrict the realm of politics seems almost empty of meaning. Charles Krauthammer, a thoughtful and serious man, predicts that democracy (by which he means liberalism, not mere elections) will soon disillusion the Eastern Europeans who now rejoice in it: "The fruit of victory is bourgeois democracy—the most free, most humane, most decent political system ever invented by man, and the most banal. Dying for it is far more ennobling than living it. Liberated Europe is just getting to the living part."

Krauthammer is profoundly right and profoundly wrong. He understands that liberalism, unlike the socialism it is replacing, is not a utopian creed. It does not promise a perfect world (much to the dissatisfaction of Tom Wicker, among others) or a perfected humanity. Nor does it strive to make public life meaningful. It leaves the search for meaning to the individual, not the body politic.

But Krauthammer projects the angst of Western intellectuals onto the newly freed people of Eastern Europe. The struggle against communism, these intellectuals believe, has lent meaning not only to their own lives but to the otherwise ordinary lives of ordinary people. We have, since the end of World War II, participated in a grand and communal crusade against an enemy of great evil. (The war itself marked an earlier crusade of similar proportions.) Now that the struggle appears to be over, they fear the meaning has gone out of our common life.

But for the people of Eastern Europe, socialism was not the grand enemy of an epic struggle. It was everyday life, stultifying or terrifying but certainly not uplifting.

To quote an old Czechoslovakian joke: An American correspondent arrives in Czechoslovakia. The first thing he sees is a giant streamer proclaiming EVERYBODY IS HAPPY IN PEOPLE'S DEMOCRATIC CZECHOSLOVAKIA.

Amazed, he buttonholes a little man and asks him to explain the secret of the Czechs' happiness. "Well, you see, it's like this," says the man. "I come home after 10 hours' work and switch on the light, and I am happy they haven't cut the power today. Then I go to wash myself, and I am happy the water is running. Then there is a knock at the door. It's the secret police. They ask, 'Are you Comrade Novák?' And I say, 'No, Comrade Novák lives in the apartment above me,' and boy, am I happy that I am not Comrade Novák!"

The romance of the struggle is mainly in the eye of the distant beholder, safely ensconced in the prosperous, capitalist West. The people of the East were not looking for nobility when they took to the streets. They were looking for freedom.

That freedom includes the freedom to be ordinary—to live and love, raise families and go to work, study physics and write poetry, play basketball and watch sitcoms, grow flowers and lie in the sun, read novels and buy new clothes—to do all the things that people choose to do when they are left alone to choose. Not all these things are transcendent. In fact, most of them aren't.

We are material creatures who spend much of our lives on material pursuits (even building a cathedral or writing a novel requires stone and mortar or paper and ink). Too many of freedom's defenders are uncomfortable with earthbound humanity. They are afraid the stuff that dreams are made of can be had too easily at K Mart or Bloomingdale's. They find those dreams banal.

But human life and human longings are precious. And, contrary to the caricature of liberal capitalism retailed on the nation's opinion pages, those longings include more than the desire for blue jeans and consumer electronics. Man does not, in fact, live by bread alone—at least when allowed to choose how to live. Religion, art, and science flourish best in a free society.

True, freedom does not afford much opportunity for grand gestures. It has little room for martyrs. But life is not supposed to be about dying well. It is about living well.

And liberalism, for its part, is all about protecting the freedom to live life without grand gestures. It gives people the chance to be good without being heroic. It creates space for individuals to find meaning outside the common good.

That intelligent people can find the ordinary lives of men and women meaningless without the greater context of ideological struggle is some measure of the price that struggle has exacted. We have much rebuilding to do.