Freedom and the West

As I watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Athens, I have enjoyed observing teams from the former eastern bloc enter the arena and march with all other free nations. Having spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, and having developed an intense interest in that area of the world and its peoples, I appreciated the fact that these countries all now espouse democratic systems of government. Only five communist countries remain in the world, and only three of these really suppress their people in the old-school communist fashion: Cuba, North Korea, and China (although China only does so as to political freedom while the other two maintain economic oppression in addition to political oppression).

But watching the American team enter, the teams from traditionally “western” countries such as the UK, France, Germany, Holland, Denmark, etc., and then watching these Eastern European teams come in (by the way, why is everyone dressed so much better than the U.S.? Most of the teams are dressed in either suits or at least sport coats while we are in a sweat suit) got me to thinking about concepts of freedom between different areas of the world. At a time when there is so much anti-Americanism in the world, it is interesting to ponder that so many more countries enjoy freedom now than fifteen years ago. I thought back to a conversation I had about what “freedom” means with a Bulgarian friend of mine, Lucy, back in February.

Lucy said,

There is something I personally cannot understand in our modern society. Why do we think that OUR religious believes and OUR perceptions of human rights are the right ones? Are WE – the Europeans and the Americans – entitled to define not only the “world order” (what we are trying to) but human believes as well, the way WE consider it right?

I think it was the case in Afghanistan, it was the case in Iraque, in Kosovo. “You might not know but you are not free. I will show you what to be free is.” The formulation of “FORCING freedom” ( the slogan of the communists as well) appears a bit strange.

I’m not sure I take such a cynical view as Lucy does about freedom. I think that there is a more objective freedom that exists than that which Lucy suggested. From Lucy’s comment, it appears that she believes that freedom is subjective; that in promoting freedom and human rights around the world, the European Union (and its individual member states) and the United States are comparable to the Soviet Union, which crushed liberty through totalitarian rule, foreclosing such fundamental freedoms as religion, speech, press, association, political organization, privacy, and many other basic human rights.

Lucy also suggested that the whole concept of human rights and freedom, including the freedom of religion, is only an invention of the Europeans and Americans and that those two are “forcing” such freedom on the world. Lucy suggested that Afghanistan and Iraq are examples of this. The merits of these two conflicts are certainly debatable, particularly the war in Iraq. But it will be difficult to convince me that women in Afghanistan considered themselves “free” already before the Coalition pushed out the oppressive Taliban regime, which categorically did not allow any kind of personal freedoms, especially for women.

That is not just propaganda; it is a well documented fact that the Taliban regime abused such basic human rights as the freedom of religion and convictions (even the freedom to think what you want) in the most tragic of ways. Lucy seems to argue that the Afghans did not want to be “freed” from such oppression. I argue that it is human nature to want to be free from tyranny. Thus, Lucy might be right that the Taliban did not want the Coalition to intervene, because they only stood to lose their totalitarian power over the country. But it would take some kind of empirical evidence that the people of Afghanistan, who were oppressed, would have preferred to keep the Taliban in power than to govern themselves through a democratic system.

Those are my thoughts and opinions on the issue of whether the “West” is “forcing” freedom on the world.

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3 Responses to Freedom and the West

  1. Renee says:

    How can we know for sure what people want beyond having them vote. Check this box for Taliban, this box for democracy. I am sure there are those who would vote for the Taliban. To a degree, I agree that we shouldn’t force a democracy on people but I do believe people should have the choice to vote on what system they do want. Such a vote is in and of itself a democratic choice

  2. john f. says:

    Renee, you seem to be saying that we should let democracy develop organically in any given society–and I agree with that because “nation building” seems to ignore the idea that a people needs to be ready to embrace democracy. We are so lucky in the “West,” particularly America, that the way our society developed over hundreds of years (before the founding) contributed to a climate in which such an experiment could be undertaken (under God).

    So it is almost fallacious to expect an effort to “give” another people democracy to be successful. Of course, this perspective, in turn, also seems flawed, since it is facially arrogant and condescending towards the capacity of all people to govern themselves in freedom.

    This is an age-old debate that goes to the core of what a “people” stands for or is, and if any given “people” is fundamentally different in any way from any other group of people, or if all truly are “created equal” and “endowed” by the Creator with “certain inalienable rights.” You can divorce the latter two, however, and post that perhaps peoples are indeed by nature “different,” and yet still endowed with the essential inalienable rights (and a people, although endowed with such, can still live without them based on circumstances and/or the choices that they make).

    But I wonder if you see any role for intervention in ousting a dictatorship in the interest of creating an environment in which such voting is even a remote possibility. Your comment seems to suggest as much, but it was ambiguous to a certain extent. And if you answer yes, it is justifiable to intervene to save a people from totalitarianism, then why is it so controversial in the case of Iraq, in your opinion? What, deep down, is the difference between Irag and Nazi Germany (in terms of American intervention)? Superficially, of course, there is the fact that Germany had attacked its neighbors in Europe. But really, how much could that really have concerned us, in America, in an age where an full-scale invasionary attack overseas was unthinkable (i.e. the impossibility of Germany actually mounting a war of conquest on the United States)? Was it purely a question of alliance in WWII, or were there more fundamental principles involved? If so, are those so much different in the current situation in Iraq?

    I am not hinting that you personally are antithetical to any of these things, but I am sincerely interested in your (and anyone else’s opinion) on this, since I personally do not believe that we invaded Iraq so that we could get its oil. But despite the fact that I don’t believe our motives were comprised by such a goal, and despite the fact that I genuinely believe that the Iraqi people have been liberated from a totalitarian rule (i.e. that we have not conquered them but rather liberated them), I still wonder whether attacking was the right thing. I think that the status quo has great value sometimes, especially when the stability of the region depends on it. But again, that sounds too utilitarian, and not morally based enough, to be a really great place to stand on this issue.

  3. Renee says:

    I don’t believe we invaded Iraq for oil. (As a side note, it’s kind of funny that we won’t spoil our our precious scenery to drill but apparently have no problem if other countries do it and sell it to us.) I believe that we might not have had solid grounds to do it with the reasons we said but ultimately, for the sake of human rights, it was absolutely justifiable. But that’s not the reason we gave. Human rights violations are happening in several places. We have a large Sudanese refugee population here. A good friend served as a stake missionary in their branch here. She was sickened to hear about things endured there.

    Given the opportunity, I believe democracies will flourish. But due to the state of some countries when they finally are liberated, it could take generations to appreciate the freedom and learn to prosper from it. A friend forwarded me several emails her son has sent from Russia where he is serving a mission. He was a Marine before his mission so he’s not naive to conditions around the world. He said that there’s not much hope in that country. People look decades older than their age and very young children smoke and talk like bitter, hardened adults. For how many years this country struggled under an oppressive regime, it will no doubt take several generations for things to turn around. That doesn’t mean they would be better off under the old way but it does mean that it will take patience and at times, they probably feel like the old way was better for them.

    Ironically, I find our country becoming more of a false democracy. Oppression is taking on different forms and there’s less and less faith in goverment which looks like a massive bureaucratic waste. People want the government to do more and more for them and the govt is happy to do it if it means they get the votes. People are also now demanding that politicians’ votes are not influenced at all by their religious convictions. This is strange to me. I vote for people because of their moral beliefs. I expect it to influence their vote.

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