Freedom and the West

August 13, 2004

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.