Facebook Twitter

Ellen Goodman: Demos must not let Bush stake claim to ‘freedom’

SHARE Ellen Goodman: Demos must not let Bush stake claim to ‘freedom’

BOSTON — This is for everyone who has ever heard a rival doing their act. It's for everyone who has heard an opponent saying exactly what they think.

The odd, and oddly infuriating, experience of agreeing with an enemy is often followed by an impulse to disagree, an urge to poke holes in the argument, or to dismiss the honesty of the arguer. Anything not to nod in approval.

I have been thinking about this ever since the president delivered the inaugural address that will go down in history, or down in flames, as the Freedom Speech.

I have read it twice in the past week, separating the speech from the speaker. Try these words on for size:

"America's influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause."

"America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains or that women welcome humiliation and servitude or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies."

"When you stand for your liberty we will stand with you."

My sentiments exactly.

But in editorials, blogs and e-mails, many to the left of Bush have declared themselves either skeptical or cynical. They question the reality behind the rhetoric, the devil in the details, or the devil in the deliverer. Counting the number of times the word freedom was used — 27 — those who distrust the president sounded like defenders of the status quo.

Do they actually disagree with the "ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world"? Or do they just mind that the president took the words out of their mouths? Again.

On Monday, abortion opponents held the 32nd "March for Life." We barely notice the way the word "life" was hijacked and locked in the right-wing dictionary. "Life" now means fetal life; life begins with conception and ends with birth.

Then of course, there is the word "God." In politics, God has also been hijacked by the religious right. To be considered "godly" now you have to worry about the sexuality of SpongeBob SquarePants and oppose teaching evolution in schools.

Life, God and now Freedom. If the right wing ever gets a lock on Love, it's a grand slam.

Since the election, there's been a long-needed discussion about how the Democrats lost the verbal high ground, how the blue people became tongue-tied in the language of values. Linguist George Lakoff has become a speech coach for the secular left and Rev. Jim Wallis the preacher to the religious left. But it's best to begin with the word "freedom," because if progressives are not for freedom what are we for? Un-freedom?

Liberty is not the Bush Ideal, it's the American Ideal. A conservative, Peggy Noonan, accused the president of "mission inebriation." Indeed, freedom is not an excuse for militarism nor is it a cover story for aggression, and there is little freedom in the chaos of war. In an imperfect world we will always have to make choices between allies and ideals.

Nevertheless, when any president offers America as the international standard-bearer of freedom, it's time to say amen. And more.

The president has given us a standard. Why oppose it when we can judge him by it? When Saudi men vote and Saudi women do not, is that freedom? When the administration inflicts a gag rule on international family planning groups, is that freedom of speech? Does liberty coexist with torture?

Our tongues have to come untied at home as well. To many progressives who have had the words taken out of their mouths, liberty also means civil liberties. Freedom includes the freedom to marry whomever you choose and to make decisions about reproduction. And, don't forget, the freedom from want.

The four freedoms were once the property of liberals. The current crop of conservatives has taken the words out of FDR's mouth, too. They are rewinding the tape of history in the guise of moving forward on such fundamentals as Social Security. But freedom is not just a marketplace. Or a tax cut. Nor is freedom just another word for nothing left to lose.

When the free market collides with freedom from want, a battle for semantics becomes a battle for survival. When freedom means unraveling the social safety net, who has the moral high ground? If liberty is a sink-or-swim independence, where are our values?

This week, the Senate Democrats put out a modest legislative agenda labeled the "Promise of America." It was laced with important values such as "security, opportunity, responsibility." But what about this F-word?

The president said the question for history will be: "Did our generation advance the cause of freedom?" Freedom is a word to applaud, to define — and to claim.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.