Number 421 February 27, 2009

This Week: Part One of an Essay on Freedom

"Quote" of the Week
On Freedom, Part One: The Complexity of Freedom
Gaza in the U.S. Media


One criticism I have regularly gotten over the years is that I sometimes do what, in the newspaper business, is called "burying the lead." That is, I write a piece and end up putting the main point—or, rather, the most interesting or important point—somewhere in the body of the piece rather than at the top where it belongs. Important things get lost in this way.

As I have been working on the Nygaard Notes book I see that my critics are correct! For instance, it was almost exactly seven years ago, on February 22nd 2002, that I published a piece called "Fetishes, Cults, and Infinite Possibilities," in which I talked about what I called the Three Pillars of American Ideology. One of them was what I referred to as "Freedom Fetishism." It's an important point, but I now see that I have not mentioned it once in these pages in the past seven years! It's important enough that this week and next I revisit the point, in a little mini-series I am calling On Freedom.

The other piece I'm publishing this week is about the recent Israeli attack on the Palestinian Gaza Strip. Had I been publishing the Notes while the attack was going on, I would have had much more to say. Well, now I am publishing, and this week's essay discusses the unbalanced reporting on the (ongoing) crisis in this country, and offers some resources for you to look at to help understand this critical issue. I'll likely have more to say on this in the future, as the military attack may be over (for now), but the crisis goes on.

A big THANK YOU to all of you who wrote to me in response to the long-awaited Issue #420! And welcome to all of the new subscribers who have recently joined the Nygaard fold. I look forward to hearing from you, too.

In solidarity,



"Quote" of the Week:

This week's "Quote" is from the New York Times of January 16th, in an article headlined "Israel Lets Reporters See Devastated Gaza Site and Image of a Confident Military." The article tells how the Israeli Army, "which has banned foreign journalists from entering Gaza on their own, has begun taking small groups to outer positions for briefings with commanders in the field."

The Times quotes Brig. Gen. Avi Ronzki, the Israeli military's chief rabbi, who said this:

"It is a very righteous war and has the full support of public opinion. Our army is showing the way to stop terrorists. And in order to win against terror we need to use a lot of force like the Americans are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan."


On Freedom, Part One: The Complexity of Freedom

The words of Patrick Henry—"Give me liberty or give me death!"—were for the young Nygaard, as for millions of public school students, formative in the development of my conception of what it means to be an American. No one hinted, and it took me many years to figure out, that there were different kinds of Freedom, or that Freedom might best have some limits. I'd like to take a closer look at the pillar of American Ideology that we like to refer to as "Freedom" or "Liberty." Specifically I would like to look at how we have made a fetish of the thing that we call Freedom, and at how that something is really a simplified and limited idea of the more complex and engaging thing that I value very highly.

Before we begin, a word about the word fetish. When someone exhibits "excessive devotion or blind adoration" to something, that "something" is called a fetish. What I am about to argue is that it is a certain simplified idea of Freedom, more so than the complex reality, that has come to be blindly adored in American political culture, and it is in this sense that Freedom in the United States has become a fetish. I hope to show that the thing that so many blindly adore is an abstraction and that by being so devoted to that abstraction we end up exalting one form of Freedom while limiting another, equally important, form.

Different Kinds of Freedom

What do I mean by "another form" of Freedom? If you look in your dictionary, you'll see that Freedom takes two forms. One form is the freedom TO. This is the freedom to do something, or the freedom to go somewhere, or the freedom to have something. This is the aspect of freedom that is fetishized in public discourse in the United States, which I'll explain in a moment.

The other form that freedom takes is the freedom FROM. This includes such Freedoms as the freedom from fear, or the freedom from want, or the freedom from exploitation. This form is not what most USAmericans think about when they think about freedom.

This idea of different kinds of freedom is easier to understand if we introduce the idea of socio-economic class into the discussion. Different classes of people will tend to value one kind of freedom over the other. People with great wealth and/or power will tend to give primary importance to the freedom TO. This is because the ability to do a lot of things is something that comes with wealth. They naturally don't want anyone putting limits on their freedom to do whatever they like.

For members of the lower classes, the freedom from is often more important. This includes freedom from the harms that might occur if the freedoms of those above us in the social order are not limited. In contrast, the wealth held by people in the upper classes offers them a certain degree of Freedom from want, from exploitation, and so forth. This form of Freedom is thus of relatively less importance the higher one goes on the social ladder.

To use the example of freedom of speech, in theory everyone is equally "free" to say whatever they want. But what does it mean if the owner of the Wall Street Journal and I have the same Freedom? Is it possible that, in order for the general population to be free from Propaganda, we might need to place some limits on the owner's freedom? It is this type of discussion that is difficult to have when we can only imagine one form of Freedom.

Should Freedom Ever Be Limited?

Several decades ago educational pioneer A.S. Neill articulated the distinction between Freedom and what he called License. Neill said that "freedom does not mean that the child can do everything he wants to do, nor have everything he wants to have. ... Freedom, over-extended, turns into license. I define license as interfering with another's freedom." Neill was speaking specifically of children, but his point holds generally: In order to have real meaning, the concept of Freedom must include the concept of responsibility.

The fetishized idea of freedom common in the U.S. does not often acknowledge that placing limits on the freedom of some may be necessary in order to assure the freedom of others. But there are places in the world where this more complex conception of freedom is better understood. Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for instance, expressly refers to the point I am making here. Section 2 of that Article reads like this: "In the exercise of his [sic] rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society."

While it may sound contradictory to speak of limiting freedom in the interests of freedom, it's not so difficult to understand when we take into account the idea of the two different kinds of Freedom. Consider, for example, utility companies. Their freedom to charge whatever they want for natural gas may conflict with their customers' freedom from freezing to death. If we wanted to absolutely guarantee the freedom TO make large profits, then we would have to say that the freedom to make money is more important than the freedom FROM freezing that will be infringed upon by the high prices that result from too much freedom for the utility.

The fetishized concept of Freedom in this culture has its roots ‘way back in our history. Next week, in Part II, I'll take a closer look at how class has shaped our understanding of Freedom, with a little look at the U.S. Constitution and the folks who wrote it.


Gaza in the U.S. Media

"The justification of war can proceed more smoothly if the hideous aspects of the war business are screened from public gaze."

That's political scientist Harold D. Lasswell, from his 1927 book "Propaganda Technique in World War I."

On December 27th Israel launched "waves of...airstrikes" on the Gaza Strip, "killing at least 229 people in one of the bloodiest days for the Palestinians in 60 years of conflict with the Jewish state." On January 3rd Israeli ground troops invaded Gaza, an act that the Washington Post declared in a headline "Offers Benefits ... to Both Sides." At the time that headline appeared "nearly 500 Palestinians and five Israelis [had] been killed," a ratio of 100-to-1 that was maintained throughout the attack, which continued until just hours before Barack Obama was inaugurated on January 20th.

By the end of the invasion, more than 1,300 Palestinians, nearly a third of them children, were reportedly killed and 5,300 wounded. A total of ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians were killed, which is a ratio, overall, of almost exactly 100-to-1. If we count only civilians, the ratio balloons to very nearly 300-to-1, leading many to refer to the event as the Gaza Massacre.

"Away From Direct Contact With... Palestinian Suffering"

On January 7 the New York Times ran a piece headlined "Israel Keeping Reporters From Close Look at War," which was partly about Israel's banning of journalists from Gaza. The Times put it plainly, saying that "for an 11th day of Israel's war in Gaza, the several hundred journalists [gathered at the border crossing] to cover it waited in clusters away from direct contact with any fighting or Palestinian suffering, but with full access to Israeli political and military commentators eager to show them around southern Israel..." Full access, indeed.

In a rare self-reflective moment, the Times tells us that "no matter what, Israel's diplomats know that if journalists are given a choice between covering death and covering context, death wins. So in a war that they consider necessary but poorly understood, they have decided to keep the news media far away from the death." (See the Lasswell quotation at the beginning of this essay.)

"A Simplistic Story"

Israel couldn't actually keep "the news media" away from the death, of course, as there were and are Palestinian journalists inside Gaza who did report on the "fighting and Palestinian suffering." Partly due to the Israeli-enforced absence of the "news media" that typically dominate coverage in the West, the Palestinian reports seemed to be more influential around the (non-U.S.) world than usual. That was a problem for the Times and its censors, a problem that the Times explained by noting that "Israelis say the war is being reduced on television screens around the world to a simplistic story: an American-backed country with awesome military machine fighting a third-world guerrilla force leading to a handful of Israelis dead versus 600 Gazans dead."

Simplistic, perhaps, but arguably accurate. There were, and are, many independent voices that could have been found to argue in favor of that "simplistic story," and give it the depth and context that might enable an intelligent debate on its merits. Such voices were almost entirely absent from reporting in this country. I say this after conducting a little research project to see if any of a number of well-known and easily-accessible sources might have been quoted in the U.S. media in the first couple of weeks of the Israeli attack. I thought that maybe I had missed them. I hadn't.

Here are the results of my research, an arbitrary list composed of some of the dissident voices that I have personally consulted and found helpful in understanding the ongoing Gaza crisis. (And it is ongoing, with tremendous suffering in the wake of the devastation left behind by the Israeli military.)

I simply list names and some identifying information about my sources here, along with the total number of times they were cited in news stories in any of the hundreds of major U.S. newspapers indexed by the Lexis/Nexis news database from the start of the attack (December 27) until today. I didn't include letters to the editor or editorials, only news or "analysis" articles. (Including editorials would make little difference, in any case, adding one or two passing references in a couple of cases.)

• Henry Siegman, former national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America: Zero citations.

• Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan (whose "Informed Comment" blog is essential reading on the Middle East). He was cited twice, in the NY Post and the Baltimore Sun.

• Ali Abunimah, Palestinian-American co-creator and editor of the Electronic Intifada Web site, was cited once, in a college newspaper.

• Phyllis Bennis, Senior Analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies: Zero citations.

• Norman Finkelstein, author, scholar, and prominent dissident: Zero citations.

• Uri Avnery Israeli dissident and founder of Gush Shalom (Israeli peace activist group): Zero citations.

• Nir Rosen, Iranian-American journalist: Zero citations.

• Ilan Pappe, Israeli professor of history at the British University of Exeter, senior lecturer in political science at Haifa University from 1984 to 2007: Zero citations.

• Stephen Shalom, political science at William Paterson University in New Jersey : Zero citations.

Other uncited sources worth knowing about might include Tariq Ali, Stephen Zunes, and Marjorie Cohn.

I am not saying that these sources have the "correct" or "true" interpretation of the invasion of Gaza. Simply that they all articulate points that were almost unheard in the mass media in this country in reporting on events in Israel and Palestine over the past couple of months. I recommend that you go to your internet browser and punch in any of these names plus "Gaza" and see what you find. If you have been relying on your daily newspaper for information about Israel and Gaza for the past couple of months, you're in for some surprises.