June 05, 2007
On an Internet site called American Rhetoric, one can hear the famous State of the Union oration delivered by President Roosevelt on 6 January 1941 and known as “The Four Freedoms” speech. A cynically minded pacifist might argue that the actual point of the speaker’s exertions, veiled though it is in patriotic badinage, is to persuade the Congress that “sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes.” I would argue that the President’s address is a good illustration of Remy de Gourmont’s mot to the effect that the mind of a civilised man is a museum of mutually contradictory fictions.
Roosevelt’s temporising in anticipation of Pearl Harbour, if that is what it is, is not my subject here. I am concerned with the essence of a civilised man’s attitude to liberty, or rather with its quintessence, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the “fifth essence” of ancient and mediaeval philosophy, supposed to the substance of which the heavenly bodies were composed, and to be actually latent in all things, the extraction of it being one of the great objects of alchemy.” By extension the word came to mean “the most essential feature of some non-material thing,” and was used in this sense by Milton with reference to “The Law of England, which Lawyers say is the quintessence of reason.”
The “four essential human freedoms” apostrophised by Roosevelt, who, elsewhere in the address, insists that “there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy,” are “freedom of thought and expression,” “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way,” “freedom from want,” and “freedom from fear.” But, as earlier in his oration he nominates, among the “simple things expected by our people of their political and economic systems,” such social objectives as “equality of opportunity,” “jobs for those who can work,” “security for those who need it,” and “the ending of special privileges for the few,” one is left wondering whether the quintessence of liberty is not, after all, a good deal more mysterious—more alchemical, I almost want to say—than the geopolitical exigencies of January 1941 would allow the champion of “a healthy and strong democracy” to acknowledge.
Thus equality of opportunity, for example, must surely conflict with the freedom to worship God in one’s own way, for the obvious reason that the spiritual hierarchism of revealed religion has no room for the positivist absurdities of a few loquacious and regicidal laymen. Similarly, special privileges for the few—regarded, under the rubric of “eminences,” by John Stuart Mill as integral to the survival of disinterested discourse, and hence of liberty “ can hardly be ended without cardinal damage to the freedom of thought and expression. Security for those who need it, while superficially harmonious with the freedom from want due to the vagueness of both guarantees, is little more than a lunchbox of great expectations carefully packed by dialectical materialism’s Pandora. Finally, jobs for those who can work, rather than for those who want to work, or indeed for those momentarily at a loss as to how to avoid what might seem to them a terrible eventuality, is a near verbatim quotation from Marx and a resounding betrayal of the promised freedom from fear.
“Who doesn”t work, doesn”t eat,” the Party bureaucrat of my childhood murmured with satisfaction as he pushed the beluga tin closer to his heaping plate. Meanwhile, somewhere in a courtroom of his almost platonically ideal Republic, the following exchange, equally characteristic of the epoch, was taking place:
Judge: What is your occupation?
Defendant: I write poetry. I translate poetry.
Judge: Why have you not been working?
Defendant: But I have been. I have been writing and translating.
Judge: We”re not interested in that. What is your profession?
Defendant: Poet. Poet and translator.
Judge: But who allowed you to call yourself a poet? Who appointed you a translator?
Defendant: And who appointed me a human being?
Judge: Don”t be a smart aleck. Did you study to become one?
Judge: A poet. Did you attend an institution of higher learning where they teach… where they prepare…
Defendant: I didn”t think it was a matter of learning.
Judge: What is it a matter of then?
Defendant: It’s a matter of having a gift… from God.
It is less important, perhaps, to note that the above stenographic record involved a future laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature than that the court sentenced Joseph Brodsky to five years of compulsory labour. For literary prizes, academic honours, and works published by important houses to enthusiastic notices from tenured university professors, all that may be thought of as politics by other means. Five years in exile, on the other hand, for a frail balding youth made to shovel frozen gravel, is an undeniably harsh reality.
The crime of which the denizen of the ideal Republic was convicted by the Leningrad court, was shirking, this legal concept having been formally introduced to Soviet legislation, as Article 209 of the Penal Code, in 1971. The law against tuneyadstvo, literally “vain eating”—directed against “vagrancy, beggary and other parasitic modes of existence” and providing severe penalties for the lifestyle, “facilitated by unearned income, of a healthy adult shirking socially useful labour”—sat comfortably upon the framework of Stalin’s Constitution of 1936, whose Article 60 stated that “evading socially useful labour shall be incompatible with the founding principles of our society.” As late as 1985, “a clarion call to block all deviation” from these principles, “and in particular to put a concerted end to such sources of unearned income as yet exist,” was made by Mikhail Gorbachev, admittedly not in his later role as liberator of mankind from the shackles of communism, but in his original role as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Like Plato’s, the Republic whose custody Gorbachev inherited from Stalin was before all else a domain of reason, in any case far more overtly and consciously so than the one presided over by Roosevelt. The rule of precedent extolled by Milton, the lares and penates underlying an ancient way of life, the unreflecting respect in which the madcap uses or antic customs of a contentedly civilian populace are universally held, all these are but trammels to social engineering in peacetime. But even in a time of war, as Roosevelt is only too well aware throughout his speech, such trammels may be too formidable to permit a wholesale suspension of the mysterious, intractable, living amalgam of ruling tradition and civic hereditament that goes by the name of liberty. In may suit a democratic politician to rationalise this alchemical essence by reducing it, in the alembic of rhetoric, to a catalogue of virtues, just as it may suit a village oaf to trivialise it in his local pub, by claiming that the supply of such virtues is inexhaustible in so far they stem from himself, his people, his country right or wrong. Alchemy is not an applied science, however, and it will not be used.
The freedom of sloth, by my own present reckoning, is a far more incisive litmus test of social, economic and political liberty than any of the cardinal virtues of democracy, or any of the freedoms that assure them, in Roosevelt’s catalogue. Entailing as it does vagrancy, mendicancy, itinerancy of purpose and dreaminess of intent, it is that conditio sine qua non for the want of which a polity loses not only its prophets and poets, but its philosophers and scientists as well. For any thinker who does not make a livelihood writing Hollywood film scripts, household manuals, or common pornography, is essentially a social parasite who thrives on intellectual doubt; remove that sense of indeterminacy from his life, and the Galileo, the Copernicus, the Lavoisier, the Dostoevsky, the Twain, the Orwell are no more; in their place are members of a national trades union of thinkers. Their vain-eating “mode of existence,” to quote Article 209 of the Soviet Penal Code, is rooted in vain hopes and no less vain visions, in vain introspection, in vain expectation of significant, life-changing juxtapositions and coincidences.
Consider the revealing coincidence that on the very day Roosevelt’s speechwriters from the American political thinkers” union were sweating to prepare his address, Orwell was writing an article for the Evening Standard, which ran on 8 January 1941. “The totalitarian states can do great things,” he wrote in the article, “but there is one thing they cannot do: they cannot give the factory-worker a rifle and tell him to take it home and keep it in his bedroom. THAT RIFLE HANGING ON THE WALL OF THE WORKING-CLASS FLAT OR LABOURER’s COTTAGE IS THE SYMBOL OF DEMOCRACY. IT IS OUR JOB TO SEE THAT IT STAYS THERE.” How eccentric his thinking must have seemed in 1941. How alive it was, how mercurial, how alchemically precise when compared with Roosevelt’s rigid yet vacuous formulas!
Alas, in the superweapon age in which totalitarianism has found new footing, Orwell’s litmus test has become obsolete. Provided microchip implants are in their necks, a totalitarian state can allow its citizens to decorate their walls with rifles, or at least with ornamental daggers as in Chechnya. But there is one thing that a totalitarian state, or a Western democracy losing its libertarian bearings, cannot do: it cannot allow shirking. “The best way of dealing with the few slackers or trouble-makers in our midst,” declares Roosevelt with Gorbachevian finality, “is, first, to shame them by patriotic example, and if that fails, to use the sovereignty of government to save government.” Use media and peer pressure; use the full coercive power of the taxation system; use the surveillance and crime prevention mechanisms; use the letter of the law, if necessary, to shut off such sources of unearned income as yet exist; but get those slacking parasites under control by closing the loopholes that allow them to feed on society.
Today, more than half a century after Orwell’s death, as a rapidly totalitarianizing America, using phantom menaces far less conducive to genuine eloquence than in Roosevelt’s day, uses real menaces to suppress the freedom of thought and expression, one remembers the Brodsky episode with a certain degree of nostalgia. How can a mendicant friar get by without a bank account in today’s Assisi? So, no St Francis then. How can a real poet, without an employer’s reference, find monastic seclusion in our epoch’s Amherst? What a pity, no Emily Dickinson. How can a visionary tinker get funding for his research in nanotechnology, warning President Bush in a single-spaced letter that China is thirty years ahead of the United States in the development of post-nuclear superweapons? Too bad for the Einstein of today. He is but a vain fantasist.
Stalin, who espoused the profound rationalism of a Constitution that made socially useful labour into universal law, lost out on Europe’s scientific genius and therefore on world domination. So did Hitler, who espoused no less remarkable a rationalism of his very own. History has shown that neither the White Sea Canal nor Zyklon-B gas was an innovation on the level of “Jewish physics.” But even in the United States of Roosevelt’s day, Einstein had only just slipped through the loophole of vain-dream dreaming, useful-work shirking and unearned-income slacking which a militarising democracy had left open in the confusion of mobilisation. Today he would be lucky to get a green card, to say nothing of university tenure.
All of this is to suggest that every society raising a yardstick with which to measure the usefulness of its denizens, whether speculative like Plato’s or rhetorical like Roosevelt’s, will fall by the yardstick more surely than by the sword. A totalitarian polity may see it as opportune to make all into useful soldiers; a liberal democracy, into productive taxpayers; yet in so doing, each will lose out, in its turn, on the indefinable, mysterious, alchemical component of liberty in the absence of which the cleverest of soldiers defect to the enemy and the likeliest of taxpayers move their banking offshore. As for the greatest of thinkers, instead of dying in picturesque squalor, as was once their natural lot, in an America envisioned by Roosevelt in “The Four Freedoms” they never get round to thinking in the first place.
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