Repost from 2008. “Another Yelp for Liberty”

It’s a repost, but ya know what? Things haven’t changed. They’ve only regressed. So here’s my Fourth of July offering.

Another Yelp for Liberty

Category: Politics

2008-07-01 20:10:09

Haun Saussy

“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”[1] Thus, in 1775, before the founding of the Republic and even before its unilateral declaration of independence, Dr. Samuel Johnson pinched a nerve of American identity—perhaps the nerve of American identity. It is certainly my nerve. 

That nerve has been painfully twisted in me for the last several years, not least by the revelations of systematic, planned torture and degradation in the prisons of Iraq, performed by the army that entered that country in order to “liberate” it. It is hard to look at those pictures, to read the reports, and imagine Iraqis taking seriously our claims to be bringers of freedom. The pictures, the policy they make visible and the cover-up intended to keep them from becoming public knowledge paint us as hypocrites, people who preach large and glorious principles but do selfish and brutal things. Dr. Johnson put his finger on the eternally sensitive question of whether we are who we claim to be. 

What does liberty have to do with the United States in middle 2008? Other values are associated with the United States, to be sure, by Americans and by others. It is the home of military power, of great wealth, of opportunity, of “freedom of choice” (as interpreted for consumerist purposes), of technological progress, of unregulated markets, of expanding frontiers. I don’t think any of these define the United States as having a moral mission; while good things in themselves, perhaps, they are defective as ethical ends. They are interests rather than principles. Which of them would come first, if we had to choose? Now that we are being maintained in a constant state of emergency through threats of terrorist action, amplified by government and media reminders, I think we have to consider the choices we do make, and resist the wrong ones. 

Ever since the morning of September eleventh, 2001, one version of that choice has been circulated and found persuasive by many of my countrymen. I was listening to the radio at around 8:00 on that shocking day (11:00 New York time), and already, as the towers were coming down, you could hear a government expert telling the public that some of the freedoms we had come to take for granted would have to be restricted in the interests of security. Exactly what freedoms this meant was not clear, but I suspected (correctly, as it proved) that the basic civil rights of habeas corpus, due process, the freedom from search without warrant, and protection against self-incrimination would be taken as applying selectively to different groups in the population. Americans in general were extraordinarily restrained in the expression of their anger and horror: a few people who “looked Middle Eastern” (often Sikhs, with their prominent turbans) were beaten or killed in the streets, and though any such violence is scandalous and inexcusable among a civilized and pluralistic people, the restraint of citizens contrasts strongly with the activism of government, which has expanded its powers of investigation and detention well beyond the limits fixed by the Bill of Rights, using the threat of terrorism as a mugger uses a gun to persuade Americans that the erosion of their constitutional freedoms does not matter. While trade-offs between security and freedom were much talked about, freedom was not the only value being put on the block. Prominent center-liberal magazines such as the Atlantic ran articles proposing scenarios in which torture could be justified.[2] The situations scrupulously constructed by ethicists (a ticking time bomb, lives of many civilians at risk, one terrorist captive whose refusal to speak holds up the investigation) may have made literate Americans think twice about their rejection of torture as an information-gathering method, but as we have seen, once taken to the field of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantí¡namo Bay, the license to make free with the bodies and minds of prisoners, even in the absence of any identifiable intelligence motive, has been interpreted quite broadly. At the same time, the idea of “empire” has been made to sound respectable, with Iraq a test case for an empire of freedom under American tutelage.[3] The contradiction between subjugating people and setting them free is a little too bald for dialectical mediation; in any case, when we say “empire” we are not just talking about taking charge of a chaotic situation in order to create conditions for freedom. Empire means ruling others as subject peoples, not citizens, and doing it in a durable fashion. It means becoming “drivers of negroes.” Does anyone remember “the free world” that we were supposed to be leading? Just as in the case of torture and civil rights, an important piece of the American identity has become negotiable, an option, a mere interest to be downgraded when other interests are paramount. Let us hope the aberration will soon be over. 

For many years, critiques of “the West” have centered on its “universalism”—the unearned privilege Western speakers claim for their own ideals, which they treat as intrinsically superior to the ideals of other peoples. But in the case I am talking about, it is rather the failure of universalism that causes problems. As Confucius put it so long ago, “what you yourself do not want, you must not push upon others”; or as John Rawls put it, “justice as fairness” begins when the members of society “contract into” the laws governing not others, but themselves.[4] A law made by an authority that is not subject to the law does not pass this common-sense test of fairness. Similarly, hypocrisy invalidates ethical claims because it presents as universal a rule that the hypocrite does not apply to himself. So, for example, the American government claims to represent and support “the rule of law,” even international law, while excepting itself and particularly its soldiers from the International Criminal Court. What is in evidence here is not universalism, but fake universalism exploited for the advantage of a few. The difference is worth marking.

Post-September 11, the verdict of hypocrisy can be moderated in at least one respect: if Americans have given up their own civil rights and protections so willingly, their consent to the non-observation of these rights and protections in the case of others can be construed as fair dealing, submission to the same law to govern self and other. But in fact the abandonment of civil rights has not occurred publicly, would be a scandal if applied across the board, and so does not pass the ethical test of fairness. Arrest a “normal” American (white, Christian, prosperous, law-abiding, etc.) at random, hold him without trial for a year or two, and see if he’ll claim to be protected by the Constitution: I think this experiment has a foregone conclusion. But most such “normal” Americans have yet to learn that the laws passed in the wake of September 11 put few limits on the executive branch’s privilege to suspend civil rights, and that this applies to them. “That sort of thing won’t happen to me”: this certainty is where the rot sets in, for it divides the ethical community into rulers and ruled. Freedom without equality is privilege. “Liberty” then becomes a hollow word ready for cynical exploitation: some people have it, and think they can keep it even while denying it to others. In practice, then, there is still a hypocritical mismatch between the law we endorse and the law we endure. Nor do I expect this gap to shrink. Either the standard will continue to dip, as justice is progressively replaced by brute force, or Americans will remember what the Bill of Rights was all about and demand their old protections back. Maybe, if we are not to be “drivers of negroes,” we will demand these rights for all citizens, even all people. 

“The loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes”—though Dr. Johnson’s formulation of the American flaw was no doubt meant as a soundbite, an accusation of absurdity for instant, indignant consumption, it invites a more patient interpretation. Like many of my ancestors, the Continental Congress proclaimed liberty for themselves but did not bestow it on those they controlled; they rejected empire above them but saw no objection to setting up an empire of their own, with power given to a dominant people over a subservient people. Dr. Johnson’s critique amounts to saying: although they yelp for liberty, they are nonetheless drivers of negroes. They demand something for themselves that they deny to others. They were inconsistent; they had no true principles, only a self-interested charade of high-sounding words. Suppose, per absurdum, that the rebels spoke sincerely: “It has been proposed, that the slaves should be set free, an act, which, surely, the lovers of liberty cannot but commend. If they are furnished with firearms for defence, and utensils for husbandry, and settled in some simple form of government within the country, they may be more grateful and honest than their masters.” 

But what if Dr. Johnson was wrong in assuming that a true principle, a universally binding maxim, was at stake? What if the American rebels of 1775, far from proclaiming an intrinsic human right to liberty and self-government (Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration was a year in the future), were pushing a more factual claim, to the effect that their domination over others conferred on them a lordly status incompatible with servitude to the British Crown, or any other external power? In that case, the situation would need to be revised to read: because they have become drivers of negroes, they yelp for liberty. My freedom is not an abstract principle or a rule to be demonstrated in universal practice, but a victory I gain through struggle with another, who must lose if I am to win. This Hegelian-sounding account yields a darker reading of American history, to be sure, in which Southern history gives the truth of which progressive, Unionist history only offers a mythicized variant. Liberty is a zero-sum game in this interpretation. There is only so much liberty to go around, and those who can possess it, do, if possible without ceding any particle of it to outsiders (the British) or inferiors (the slaves). This reading makes the early Americans out to be non-hypocritical, but devoid of any other moral grandeur or persuasiveness. 

The Hegelian reading is buttressed by the awkward use, in American rebel documents, of the imagery of slavery. The colonist, forced to pay taxes to the Crown but deprived of representation in Parliament, represents himself as a slave in order to justify rebellion against that enslaved status. But the metaphorical representation is doubled by actual slaves (on whom colonists had paid taxes!) whose rebellion is not here justified or even envisioned. The rub between the two contexts of “slavery” leads to a Johnsonian sense of the hypocrisy of the colonists’ self-description (if they were really slaves, what status would their slaves hold? If one set of slaves is to be liberated, what of the other set?). The metaphor is denounced as false and empty by its literal meaning. Once you look at the actual slaves, you no longer believe in the metaphorical enslavement. But the same rub, read differently, would also show the emergence of an idea of freedom in the fact of the enslavement of the other: in so far as my slave is not free, I know what it is to be free; insofar as my slave provides a factual basis for my knowledge of unfreedom, I have the imaginative freedom to declare, through metaphor, that I am what I am not: namely, an unwilling slave of the Crown. 

The American understanding of sovereignty, likewise, saws back and forth between these two understandings of freedom. To be a sovereign people, as the colonists desired to be, is to admit no higher authority than “Nature and Nature’s God” over oneself. In the days of the frontier, this absence of higher authority was literal enough: it was possible to move out into areas where one made the law by hand, knife and rifle. The Hobbesian conditions of the frontier gradually yielded to societies ordered by law, compacts freely entered into by those who had the power of entering into such agreements (of course, these societies never encompassed the entire human population of the frontier areas). Authority, in this version of frontier history, could always emerge from below, rather than being imposed from above or enforced by rivalrous neighbors. That is an American exception, however imaginary. A set of rebel populations in Europe or Asia, for example, would have had to contend with the surrounding monarchies on all sides: the liberty of each would have to be won at the cost of another person or state, there was no moving out into the “empty” territory (of course never empty in reality). 

In a more closely-knit world, American sovereignty bumps up against that of its neighbors. International compacts, the law of the sea, United Nations resolutions, arms control agreements, environmental conditions, and so on show that the program of unrestrained self-government is an impossible ideal. And yet Americans seem unprepared to view this reality realistically. American troops can never be put under foreign command, we hear; agreements that cramp our freedom to act are ipso facto null and void; treaties last only so long as the underlying interests that prompted their signing do; allies are welcome so long as they agree with all our plans and don’t get in the way. This impatience with international law and cooperation takes quasi-religious form. To give up that precious sovereign right of absolute freedom of action would amount to forsaking the American soul. In a strange way, what is supposed to be true of each American as an individual—that he or she is always in principle free —is also claimed for the United States as a collectivity. Moreover, it is simply not done to imagine or speak of an end to American world dominance. Former President Bill Clinton raised a storm of criticism in 2003 by alluding to a future time when the United States might be unable to tell the rest of the world what to do, when we might need allies, when we might even have to listen to their wishes. This sort of talk is virtually precluded in the United States today (though I know that in China, where the idea of a coming “Asian century” is an immense blank check on which many interests draw, it is a topic of lively speculation). But American sovereignty cannot be an absolute value, at least for the international ethicist, because it does not translate into a universal, the recognition of a parallel sovereignty for every non-American citizen or state. Rather than try to handle this practical and logical difficulty, Americans, since the age of Wilson, have opted for isolationism or unilateralism. Those choices do not put before our eyes the incompatibility between our sovereignty and that of others. They allow us to yelp for our own liberty and forget about our slave-driving behavior.

The issue about freedom is whether it is the sort of thing that can be extended indefinitely, or is a finite quantity such that if I have more of it, others have less. Dr. Johnson’s denunciation of American rebels as hypocrites assumes that liberty ought to be the sort of thing that can be multiplied without loss: if they want liberty for themselves, they ought to want it for others. Liberty is not the same sort of thing as oil, say: it would be absurd to say, if they want oil for themselves, they ought to want it for others. Americans would be vicious, but not logically self-contradictory, in wanting all the oil in the world for themselves and seeing no benefit in sharing it around. A Hegelian understanding of freedom as something that is taken or conquered from the other makes freedom out to be like oil, and frees the selfish American from taint of hypocrisy: it would be, rather, self-contradictory to want oil or freedom for both you and me. 

Policies like those the United States has pursued in recent years, seeking to cast off any restrictions on American freedom of action; the denial of Geneva Convention assurances to captured “combatants” (both soldiers and civilians); even more vividly, the photographs of torture and abuse: all these make freedom a finite substance like oil. They confirm that the American is free because—insofar as—the person he or she is torturing is not free. The American is wealthy because—insofar as—the person he or she is exploiting is not rich. The American is healthy because—insofar as—there are other people not benefiting from new medicines but serving as trial subjects in medical experiments. And so forth. At the end of the road: the American has rights because others do not. This account of freedom, fortune, health and security is utterly damaging to the American moral mission. In fact it deprives the United States of any semblance of a moral mission, for it only invites non-Americans to collaborate in their own enslavement, perhaps with the incentive of milder treatment for good behavior. This is not a message that will win us any friends worth having. It is the message of empire. And it is worth while trying to prove, through action and discourse, that it is wrong (in the sense of “erroneous”), that freedom given to one is not taken away from another. Let us sneer with Dr. Johnson at American hypocrisy, only let us, as we do so, hold Americans up to a standard of fairness and consistency that preserves a distinction between what exists and what is right, between selfish interests and universal obligations. Concretely, let us hope in the near future for an American administration that sees the difference. 

Having thought at length about Dr. Johnson’s sharp remark, I then went to see the context in which he made it (a pamphlet called Taxation No Tyranny). I found it enveloped in an argument that I had not been expecting. Given a common-sense understanding of the ways in which terms like “freedom,” “slavery,” “ought,” “right” and so forth are used, the bite of the remark is self-evident, and that is why it is usually quoted all alone. But the detailed context relates also to the problem that concerns me, the problem of empire and autonomy. 

Johnson is particularly irritated by the language of unlimited sovereignty, spoken in the name of individuals or of collectivities that suddenly aspire to be self-governing. “The Americans are telling one another, what, if we may judge from their noisy triumph, they have but lately discovered, and what yet is a very important truth: ‘That they are entitled to life, liberty, and property; and that they have never ceded to any sovereign power whatever a right to dispose of either without their consent.’” Recognizing no limits to their own entitlements, the colonists, inspired by “principles… wild, indefinite, and obscure,” have spread “the madness of independence… from colony to colony, till order is lost, and government despised; and all is filled with misrule, uproar, violence, and confusion.” But if they only stopped to think about it, they would know that this claim of pre-existing, unrestricted freedom is “false. We virtually and implicitly allow the institutions of any government, of which we enjoy the benefit, and solicit the protection.” So, Johnson holds, the Americans benefit from English laws and English arms, and should see themselves as under an obligation to England. They are wrong to want liberty for themselves. “He who goes voluntarily to America, cannot complain of losing what he leaves in Europe. He, perhaps, had a right to vote for a knight or a burgess; by crossing the Atlantick, he has not nullified his right; but… by his own choice he has left a country, where he had a vote and little property, for another, where he has great property, but no vote.” Those sacred and immemorial rights of Englishmen obtained only for those who stayed in England: why? What but the dead hand of custom allows members of Parliament to be elected for Birmingham, but none for Boston?

The answer is that colonies, for Johnson, are not political but legal-commercial entities. “An English colony is a number of persons, to whom the king grants a charter, permitting them to settle in some distant country, and enabling them to constitute a corporation enjoying such powers as the charter grants…. To their charters the colonies owe, like other corporations, their political existence.”[5] When the colonists came to America they abandoned their rights as subjects of the Crown and became servants of the Massachusetts Bay Company, the East India Company, and the like. Perhaps today we would say that they became “civilian contractors.” They no longer existed in direct relation to King and Parliament and for that very reason lacked some part of the legal status of subject, for example the right of parliamentary representation. “Great property, but no vote.” The colonial enterprises prefigure the privatization of public space which we are now experiencing in our cities, in our communication technologies, in the shrinking “public domain.” If Parliament levied taxes on the colonists, and the colonists took that badly, they had only to cease being colonists, by breaking their relation to the corporations by which they were governed and seeking return passage to England. To follow Johnson’s larger story of the history of colonization in the Americas, the answer to those transatlantic yelps for liberty is most accurately put thus: They shouldn’t want it for themselves and they shouldn’t want it for others. The true and proper understanding of affairs is this: the colonists are not free, but live under contract. The terms of their contract permit them to own slaves. Only a misunderstanding of the contract between the colony and the mother country creates the rub between the American yelps for liberty and the suppression of the liberty of other persons existing in the Americas. If Americans would only forgo their ambitious dreams of sovereignty, the logical flaw in their self-description would vanish: they would see themselves correctly as contracted personnel employing other personnel, and stop objecting to their own status. That too is the voice of empire, of commercial empire. 

A strange menace uttered by the Pennsylvania legislature provokes Johnson’s most memorable remark. 

The Philadelphian congress has taken care to inform us, that they are resisting the demands of parliament, as well for our sakes as their own…. “Our ministers,” they say, “are our enemies, and if they should carry the point of taxation, may, with the same army [paid for by American taxes], enslave us. It may be said, we will not pay them; but remember,” say the western sages, “the taxes from America, and we may add, the men, and particularly the Roman catholicks of this vast continent [debarred from voting or standing in parliamentary elections], will then be in the power of your enemies. Nor have you any reason to expect, that, after making slaves of us, many of us will refuse to assist in reducing you to the same abject state…. Do not treat this as chimerical. Know, that in less than half a century, the quitrents reserved to the crown, from the numberless grants of this vast continent, will pour large streams of wealth into the royal coffers. If to this be added the power of taxing America, at pleasure, the crown will possess more treasure than may be necessary to purchase the remains of liberty in your island.” 

In this Philadelphian nightmare, the history of English liberty from Magna Charta to circa 1825 will be a mere six-hundred-year interlude in a long-term strategy of royal power-grabbing. The rents of America, levied on a people without political representation (the many Roman Catholics being, as far as anyone could see, a permanently disenfranchised group of passive taxpayers), will serve to consolidate a royal power irresponsible to parliament and able to “purchase” (with mercenary troops, presumably) “the remains of liberty” in England. It is to scoff at this prospect that Johnson lets fly his most memorable arrow: “We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our own liberties; an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” 

My dear British readers, how do you feel today about the diminution of your own liberties? In 2008, many British subjects no doubt feel that a government they had no part in electing, heedless of parliament and ready to “purchase… liberty” wherever it can, indeed overwhelmed the traditional structures of protest, advice and consent housed in their Parliament. (Blair’s cabinet with its “sexed-up dossiers” was just an instrument of the ex-colonials’ will.) This is what empires do. Johnson was wrong to scoff at the Philadelphian menace, however accurately he laid bare the nerve that links the idealism and the baseness of American practices of freedom. In the bargain, he discovered the Special Relationship,—though he thought it was a long way from reality.


[1] Samuel Johnson, Taxation no Tyranny: An Answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress (1775), in The Works of Samuel Johnson (Troy, New York: Pafraets, 1913), 14:93-144, also available at
[2] Mark Bowden, “The Dark Art of Interrogation,” Atlantic Monthly 292:3 (October 2003), 51-76.
[3] Michael Ignatieff, “The American Empire (Get Used To It),” The New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003. 
[4] For 自所不欲, see Analects 12.2, 15.24; on “contracting in,” see John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 13. 
[5] Johnson, Taxation no Tyranny. “Corporation” is not to be taken entirely in its modern sense. Guilds, university colleges, certain cities, and charitable foundations were “corporations” just as were the East India Company and other corporations founded for profit. See William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69; reprinted, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 1:455-473. “Of Corporations” is there the last chapter in Book I, “Of the Rights of Persons.”