Saturday, March 25, 2006

Freedom From

In Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale Offred, a woman in the Taliban-like Republic of Gilead, muses on her past, much like our present, and on her present, a fundamentalist era with veiled women going out only in pairs:

Women were not protected then.

I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew: Don't open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don't stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don't turn to look. Don't go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.

I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it.

Freedom to and freedom from. Which type is the freedom espoused in this Red State blog post addressed to us, the liberals?

And while they put all their energy and venom into this campaign, it is worth remembering that for all the noise – they have yet to present a real alternative to an America that rests on the foundation of freedom, free markets and family. Against that, the only answer they have is yet another personal attack.

What is the freedom the conservatives desire? It is not freedom from family, clearly, or certainly not freedom for all the members of that family. It is not freedom from want, given the emphasis on the markets being free to exploit whomever they wish. Is it the freedom-from that Atwood discusses? Or is it that kind of "freedom" for some of us, perhaps the women, the poor the disadvantaged, and another kind of freedom, freedom-to, for others, perhaps the wealthy, the white, the patriarchs?

What is freedom for the conservatives? Is it the absence of government? But that would be anarchy. Is it freedom in the markets and none at home? And where does one person's freedom end and another one's start? If you have the freedom to preach, do I have the freedom to cover my ears and not hear, not listen?

Freedom, free markets and family. The three Fs. Who wouldn't like the idea of freedom, in a totally abstract sense at least? Who wouldn't like the idea of family, especially if it is not defined they way the patriarchs do? Even the concept of free markets sounds jolly and light-hearted, something to explore on a Saturday morning while shopping for fresh vegetables.

But all these are emotional signals, terms, which mean nothing and everything, terms which are not explained because explaining them would leave nothing but empty air. Freedom from.