Yes, Roger, “Freedom is a Funny Thing.”

In an op ed piece in today’s NYTimes, The Ottoman Swede, Roger Cohen says this about freedom:

“Freedom is a funny thing. Life without it is misery. But a glance at the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia or now Iraq is a sufficient reminder that distinct peoples forcefully gathered into a dictatorial state will react in the first instance to liberty by trying to get free of each other rather than trying to imagine a liberal democracy.”

Of course Cohen is thinking of any one of the innumerable instances of “distinct peoples forcefully gathered into a dictatorial state,” Chechnyans and Russians, Serbs and Kosovars, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Iraki Sunnis and Shia. But in each of these instances the member pairs are not comparable. There is a real disconnect between them. The new found liberty, although welcomed by the one, represents for the other the loss of its previously dominant political power.

So in the case of each one of these pairs it’s not so much their trying to get free of one another as the one trying to fully realize the newly acquired freedom and the other trying to retain its favored and dominant position.

Are there recent instances of the situation that Cohen describes? That is, two groups formerly under one dictatorial power and then, being free of that power, trying to get free of one another? Perhaps Cyprus? Perhaps Lebanon? Although in each of these instances the freedom obtained through independence was not freedom from a dictatorial power, but from the liberal democracies, England and France.

Perhaps the case of present day Belgium is a better example, although here also we are without the preceding “dictatorial power” in full. In Belgium the efforts of the Flamands to free themselves of the Wallons seems like a reasonable goal, certainly not one that will lead to widespread pain and suffering as in all the above instances.

But Cohen is right, that “freedom is a funny thing.” Too bad that our president never realized just how “funny” it was. There is “freedom to” and “freedom from.” The latter usually preceding the former. In the Middle East the tribes are so taken up with “freedom from” that they have not yet considered what they might and could do with “freedom to.”

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