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Today We Now Know…

In 1971, John Kerry told a Senate committee that “We found [in Vietnam that] most people didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy.” Now it is accepted on both sides of the aisle that the Vietnamese desire and deserve political freedom. There is bipartisan recognition that freedom is a universal human aspiration. ~Brendan Miniter

Consider Kerry’s point: communism and democracy both claim to offer equality, freedom and some measure of justice, and both of them say many of the same kinds of things about people’s government and the will of the people.  Much of this is fairly superficial, but for people who had limited experience, if any, with either system the differences might very well have been obscure.  For the average peasant or townsman in Vietnam, the differences probably would have seemed irrelevant–what mattered was who threatened his home, his means of supporting himself and his way of life as he understood it.  In Vietnam, c. 1965-71, would the average Vietnamese nationalist, for example, have been terribly concerned or aware of the differences?  More to the point, would he have cared?  Would he have not, as a nationalist, sided with the revolutionary force dedicated to national independence and unification or indeed anything not associated with yet another foreign power?  As we all ought to understand perfectly well in this country, nationalism frequently trumps the desire for freedom.  That doesn’t mean that the desire doesn’t exist, but that there are often stronger, more meaningful desires out there. 

We are confronted in Miniter’s column with the utterly irrelevant observation that all people want freedom.  Yes, in some sense, all people want freedom for themselves, but there are surprisingly few who can stand other people to have it in equal measure.  In some cases, this is because they lack a complete appreciation for what freedom entails; in other cases, it is because the extension of equal freedom to all in every circumstance is crazy and socially destructive.  We place prudential limits on the freedom of some rather than others all the time based on common sense, experience and priorities that have nothing to do with freedom. 

In any case, aspiring and acquiring are hardly the same thing, and keeping freedom is even trickier and apparently a very rare skill.  That an aspiration for freedom has nothing to do with the content of Kerry’s quote should be obvious.  Whether or not people in Vietnam, or Congo or Zimbabwe “deserve” freedom is almost beside the point.  Suppose that we all agree that they “deserve” it and even “desire” it–then what?  Is it on to Harare with the 82nd Airborne?  Perhaps subvert the government by backing the MDC?  Even if that “succeeds” in toppling the government and introducing reformers into positions of power, why does anyone think that the proper institutions that safeguard liberty would be created?  If it can be done, it is for the people in other countries to do it for themselves.  Indeed, that is the surest way to make sure that it is founded on organically evolved institutions that are consistent with the habits and mentality of that people.  That takes an enormous amount of time, perhaps many generations, and if blatant, public assistance from a foreign power makes the work of reformers in other countries  more difficult that assistance isn’t really assistance at all, but precisely the kind of moral posturing at which contributors to The Wall Street Journal excel. 

The easiest way to expose liberal democracy–and here I mean a genuine representative, constitutional and popular government, not the fraudulent oligarchies that Washington backs in every corner of the world–to dire threats from nationalist and sectarian backlash is by associating with foreigners and unbelievers, which simply confirms everything that these people believe about anything to do with freedom: that it is designed by foreigners as a way to rob and exploit their country, impose puppet governments on them and corrupt their national traditions.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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