Freedom is a seemingly straight forward word. It conjures up images of people being able to do what they want when they want. When one thinks of freedom, one usually thinks of free elections, a government representative of the people it serves, safety, justice under a set of rules and laws, and freedom of speech. Saddam’s Iraq, in our definition, was unfree—no free elections, no justice, no safety, and no freedom of speech.

An interesting thing has been happening in Iraq, however. Some people in the country have been bemoaning this newfound freedom that we have brought them. In fact, some do not feel very free at all. It is extremely difficult to ascertain the true feelings of Iraqis as a whole given the many filters between the situation on the ground and how it is presented to us through the media and the administration, but there have been reports of Iraqis, like Russians, who want turn back the clock, want to go back to the ways things were. They want to go back to the days of totalitarianism, they want to give up their “freedoms” and revert to the days of secret police and powerful, ruthless leaders.

This attitude confounds many Americans. “Why would they want to go back to the days of Saddam?” we ask as we throw up our hands over these ungrateful, backward thinking, people. “We’ve sent our soldiers, we’ve spilled our blood, we’ve brought you democracy! We freed you from your oppressor! We’re spending billions and billions of dollars, and still, you don’t care.” Perhaps we, as a nation, need to step back for a minute and think about this freedom that we are so bent on distributing to the world.

There are a couple of things that we need to realize in this dialogue. The word “our” keeps creeping up. We’ve spread our idea of freedom. Our egocentric, arrogant thinking about the world blinds us to the fact that there are many different people, with many different ideas of freedom and happiness, living in it. Perhaps an Iraqi’s idea of freedom is vastly different from ours. It may even be that Iraqis did not have much of a problem with the way things were being run by Saddam and his henchmen. As inconceivable as it may be to us, our ideas are not always right and when we go into a land and force our ideas of freedom and democracy on a people, we become an imperialist nation, the very same thing we fought to free ourselves from over two hundred years ago.

It is human nature to live; our desire to live is so strong that it eclipses anything else that may come up, including freedom. When an Iraqi has no food, no job, no way to support his family, and faces the constant threat of death because of inadequate security, it becomes understandable that many may long for the brutal days of Hussein. Sure, they can rationalize, he murdered people, he kept vast amounts of wealth for himself, but at least when he was in power I could walk down the street without fear of a car bomb, I did not have to worry about being kidnapped by lawless insurgents, and I could feed my family. What is so freeing about elections if death can come at any moment, that the very act of voting, of exercising this new freedom, could mean my death? It is not much of a leap to assume a person would rather be alive than free.

Bergmann discusses these fallacies of democracy and freedom in his book On Being Free. He talks about the idea that a person can be free even in a totalitarian regime, that a person can be free living under a monarchy, that a person can be free while living under virtually any form of government. Democracy should not be the determining factor in deciding whether or not a nation is free. He also goes on to say that merely living in a democracy does not make one any freer than a person living under a totalitarian regime.

People in America assume that they are free because they can vote for their leaders, they can speak out against the government by protesting, they can write or say almost anything they want without fear of the government coming to get them. We assume that we are free because nobody can tell us how to think or how to act. But Bergmann argues against this, he contends that we really are not as free as we think we are because there are many things outside of ourselves that shape and guide us.

Most people would not argue with the assertion that our identity and values come from what kind of upbringing we had as children. They may say that they are their own person, that they are different from their parents, but they are only fooling themselves. Our parents and families are what shape us and we are never far away from the lessons we learned in childhood. Sure, children grow up and move on, they become independent of their parents, but much of what was taught or shown to us by our parents still influence us. And does moving away from our parents make us free? Are we really free to make our own decisions internally? Bergmann does not think so and contends that “we are as influenced and conditioned by family upbringing, schools, pundits, and commercials as a Chinese peasant or Nazi soldier was through military drills and sessions of self-criticism.”

Many Americans, individualists as we pretend to be, would rail against this assertion that we can be controlled by the media and advertising. But we can see it all around us. Our children have to have the most recent clothes; adults need to have the newest cars and biggest houses. While walking down the street the other day, I came across a man who was handing out an advertisement, I ran into a woman handing out the same handbills only a block later. As I walked, I looked down at the shiny pamphlet which screamed out to me, “Define Yourself!” I looked at pictures of young people playing guitars and screaming into microphones who had apparently already defined themselves and was surprised to learn that I could identify myself by merely driving the newest Ford vehicles.

So what? We all know that advertising is a way to get people to buy things and if we realize this then we can fight against it. I’m free not to buy a mustang, I’m free to throw the ad away and think nothing of it again. The important thing is that we are able to pick our leaders, that we are able to influence the way our government operates. But is this even true anymore? Was it ever true?

I was amazed by the 2000 presidential election and people’s reactions to the result. Al Gore won the popular vote, but George Bush won the electoral vote. A number of people protested because the popular vote did not elect the president as they thought it did. For the past 228 years the Electoral College has elected the president and nowhere in the Constitution does it say that it must vote the way the people voted. Has a majority of our nation slept through high school government class? The writers of the Constitution never meant to give power to the people, they saw the uneducated masses of the new country as incapable of making informed decisions, so they wrote protections from mob rule into the Constitution, one of those protections was that the president was not to be elected by the people directly. Of course, tradition has come to mandate that the Electoral voters vote the way the people of their state did, they do not have to. In fact, during the most recent meeting of the Electoral College one elector cast his vote for John Edwards, a man who was not even running for the job at that point.

There have been many arguments for abolishing this Electoral College, that if we live in a democracy the people should directly elect its leaders without meddling from any outside institution. But this stripping away of the Electoral College would not do away with outside influence, who decides who runs for president? The two major political parties in the country get to decide who will run for president. Sure, there are primaries and caucuses that give off the illusion of people picking who will run, but the parties have decided who will have a chance and who won’t. Our two party system leads to an either-or choice, a fallacy in arguments but seemingly okay with us when we pick the person who will lead us. But maybe this is what makes us comfortable, this lack of choices. It is a lot easier to pick between two people instead of five or ten, but what happens when neither of the two choices seems quite right for the job. We are then left with the uncomfortable choice of not voting, voting for the less of two evils, or voting for a third party candidate, a move that is widely seen as wasting a vote. So are we even free if people we do not know get to pick who we vote for as our president?

Many people will view this argument as academic, that debating what is or is not free has no place in the real world. The United States is free because we have a say in our government, governments that do not allow their people a say are bad and unfree. It is boiled down into a black-and-white debate, the kind of debate in which we have grown so fond of lately because it is so easy.

But it is not easy. We as a nation need to understand exactly what freedom is, why we fight for it, and why we are so willing to impose it on other nations. This debate is far from academic, however, we send people to the far reaches of the world to kill and be killed for this word and idea of freedom. We should at least know what it means.

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