January 27, 2005

Senses of freedom

Orlando Patterson's Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times shows the limitations of restricting articles to a bare 4000 characters (Patterson's piece was of that length exactly, to the letter, by my Unix count of the text). It's fine as a standard piece of polemic against President Bush on foreign policy, but it contains none of the kind of analysis of the word freedom that one would expect from knowing Patterson's scholarly work. On an NPR call-in program last night I heard Patterson give a hint of this. Freedom can be several things: it can be (1) that which ensures no one has power over you (simply not being a slave); it can be (2) that which enables you to take any action you damn well choose (having personal rights of action); and it can be (3) that which permits your participation in the political affairs of your society (being allowed to vote in fair elections for the government that you prefer). The three can conflict with each other: other people's freedom of type (1) to not be slaves deprives me of the type (2) freedom to keep slaves if I choose to. My type (2) rights to smoke infringe your type (1) rights to be free from secondhand smoke, and your type (3) rights to elect a government that then makes my smoking illegal deprives me of some of my type (2) rights. Your type (2) rights to own a company so huge it can buy elections and control governments may in effect deprive me of my type (3) rights. By floating between these three sense of freedom one can make some very confusing arguments. Which freedom is it that terrorists hate, for example? Since President Bush has been making such copious use of the word freedom of late, but never makes clear which sense he intends, it is generally very unclear what he is actually saying. I was hoping to find a clearer presentation of the linguistic point in the Times article, but I was disappointed. There really isn't a trace of it. On the cutting room floor, perhaps.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 27, 2005 03:05 PM