Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Freedom's March - My chat with President Bush

The trend is clear: In the Middle East and throughout the world, freedom is on the march. President Bush

I agree with President Bush, freedom is on the march. Of course, freedom, in a sense, has been on the march for many centuries - freedom, that is, from nonsense, from deceptions, intentional and inadvertent, and from modes of behavior both individual and cultural that no longer work.

Of course, my sense of freedom may not be shared by the President. At least, according to this article, he has been thinking about it- freedom, that is, and history, and how the world works (better late than never):

At the nadir of his presidency, George W. Bush is looking for answers. One at a time or in small groups, he summons leading authors, historians, philosophers and theologians to the White House to join him in the search.

Over sodas and sparkling water, he asks his questions: What is the nature of good and evil in the post-Sept. 11 world? What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I'm facing? How will history judge what we've done? Why does the rest of the world seem to hate America? Or is it just me they hate?

You might be surprised to learn that your author, The Dude, was NOT invited to the White House to shoot the breeze with the Prez (then again, if you know me you wouldn't be surprised at all, lol).

The tragedy is I had a little talk all prepared for him, as I expected to get the call. So as to not let the thoughts go to waste, I'll share with you what I would have told the President if he had but asked my opinion.


Mr. President, I'm going to begin with a crucial question;
Do the times make the individual, or do great individuals make the times?

Yes, I assumed you believed the latter. Let me try, using some examples from history, to persuade you to the former view.

Let's go back to the latter half of the 18th Century when freedom's march was accelerating through the western world and examine the paths of two nations; France, and the United States (a title, by the way, which more appropriately captures the sensibilities of freedom than the more monolithic "America") and two individuals, George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Sir, as you are a lover of freedom, a love I share, you most likely look back at wonder at the latter half of the 18th Century. In 1750, Monarchical systems of government, with greater or lesser degrees of absolutism, were the norm, and had been for many centuries. A mere 50 years later;

  • the United States had declared its freedom from the crown of King George- a declaration which was, in a sense, an external manifestation of Britain's domestic drive for freedom from monarchy which began with the Magna Carta
  • the absolute monarchy of the House of Bourbon in France was destroyed through revolution

There were many principal actors on these stages during this momentous era. I'm going to argue that those actors who pursued the cause of freedom found the wind filling their sails, so to write, until, and this is the important part, they stopped pursuing that cause- conflating their own desires with grander ideas.

In other words, believing that great individuals made the times, or as the thought has been framed, created their own reality, was usually the downfall of those great individuals.

As you have mentioned him lately, I'll begin with our first President, George Washington, to whom you refer as No. 1.

The great virtue of George Washington was not his military mind; he lost more battles than he won and was not an active participant in the two significant Colonial victories at Saratoga and Yorktown; but his overriding sense of the importance of stepping down from power, which he did twice- first after winning the war as Commander in Chief, and secondly after serving two terms as President.

While Washington was not immune to the temptations of power, at pivotal moments, the manifestation of his republican sensibilities saved these United States from the convulsions experienced by France.

Sadly, for the French, instead of George Washington, they had Marat, Robespierre, and Napoleon leading them to freedom- three men who found the ring of power too seductive to give up voluntarily.

And yet, while they were ending the tyranny of others they found the winds of freedom filling their sails.

While Marat, Robespierre and the Jacobins were destroying the advantages of the old aristocracy, the people were, in the main behind them, and fortune favored them. But, as they consolidated power in their persons, fortune turned against them.

How odd to think that Marat would survive agitation against the absolute power of the House of Bourbon only to be stabbed in his bath tub by Charlotte Corday- a scene which became a foil for one of the chief propagandists of the time, Jacques-Louis David, in his Death of Marat.

That's right, sir, the Jacobins had their own version of Fox News.
Jacques-Louis David painted, you decided. As a noteworthy aside, David narrowly escaped the guillotine when the reign of terror ended and the blame therefor was being apportioned.

Napoleon, I believe, offers a wonderful counter-point to George Washington, and is a great example of how the winds of freedom can fill one's sails one moment, and then blow against you the next.

Napoleon carried the spirit of the enlightenment throughout continental Europe, destroying the entrenched aristocracy so effectively that they never recovered. Fortune smiled on him as he stormed through Italy and Austria and weakened Ottoman control of Egypt, although he failed to wrest control of the Mediterranean from the British.

His triumphs in the Continent were also immortalized by David in the famous Napoleon Crossing the Alps.

After a coup, he seized control of France, having himself named First Consul for life. Many of the reforms he instituted in the early part of his reign still remain, and for a moment, after signing the Treaty of Amiens, Europe was almost ready for peace.

History might view Napoleon as a promoter of Freedom instead of merely a great General who overstepped if he had chosen differently, but, in the event, ambition got the better of him and he declared himself Emperor- a declaration that evoked powerful forces against him.

People, it seems, love liberators, but hate dictators and it is possible for one person to be a liberator one month and a dictator the next.

The winds of freedom which had aided his rise did not fill his sails against the Haitians, the loss of which likely led him to sell French holdings in North America to the United States for a pittance. While he managed to retain control of Continental Europe for a decade, he was never able to gain control of the seas.

In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia. He entered Moscow hoping to be declared the new ruler only to find the city deserted and soon burning. Perhaps Napoleon's drive to be Emperor in the mold of Augustus was not in accord with the spirit of freedom and victories which had seemed so easy a few years earlier became impossible. As the aura of invincibility left him, his opponents grew in number and boldness.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Napoleon was exiled to Elba, escaped, and led a successful coup only to lose the final decisive battle at Waterloo. He was a prisoner the rest of his life.

The point I'm trying to make, sir, in comparing Washington to Napoleon is that if one wishes to be a great man on the world stage AND enjoy a full and free life, the path of Washington is much preferable to that of Napoleon. Washington manifested a deep understanding and appreciation of freedom, the rule of law, and the place of any individual within a political system espousing those ideals.

Napoleon did not.

Fortunately, for you, your part as actor on the world stage is not yet complete, there are choices still to be made.

Let me close with another anecdote from the life of No. 1.

It was summer of 1781, French Count Rochambeau had been trying for almost a year to convince George Washington to drop his sense of honor lost over his defeat in New York. Washington, according to his letters, was almost obsessed with getting New York back, striking a decisive blow against tyranny, so to write.

If No. 1 had "stayed the course" history might well be different. In the event, he dropped his honor, listened to reason and set sights on the South. Cornwallis' defeat at Yorktown which soon followed effectively ended the war.

Here's an excerpt from Ellis' His Excellency George Washington: In his diary entry for July 30 [1781], Washington confessed his concern about "my obstinacy in urging a measure [driving the British out of NY City] to which his [Rochambeau's] own judgment was oppos'd." Three days later he wrote Robert Morris to request delivery of thirty transport ships in Philadelphia as soon as possible, observing that New York had been "laid aside" and that "Virginia seems to be the next object."

Food for thought.