Reply to Rachel

Thank you for your very thoughtful response to my cultural diplomacy piece and discussion (see Rachel's comments and links below). You raise the essential and most vexed issue of all, which is the use and abuse of liberty in a supposedly self-governing regime. I offer some general comments on this below.

But since this is a film blog, let me first mention a movie that for me captures this issue in an incredibly timely way: My Son the Fanatic (1997), based on the novel and screenplay by Hanif Kureishi. It is about an Indian taxi driver (played brilliantly by Om Purim) in the north of England, whose son is so offended by his father’s assimilation to decadent British society that he joins a fundamentalist Islamist group.

The father’s decadence consists of having a crush on a hooker whom he drives around the city, and at the end of the workday, drinking a scotch and listening to his beloved jazz records. But to the son's new mentors, the old man might just as well be a violent rapist shooting heroin and listening to death metal. Fanatics don't make distinctions.

But distinctions must be made: first, between ordinary mortals struggling to behave decently and perfectionists who seek to reconstruct human nature by any means necessary; and second, between the humane loosening of puritanical constraint and the out-of-control indulgence of appetite.

As you so wisely note, people around the world are drawn to the freedoms enjoyed in America. But they are also repulsed by the abuse of these freedoms - and this is true of ordinary mortals, not just fanatics. When people in traditional societies look at us, what they see most glaringly is what Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty,” or freedom from tradition, religion, family, restraint of all kinds. As Berlin argued, this contrasts with the “positive liberty” to participate in the governing of one's country - and oneself.

Right now our public diplomacy (such as it is) touts "freedom" as our highest ideal, meaning self-government. But our popular culture often (not always) touts negative liberty. It would be nice to think we could craft a cultural diplomacy that conveys this distinction. But first we must remind ourselves that it exists.

August 30, 2005 10:21 AM |



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