The Two Faces of American Freedom
Harvard University Press 2010
America, wrote the late historian and public intellectual Tony Judt, is “intensely familiar–and completely unknown.” America’s current position as the globe’s single superpower means that almost everyone, from a farmer harvesting his crops in Missouri to a street vendor in Kazakhstan, has a strong an opinion about what America is.
For example, in its 2011 “World Report,” Human Rights Watch condemned the unlawful arrest of three Georgian poets who peacefully protested on George W. Bush Street in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, demanding that it be renamed in honor of Walt Whitman. “George W. Bush does not represent what America is. Walt Whitman does,” said one of the protesters, Irakli Kakabadze, after being released from detention.
It’s not accidental that Aziz Rana‘s new book, The Two Faces of American Freedom (Harvard University Press, 2010), opens up with an epigraph from Walt Whitman’s “Facing West from California’s Shores.” According to Rana, Whitman’s verse highlights the disjuncture between essential American ideals and the politics the country often pursues today.
In the book, Rana investigates this seeming disjuncture between values and actions with reference to the Janus-faced American idea of freedom and how to spread it. For Americans, Rana argues, freedom means emancipation and domination. He points out, for example, that since Wilson’s time Americans have often attempted to free a country by attacking it, and they see no contradiction in this. For Americans, the pursuit of human rights–and especially emancipation–excuses and sometimes requires domination. It’s easy to see how Rana’s point is directly relevant to the current debate on U.S. intervention in Libya.
These and many other insights make Rana’s thoroughly researched and clearly written book an excellent guide for those perplexed about American ideology and its impact on the world. If you want to understand why the most powerful country in the world does what it does, I recommend you read it.