Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Eric Foner's The Idea of Freedom - in association with The United States Studies Centre - began at 6pm.

Foner was fortunate to follow Prof Shane White - of the University of Sydney - who introduced him with some praise. According to White, The New York Times returns more results for Foner than Australia.

Foner addressed this at the end of the oration - lasting about an hour - admitting that Americans should "think historically, not mythically". Foner was struck, a few years ago, when he visited a 'Freedom Kiosk' set up in the wake of 9/11 in New York.

"We're supposed to be a pretty liberal bunch, in New York," he began. He told the 200 or so souls who had braved the rain and cold to visit the Seymour Centre that in the kiosk you could see results of a vox-pop survey aimed at gauging public reactions to the destruction of the Twin Towers.

On the question 'whether the government should have the authority to deport or indefinitely detain anyone suspected of supporting terrorist groups' the public held the opinion - 54 per cent 'for' to 32 per cent 'against' - that it should.

In question time, a young man fronted the mic expressing surprise that Richard Hofstadter was one of Foner's supervisors. The Paranoid Style, a book by Hofstadter, who died young in 1970, caught Foner's attention.

I suggested that when I hear an American big name talking about 'freedom' I recall Geoff Goldblum in Jurrasic Park descending in a bumpy helicopter. Questioning the wisdom of 'rebirthing' dinosaurs, Goldblum's maveric mathematician reminds his adversaries that scientists who did it were "standing on the shoulders of giants".

Foner answered, saying America should be more cognisant of other counteries' advances on the freedom front which, he had early reminded us was, philosophically, an "essentially contested idea".

The 'Freedom Train' of 1947, "a traveling display of national American treasures," did not stop in Birmingham, Alabama, and one other southern city because its planners would not allow segregated access.

Birmingham's city fathers refused to back down. Nevertheless, Foner avers that freedom is "deeply embedded in our history", regardless of the fact that, at the time of the Declaration of Independence, 20 per cent of the population were slaves.

But these 'non-free elements' "transferred the idea of freedom to everybody". In this regard, President Roosevelt's radio addresses (Foner calls them "unmediated") to the community were instrumental.

Roosevelt's pluralist vision during World War II led the way, ultimately, to the adoption of multiculturalism in countries like Australia.

One of the non-free elements mentioned by Foner - women - hathed a good idea: "the personal is political". They built on the efforts of such women as Margaret Sanger, jailed in New York in 1915 for distributing information about reproduction.

In 1913, one newspaper censored by the Postmaster General - who refused distribution of the information - appeared in one issue with a blank page under the regular rubric "What Every Woman Should Know".

And in regard to non-jurors, Foner reminded us of the US Supreme Court disallowing action against Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to pledge allegiance to the flag.

My future reading will include Orlando Patterson, who wrote a book about freedom starting its review in earliest times and "petering out about the year 1400".

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