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American ideas of freedom have been spread throughout the world. But in very few places, if anywhere, have they become as deeply rooted as they are in our own soil. The recent history of Western Europe has shown just how readily a free people can agree to restrict their freedoms in order to placate a freedom-hating minority. (“Freedom,” Ronald Reagan reminded us, “is never more than one generation away from extinction.”) Americans cheered when Communism fell in Europe. Yet millions of Russians still cherish the memory of Stalin; in a new book about his travels in Germany, I Sleep in Hitler’s Room, the American Jewish writer Tuvia Tenenbom records, depressingly, that one person after another whom he met in the former East Germany longs for the days of Communism. (They even miss the Stasi.)
For many Americans, such facts are hard to swallow and nearly impossible to make sense of. Alas, for most people in most places in most eras of history, it has been nothing more or less than human nature to want to be told what to think and not think, what to do and not do, where to go and not go. The world is scary and chaotic, and order imposed from without can be comforting. The ordinary human individual is well aware that he has very little control over anything in his world and none of the answers to any of the important questions – but despite this, or rather because of it, he is eager to embrace the illusion that someone else does, and to follow and obey that person with a passion of religious dimensions. (This, of course, is what was so unsettling about the irrational enthusiasm of many voters for Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign: to idealize any politician in such a way is thoroughly alien to the best of American traditions.)
The sad truth is that all too many people want to be cogs in wheels; they want to be parts of a collective; they want the security of being able to think of themselves as wards of a state. In their eyes, to be a free individual is, above all, to be naked and vulnerable. If twenty-first-century men and women in Western countries, heirs to the Enlightenment, can so readily spit on their freedom, imagine how much more difficult a sell individual liberty is for people nurtured on an obsessively collective, systematically oppressive culture founded in – and fixated on – a single book packed with bullying commands to hate, and to kill or convert, everyone outside the collective. The wonder of the “Arab spring” is not that people in one country after another are happily exchanging one kind of autocracy for another, but that there are any voices for freedom at all.
So, yes, we Americans have much to be thankful for. But much, too, of course, to be vigilant about – for even in America, as we all know, not only freedom but the love of freedom is today under siege, and those of us who recognize what is at stake have a solemn duty to keep that light from going out.
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