Republicans and freedom.

It might seem odd that a set of candidates so intent on imposing their Christian agenda upon a nation can simultaneously claim to be beacons of freedom, and in a sense it is odd. Most people understand freedom to mean one is able to do a variety of things, and you are conversely oppressed to the extent that your activities are instead interfered with. And yet, Rick Santorum claims liberty is the key issue in his campaign, as he also pledges to consider the prospect of states banning condoms, if they so wished, on the grounds that it encourages a sexual order contrary to how things ‘ought to be’.

You heard right. A man claiming to be about freedom wants to employ the state to coerce you with threats into no longer using those little pieces of rubber to prevent pregnancy. He genuinely thinks not only that he should be able to control American citizens and their lives and choices in that way, but that he can do so without jeopardising liberty.

Is this remotely defensible? Well, clearly not, and I’m the first one to find it repulsive and absurd. But I can think of three ways in which he could at least try to claim he’s not committing an obvious contradiction in talking this way:

  1. Obviously nobody protests that a candidate is unfairly attacking their freedom when they support laws banning murder. The whole point being, of course, that we don’t value in any sense the freedom of someone to kill somebody else without their permission. Now, no, I’m not suggesting using a condom is analogous to murdering. But in Santorum’s mind, both are wrong, and perhaps for similar reasons: they’re contrary to the will of God. And if that’s the criterion for the permissibility and subsequent legality of something, you can see why he can convince himself that he can run the two together without batting an eyelid. “Of course you shouldn’t be free to use contraception. Doing stuff like that isn’t what we mean by freedom.”
  2. This is probably only a more sophisticated way of saying the same thing, but there is a tendency for us to talk of freedom in terms of achieving an end goal. Buddhists talk of the ‘liberation’ of reaching Nirvana, existentialists of breaking free from social conventions and living authentically according to your true desires, and, similarly, Christians can talk of the ‘freedom’ that attaches to following their interpretation of Scripture. This is a surprisingly popular way of understanding freedom. It is, clearly, in direct conflict with the idea of freedom as having a variety of choices (instead it’s about following the one path – the ‘right’ one) – but it’s still a tradition with backers from Plato through to Rousseau. It’s an understanding of freedom that Isaiah Berlin called ‘positive’ liberty. Santorum could claim he’s forcing us to be free by helping us to see the ‘perversions’ of sex not geared towards procreation, and by encouraging us to follow the True Path instead. I know, I know. But it’s an option…
  3. Finally, and I imagine, given his limited intellectual capacities and non-existent acquaintance with political philosophy, that this is what he in fact has in mind, he may just think that freedom isn’t about social issues. For some reason in America, their two leading values of capitalism and liberty have been conflated so badly that what it means to be free is to be buying and selling things, period. There is no liberty beyond the realm of economics. Now this goes some way to explaining their apparent ignorance of the fact they claim to be promoting liberty despite staunch conservatism on social issues, and it also explains their implicit opinion that big government spending wise (not in bedroom-invading terms) is oppressive: it involves taking lots of your money.

All three options are deeply objectionable and shouldn’t be mainstream opinion in any decent society. But they are a few ways of making Republicans sound slight less simple. Look at it as the flawed but intriguing substance a charitable interviewer could add to their horrible soundbites.

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