Cultural Freedom, Legal Liberty

The following is more thoughts on the contrast between Germanic ‘freedom’ and Latin ‘liberty’ (see previous post: Libertarian Authoritarianism). The one is a non-legal construct of a more general culture, whereas the other is specifically a legal construct that was adapted to other ends, from philosophical ideal to spiritual otherworldliness as salvific emancipation. One important point is that liberty is specifically defined as not being a slave according to the law, but freedom is not directly or necessarily about slavery since freedom is more about what you are than what you are not. Though Germanic tribes had slaves, they weren’t fundamentally slave-based societies in the legal sense and economic structure of the Roman Empire.

Furthermore, the distinction is partly that ‘freedom’, as a word and a concept, developed in a pre-literate society of Germanic tribes, from which it was imported into England and carried to the American colonies. This freedom was expressed in informal practices of proto-democracy such as out-of-doors politics where people met on the commons to discuss important matters, a tradition that originated in northern Europe. Latin, on the other hand, was a language of literacy and the Roman Empire was one of the most literate societies in the ancient world. Our understanding of ‘liberty’ is strongly influenced by surviving ancient texts written by the literate elite, but the more common sense of ‘freedom’ was, in the past, mostly passed on by the custom of spoken language.

On a related note, Hanna Arendt was on the mind recently. She spent her early life in Germany, but, as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, she had strong opinions about certain issues. By the time Arendt was growing up in 20th century Germany, I’m not sure how much of the premodern Germanic notion of freedom remained, but maybe the underlying culture persisted. It meant, as noted, belonging to a free people; and that was part of the problem, as the Jews were perceived as not belonging. The old cultural meaning of freedom was not part of formal laws of a large centralized nation-state with a court system. One was either free as being a member or not, as it was defined more by sociocultural relationships and identity.

What was lacking was the complex legalistic and political hierachy of the Roman Empire where there were all kinds of nuances, variations, and complexities involving one’s sociopolitical position. Being a Roman slave or a Roman citizen (or something in between), as a legal status, primarily was defined by one’s relationship to the state. Liberty was also an economic matter that signified one owned oneself, as opposed to being owned by another. The metaphor of ownership was not a defining feature of Germanic freedom.

The problem the Jewish people had with the Nazis was a legal issue. The civil rights they once possessed as German citizens suddenly were gone. The civil rights, Arendt argued, that the government gives could likewise be taken away by the government. Something else was required to guarantee and protect human value and dignity. Maybe that has to do with a culture of trust, what she felt was lacking or something related to it. The Nazis, though, were maybe all about a culture of trust, even if Jews were not in their circle of trust. Mere legalities such as civil rights were secondary as expressions of culture, rather than culture being shaped by a law system as part of legalistic traditions and mindset.

Arendt may never have considered the difference between liberty and freedom. It would’ve been interesting if she could have drawn upon the cultural history of the ancient Germanic tradition of freedom as community membership, which resonates with the older worldview of a commons. Liberty, as originating within a legalistic mindset, has no greater authority to proclaim outside of law, be it actual law (the state) or law as metaphor (natural law). Even invoking natural law, as Stoics did, can be of limited power; but it was used with greater force when wielded by radical-minded revolutionaries to challenge human law.

A deeper understanding of culture is what is missing, both the benefits and the harms. Maybe the Nazis were going by that culture of freedom and the Jews, as a perceived different culture, simply did not belong and so were deemed a threat. In a culture demanding a sense of belonging to a shared identity, difference could not be tolerated and diversity not allowed. Certain kinds of legalistic systems, on the other hand, can incorporate multiculturalism as seen with the Roman Empire and Napoleon’s French Empire, the military of the latter having consisted of soldiers that were primarily non-French. One can legally have citizenship and civil rights without having to share culture.

Also, it might be similar to how different ethnic groups can belong to the same larger Catholic Church, while Protestant traditions have more often been ethnic or nation specific. Catholicism, after all, developed directly out of Roman imperialism. It is true that Catholicism does have more of a legalistic structure to its hierarchy and practices. It was the legalistic view of buying indulgences as an economic contract with the Church as representative of a law-making God that was a major complaint in the Protestant Reformation. Protestants, concentrated in Northwestern Europe, preferred religion to have a more personal and communal expression that was concretely embodied in the congregation, not in a churchly institution of rules and rituals.

Like the Germans, the Scandinavians (and Japanese) have also emphasized the cultural approach. This common culture can allow for effective social democracies but also effective totalitarian regimes. Maybe that is why the American Midwest of Germanic and Scandinavian ancestry was the birthplace of the American Melting Pot, sometimes a cultural assimilation enforced by violent threat and punishment (English only laws, Second Klan, etc); and indeed some early Midwestern literature portrayed the homogenizing force of oppressive conformity. To the Midwestern mind, American identity too often became a hegemony (even making claims upon Standard American English), but at the same time anyone who assimilated (in being allowed to assimilate) was treated as equal. Some have noted that American-style assimilation has allowed immigration to be less of a problem than seen with the more common practice of housing segregation in Europe.

So, it might not be an accident that Southerners always were the most resistant to assimilate to mainstream American culture, while also being resistant to Northerner’s notions of equality. The hierarchical society of the South does to an extent allow populations to maintain their separate cultures and identities, but does so through a long history of enforced segregation and discrimination of racial laws. That is why there is still a separate black culture and Scots-Irish culture of the lower classes, as separate from the Cavalier culture of the ruling class — it’s separate and unequal; i.e. liberty. Assimilation is not an option, even if one wanted to, but the nature of the overall culture disinclines people from wanting it, as seen in how Southerners have continued to self-segregate themselves long after segregation laws ended.

The Southern emphasis on individual liberty is because it’s generally the individual who relates to the state and it’s laws. The communal aspect of life, in the South, is not found in governance so much as in kinship and church. That is the difference in how, particularly in the Midwest, the Northern attitude tends to more closely mix community and governance, as communal is more seen as cutting across all groups that are perceived as belonging (maybe why kinship and church is less central in the Midwest; and related to the emphasis on the nuclear family first promoted by the Quakers from the Scandinavian-settled English Midlands). Ethnic culture in the Midwest has disappeared more quickly than in the South. But this greater communal identity also defines individuality as more cultural than legal.

Legalistic individuality, in the modern world, is very capitalist in nature or otherwise expressed in material forms. Liberty-minded individualism is about self-ownership and the propertied self. To own oneself means to not be owned by another. That is why Thomas Jefferson saw individual freedom in terms of yeoman farming where an individual owned land, as property defined freedom. The more property one has, the more liberty one has as an individual; because one is independent by not being a dependent on others but rather to make others dependent. This relates to how, during the colonial era, the Southern governments gave more land based on their number of dependents (family, indentured servants, and slaves).

That is why a business owner and others in the propertied class have greater individuality in having the resources to act with less constraint, specifically in legal terms as money and power have always gone hand in hand, particularly in the South. A factory owner with hundreds of employees has more liberty-minded individuality, in the way did a plantation aristocrat with hundreds of slaves. Inequality before the legal system of power and privilege is what defines liberty. That explains how liberty has taken on such potent significance, as it has been tightly controlled as a rare commodity. Yet the state of dependence is more closely connected to liberty in general, as even aristocrats were trapped within societal expectations and obligations of social role. Liberty is primarily about one’s legal status and formal position, which can be a highly structured individuality — maybe why Stoics associated the ideal of liberty with the love of fate in denying free will.

As African-American culture was shaped in the South, this legalistic mentality might be why the black movement for freedom emphasized legal changes of civil rights, initially fighting for the negative freedom (i.e., liberty) of not being actively oppressed. They wanted equality before the law, not equality as assimilated cultural membership — besides, whites were more willing to assent to the former than the latter. This same legalistic mentality might go the heart of why Southerners are so offended by what they describe as illegal immigrants, whereas Northerners are more likely to speak of undocumented immigrants. This is typically described as being ideological, conservatism versus liberalism, but maybe it’s more having to do with the regional divide between the legalistic mind and the cultural mind where ideological identities have become shaped by regional cultures.

There is also a divide in the ideological perception of protest culture, a democratic phenomenon more common in the North than the South. To the Southern mind, there is an old fear about totalizing ideologies of the North, whereas their own way of life is thought of as a non-ideological tradition. Liberal rhetoric is more grounded in the culture of freedom as more all-encompassing ideological worldview than coherent ideological system as embodied in Southern legalism. This makes it more acceptable to challenge laws in the North because culture informs the legal system more than the other way around; that is to say, law is secondary (consider the living, as opposed to legalistic, interpretation of the Constitution that has it’s origins in Quaker constitutionalism; a constitution is a living agreement of a living generation, not the dead hand of law). That is maybe why there is the conservative pushback against a perceived cultural force that threatens their sense of liberty, as the culture of freedom is more vague and pervasive in its influence. The conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism is maybe the conservative’s attempt to grasp this liberal-minded culture that feels alien to them.

Liberty and freedom is part of an old Anglo-American dialogue, a creative flux of ideas.To lop off one side would be to cripple American society, and yet the two remain uneasy and unresolved in their relationship. Sadly, it’s typically freedom (i.e., positive freedom and sociocultural freedom) that gets the short shrift in how both the left and right too often became caught up in political battles of legalistic conflicts over civil rights and court cases, even to the point that the democratic process becomes legalistic in design; with the culture of freedom and democracy being cast aside. Consider the power that has grown within the Supreme Court to decide not only political but also economic and social issues, cultural and moral issues (e.g., abortion). As democracy has weakened and legalism further taken hold, we’ve forgotten about how freedom and democracy always were first and foremost about culture with politics being the result, not the cause. The gut-level sense of freedom remains in the larger culture, but the liberty-minded legalism has come to rule the government, as well as the economy. That is why there can be such clashes between police and protesters, as each embodies a separate vision of America; and this is why property damage is always featured in the corporate media’s narrative about protests.

The ideal of freedom has such power over the mind. It harkens back to an earlier way of living, a simpler form of society. Freedom as culture is a shared experience of shared identity, maybe drawing upon faint memories of what Julian Jaynes called the bicameral mind. When the Bronze Age was coming to an end, a new kind of rule-based legalism emerged, including laws literally etched into stone as never before seen. But the mentality that preceded it didn’t entirely disappear. We know of it in ourselves from a sense of loss and nostalgia we have a hard time pinpointing. That is why freedom is such a vague concept, as opposed to liberty’s straightforward definition. We are haunted by the promise of freedom, but without quite knowing what it would mean to be free. Our heavy reliance on systems of liberty is, in a sense, a failure to protect and express some deep longing within us, the simple but undeniable need to belong.

6 thoughts on “Cultural Freedom, Legal Liberty

  1. I’ve been finishing the 3rd draft of my historical adventure novel by candlelight after our latest winter storm. It’s based on the smugglers and saboteurs who fought the British imperial interests before and during the 7 years war.

    Since I have a habit of superimposing different historical periods, I also wrote it from the perspective of Germanic barbarians fighting against Julian the Apostate’s march through the Rhine country. I think this is more than just moral imagination, but as a reviewer of Hubbard’s “Buckskin Brigades” put it, “where the meat of the story lies”.

    • Well, I always support the writing endeavors of others. Your working novel sounds like something of interest and I hope to read it some day. As should go without saying, I’m more than fine with superimposing in general. Philip K. Dick, at times, was fond of superimposing various realities and historical periods. It is a way of getting at deeper truths, far beyond the mere wardrobe of the Burkean moral imagination (that, as Thomas Paine complained and warned, hides rather than reveals). PKD went so far as to envision this radical imagination as akin to Gnostic animnesis, a revelation and return of the past alive within the present; the eternal recurrence of primal origins, archetypal patterns that manifest as repeating patterns. This Gnostic-like imaginal worldview appeals to me, partly because of my childhood Christian faith from the Unity Church and my early readings of A Course In Miracles with its similarity to Valentianian Gnosticism/hereticism. Plus, this sense of layered reality speaks to the premodern cyclical time that preceded linear time, such that the astrological term ‘revolution’ originally meant a cyclical turning and returning. As such, the tendency to superimpose is not an artificial construction but something inborn, a profound way of being in the world. This speaks to my larger argument of what needs to be understood, such as expressed in the distinction between the cultural and the legalistic, two disparate worldviews.

      Anyway, if you don’t mind my asking, what specifically made you think of your own historical fiction when reading the above post? Did you have ‘freedom’ and/or ‘liberty’ in mind? Or does it relate more generally to the Germanic barbarians and the fight against the legalistic power of empire (Roman, Norman, and British)? As a side note, it could be pointed out that the borderland of the Rhineland-Palatinate, including Alsace-Lorraine, has ancient origins and a fascinating history — much cultural mixing, the origins of Yiddish, and source of emigration that created the majority of the Pennsylvania colony (Thomas Paine made an intriguing argument for American Independence precisely based on the multiculturalism involving such non-English populations in forming a diverse American identity distinct from British society). And, one might add, the Pennsylvanian culture helped to shape the entire regional culture of the Midwest, according to Brian Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard. Some of my own ancestry was German immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine with one census record stating it as place of origin while others stated it variously as France and Germany, since the region was contested during the 19th century. Borderlander people (often oppressed and victimized, traumatized and violent-prone) in general make for a good study of how modern society — the more infamous example being the honor culture of the Scots-Irish (the mixed-up British population of outsiders and refugees consisting of Celts, Scandinavians, Germans, French Huguenots, etc that was prototype of the American mutt; probably the reason most Upper Southerners and Appalachians simply identify their ancestry as ‘American’, and in overlapping with the Lower Midwest having helped to influence the related Midwestern culture of general American identity).

      To speak of the topic at hand, the cultural impulse of ‘freedom’ has to do with a ‘primal’ impulse of imagination that, as I sense, remains as a ‘radical’ (going to the root) living force within the psyche — think of the Aboriginal Dreaming where the Songlines, through ritual enactment, are sung into Creation; or think of the imaginal quality to the work of William Blake, an associate of Thomas Paine. Such core imagination, with surviving hints of the imaginal, easily carried over as a psychic resonance within modern radicalism (with precursors in the English Peasants’ Revolt), while the modern world has become dominated by the oppressively unimaginative legalistic mindset. The threat that raw imagination represents is profound because it goes not only to the founding of Western civilization but to the origins of individual consciousness. The conflict of freedom and liberty echoes the ancient transformation from Bronze Age to Axial Age, an unresolved tension that lingers in causing confusion and havoc. The problem is that the real conflict is not actually ideological as we understand it today, although it can be thought of as ideological in a broader sense (i.e., Louis Althusser’s use of ‘ideology’ as worldview). We completely misunderstand what is at stake and so these powerful, if hidden, currents of ‘culture’ get dismissed at our peril.

      This post here might be my favorite among the recent batch of writings on this blog. It is simple, coherent, and to the point. It succeeds — or I hope it succeeds — in expressing and explaining an important distinction that builds on an old theme of my writings. Having lived in both the North and South, the two regional traditions stand out in my experience. And, combined with historical self-education, this personal sense of American division has been magnified by the genealogical research I’ve done on my American ancestry going back to the colonial era. Despite some familial roots in the South, my social identity is firmly Midwestern with some tinges from mixed areas of the Upper South (i.e., the Kentuckiana homeland of my maternal lineage). My bias, of course, is on the side of culture rather than on the side of legalism. Even as the left-right frame fails to precisely capture this divide within the mind, we unfortunately don’t seem to have a better metaphorical frame to capture, on one side, the communal and egalitarian-like impulse of the archaic mind and, on the other, what developed as a civilized overlay through the egoic mind of individualized consciousness and the propertied self.

      Connected to cultural ‘freedom’, I’ve elsewhere talked of ‘egalitarianism’, often in relation to leftism — problematic as such language might be in how, sadly and infuriatingly, it’s almost impossible to separate left-wing ideology from Cold War propaganda about left-wing ideology, much less be able to publicly discuss how it connects to the more distant past. To even begin to barely grasp a tattered corner of what I’m imperfectly trying to get at (and, in my limited capacity, often failing to convey), one has to understand what ‘freedom’ means as an archaic carryover of preliterate culture and, although repressed, as a remnant of the still living bundled mind of animism/bicameralism hidden within the human psyche that, in irrepressible defiance, ever erupts out of the ideological banishment imposed upon it by respectable society. Yeah, that is asking a lot of my readers, considering that I’m constantly struggling to make sense of all this in my own partial and skewed understanding, but I refuse to give up on trying to make sense of what matters most below the roiling waves of mass insanity.

      Indeed, this is a complex topic and, sure, there is plenty of room for disagreement. But, unfortunately, we don’t have a shared frame of experience and knowledge, of concepts and terminology to allow for meaningful public debate (much less dialectical synthesis to seek new meaning) — since the very debate itself, involving the cultural vs the legalistic, is a battle over which will frame the debate itself (it’s an unfair conflict, one might argue, since the less defined/constrained broadness of cultural ‘freedom’ seems more able and likely to allow space for legalistic ‘liberty’ in a way that does not appear to be possible the other way around; related to why the egoic mind cannot exist without the repression of the bundled mind, even as the bundled mind can never actually be denied or eliminated). All that we get is a war of words and a struggle for power, where it is assumed one side must win in a zero-sum game of political competition. What gets lost in this conflict is any genuine meaning of the deeper currents of culture that goes back millennia and with roots within human evolution, something the legalistic mindset does not and cannot grasp.

      So, what we Americans are left with is legalistic politics and a crippled inability to culturally imagine our way out of it. Yet that need not be our fate. I maintain that ‘egalitarianism’, in the sense used here (based on the earliest attempts of humans to understand humanity and the world), is not an abstract ideal or totalizing ideology according to the false and deceiving accusation made by modern inegalitarians who don’t comprehend the primal beast that refuses to be caged by their legalistic systems of dogmatic power, of perception management and social control. That isn’t to say that such ‘egalitarianism’ is above and beyond all reproach. As I point out in this post, freedom as one expression of this cultural and communal impulse can manifest (and, at times, has manifested) in dark ways as seen in the United States with the Northern hegemony of the American Melting Pot or as seen in the Nazi refusal to honor the precedent of civil rights as established rule of law to not so easily be cast aside (the many ways the bicameral mind, in distorted form, takes hold as the return of the repressed). So, sure, lay blame where it is deserved, as one should also give credit where it’s due. Nonetheless, I wish that we could have a public debate where ‘freedom’ and ‘egalitarianism’ was judged in light of understanding, not cast into the shadow of ignorance like the casting out of a demon. The dominance of the legalistic mindset has morally stunted American society, as half of the American tradition is so often without a voice within the halls of power, the public mind, and shared imagination.

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