Thursday, April 13, 2006

In celebration of freedom: Passover and beyond

It's the holiday season, and one of those rare years when Passover and Easter come close together, as they did during the original Easter. So I get a twofer when I wish my readers "Happy Holidays!"

In recent years whenever I've attended a Seder (as I did last night), I've been impressed by the fact that Passover is a religious holiday dedicated to an idea that's not really primarily religious: freedom. Yes, it's about a particular historical (or perhaps legendary) event: the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. But the Seder ceremony makes clear that, important though that specific event may be, freedom itself is also being celebrated.

Offhand, I can't think of another religious holiday that takes the trouble to celebrate freedom. Nations certainly do: there's our own Fourth of July, France's Bastille Day, and various other independence days around the world. But these are secular holidays rather than religious ones.

For those who've never been to a Seder ceremony, I suggest attending one (and these days it's easier, since they are usually a lot shorter and more varied than in the past). A Seder is an amazing experience, a sort of dramatic acting out complete with symbols and lots of audience participation. Part of its power is that events aren't placed totally in the past tense and regarded as ancient and distant occurrences; rather, the participants are specifically instructed to act as though it is they themselves who were slaves in Egypt, and they themselves who were given the gift of freedom, saying:

"This year we are slaves; next year we will be free people..."

Passover acknowledges that freedom is an exceedingly important human desire and need. That same idea is present in the Declaration of Independence (which, interestingly enough, also cites the Creator):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

It is ironic, of course, that when that Declaration was written, slavery was allowed in the United States. That was rectified, but only after great struggle, which goes to show how wide the gap often is between rhetoric and reality, and how difficult freedom is to achieve. And it comes as no surprise, either, that the Passover story appealed to slaves in America when they heard about it; witness the lyrics of "Let My People Go."

Yes, the path to freedom is far from easy, and there are always those who would like to take it away. Sometimes an election merely means "one person, one vote, one time," if human and civil rights are not protected by a constitution that guarantees them, and by a populace dedicated to defending them at almost all costs. Wars such as that in Iraq only give an opportunity for liberty, they do not guarantee it; and what we're observing there now is the hard, long, and dangerous task of attempting to secure it in a place with no such tradition, and with neighbors dedicated to its obliteration.

Sometimes those who are against liberty are religious, like the mullahs. Sometimes they are secular, like the Communists. Sometimes they are cynical and power-mad; sometimes they are idealists who don't realize that human beings were not made to conform to their rigid notions of the perfect world, and that attempts to force them to do so seem to inevitably end in horrific tyranny, and that this is no coincidence.

As one of my favorite authors Kundera wrote, in his Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

...human beings have always aspired to an idyll, a garden where nightingales sing, a realm of har­mony where the world does not rise up as a stranger against man nor man against other men, where the world and all its people are molded from a single stock and the fire lighting up the heavens is the fire burning in the hearts of men, where every man is a note in a magnificent Bach fugue and anyone who refuses his note is a mere black dot, useless and meaningless, easily caught and squashed between the fingers like an insect."

Note the seamless progression from lyricism to violence: no matter if it begins in idealistic dreams of an idyll, the relinquishment of freedom to further that dream will end with humans being crushed like insects. History has borne that out, I'm afraid. That's one of the reasons the people of Eastern Europe have been more inclined to ally themselves recently with the US than those of Western Europe have--the former have only recently come out from under the Soviet yoke of being regarded as those small black and meaningless dots in the huge Communist "idyll."

Dostoevsky did a lot of thinking about freedom as well. In his cryptic and mysterious Grand Inquisitor, a lengthy chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, he imagined (appropriately enough for the approaching Easter holiday) a Second Coming. But this is a Second Coming in which the Grand Inquisitor rejects what Dostoevsky sees as Jesus's message of freedom:

Oh, never, never can [people] feed themselves without us [the Inquisitors and controllers]! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, "Make us your slaves, but feed us." They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man?

Freedom vs. bread is a false dichotomy. Dostoevsky was writing before the Soviets came to power, but now we have learned that lack of freedom, and a "planned" economy, is certainly no guarantee of bread (just ask the Ukrainians).

Is freedom a "basic need, then? Ask, also, the Vietnamese "boat people." And then ask them what they think of John Kerry's assertion, during his 1971 Senate testimony, that they didn't care what sort of government they had as long as their other "basic needs" were met:

How important is freedom? We found most people didn't even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart...

So that when we in fact state, let us say, that we will have a ceasefire or have a coalition government, most of the 2 million men you often hear quoted under arms, most of whom are regional popular reconnaissance forces, which is to say militia, and a very poor militia at that, will simply lay down their arms, if they haven't done so already, and not fight. And I think you will find they will respond to whatever government evolves which answers their needs, and those needs quite simply are to be fed, to bury their dead in plots where their ancestors lived, to be allowed to extend their culture, to try and exist as human beings. And I think that is what will happen...

I think that politically, historically, the one thing that people try to do, that society is structured on as a whole, is an attempt to satisfy their felt needs, and you can satisfy those needs with almost any kind of political structure, giving it one name or the other. In this name it is democratic; in others it is communism; in others it is benevolent dictatorship. As long as those needs are satisfied, that structure will exist.

I beg to differ. I think there's another very basic need, one that perhaps can only really be appreciated when it is lost: liberty.

Happy Passover, and Happy Easter! And that's no non sequitor.


At 1:35 PM, April 14, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

John Kerry is quite consistent in his belief in absolute power, for so long as his subjects are fed by the Democratic trough, it doesn't really matter to him what shape his policies take in the minds of men. He voted for it, before he voted against it. Then he voted for it again.

Forever mutable forms of expression derive from one singular belief, and that belief centers around the fate and destiny of humanity. John Kerry sees men and women as tools, as cogs that once satisfied will work onto death.

The Democrats agreed with this philosophy when they fought Lincoln and the Republicans for personal power and the subjugation of the weak. And they will do so again as time went on. History needs liberty, not because liberty is an idealistic goal that we can hang on our mantle heads. Liberty is the tool by which we unleash the true power of humanity, and only with the true power of humanity may we aspire to be something beyond the thoughtless beasts we reign supreme over.

Liberty means power, but it does not guarantee either safety nor survival. The United States has seen the proof of liberty in our history, but we have also seen the power of nihilism in the 21st.

The unity through force and belief, used by the Democrats and paleo-conservatives, is not freedom. And thus two gigantic forces are always fighting it out in human history, to determine which force, entropy or order, will reign supreme.

Because in the end, the perfect liberty is as much chaotic individualism as it is ordered unity and strength. You need not aspire to Democratic standards of unity and crushing of dissent, nor Osama's strong horse vs weak horse, to acquire the power to withstand the test of the ages.

You cannot achieve a balance of power, regardless of Democratic and partisan rhetoric, if you don't understand the nature of the power you seek to balance. Through understanding the human condition and human nature, one can achieve power. Because the natural limits on activation energy applies just the same to humans as it does to chemical reactions. For we are products of nature and the physical rules of the universe, regardless of how much we rail against our natures for good or evil.

True belief is hard to stop. True belief in the right things, are unstoppable.

At 3:42 PM, April 14, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

Thanks for another rich post.

I am not a practicing religious person but I have had a lot of exposure to Christian and Jewish rituals and have affection for them. Even so I think the historical bases for both is probably more mythical than anything else. (ducks)

The notion of freedom is by necessity rather vague and thus hard to nail down, or view outside of some context.

In the case of Pesach, what is being celebrated is the deliverance of the Jewish people from bondage by the Almighty, thus is it above a celebration of that supreme being, and the special bond the Jewish people have with him by being loyal to their covenant. Yes, it is about freedom in a certain sense, but, of course it is not about freedom in the libertarian sense.

If Passover emphasizes the unity of the Jewish people by their promise to the Almighty, Easter emphasizes the unity of the believers with the risen Christ.

So the one holiday collapses time, and the other, space, for the faithful.

We in the West for a century or more have become accustomed to what might be called pluralistic ideologies, I mean, the notion that a plurality of intepretations of the world, a plurality of codes of conduct, and a plurality of individual life choices can co-exist without rancor. As a result we tend to look down our noses at societies that are "closed" (in Popper's sense), perhaps forgetting that most societies for most of human history have been run by unitary ideologies that do not tolerate dissent: and, BTW, that includes much of Jewish and Christian history, as well.

Anyway, the problem with our Muslim friends is that they are at that moment now. They have long lived under the single ideology of Allah, and now that it being threatened by their exposure to the West. So the are retreating into a kind of reactionary ideology, where fear and force are in play. And, yes, Nazism and Communism were very similar to these. And they are very different from us and therefore very scary in that way. I have that fear, and I also fear that we might become more like them, because of the challenge and threat they represent to us.

However, it's important to recognize that they are dealing from a position of weakness, despite their bluster and their (possible) WMD's, and their evident brutality (Moussaioui). They are attempting to impose an ideological straight jacket that will not hold. Unfortunately, the future of the Muslim world is going to be somewhat like the history of Europe from the French Revolution through the fall of Communism, not very pleasant, and possibly very dangerous, but, what we can do is try to manage it. We will not be able to control it.

Dostoevsky was a revolutionary in his youth: a believer that organized religion (read: organized unitary ideologies) were all mere engines of social control preventing sacred individuals from fulfilling their destiny. But when he got older he returned to faith, and thus he represents more Alyosha than Ivan by the time he wrote Karamazov.

The story really isn't that ambiguous because everyone who doesn't share a faith regards it as a phony edifice of control. Thus, everyone is Ivan. On the other hand, everyone also recognizes, when we listen to our better nature, that we need some kind of structure of values, including ethical values or spiritual values, in order to survive, and in order to love each other.

The key element is how one views the Deity: IOW, is there a overarching purpose to our lives, and, if there is, how should that guide us? Or is life just something into which we have been radically thrown, and if we live just for our own fulfillment, how long before the material comforts become dust and ashes?

I am rather sure that FD would have considered Ivan's position as one that ultimately led to solipsistic despair, and even the embrace of a newfangled unitary ideology like "totalitarianism." He would have said, instead, that the notion of finding purpose, and meaning, to life, as well as immortality, through active love, was the solution, and, mythic or no, that is what Jesus Christ is supposed to represent.

As a conservative, I am much more responsive to the old ideologies of the past, including, but not limited to Christianity and Judaism, which recognize that perfection is not possible, that human beings are weak and base, that life is, on an individual basis, a single breath in endless time, and that ego is the most pernicious of concepts.

For this reason, while I am not a believer, I think the old beliefs are a better guide to meaning than the newfangled Enlightenment ones. Freedom in that sense means, first, knowing that freedom is not about being enslaved by your ego desires, but by knowing your duty, based on what you are and your abilities, before the Most High. This is a spiritual insight, found in all the great religions and even in some great poetry.

Happy Holidays to you too.

At 4:52 PM, April 14, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

It is not conclusive that the Arabs and the Persians are dealing from a position of weakness. They have far more leverage and options, and the willingness to use them, than the West given our self-imposed limitations.

As such, it is not wise to believe that a more powerful person who does not believe in killing anyone is stronger than a small midget that is quite bloodthirsty.

The danger of a foe is 75% willpower and only 25% physicality.

There are serious consequences for any person that forgets that.

At 5:07 PM, April 14, 2006, Anonymous dymphna said...

You reminded me of the old days...i was briefly in nursing school in N'Awlins many years ago and the only girls who got out on Friday night (this was a Catholic hospital) were the Jewish ones who were attending Shabat services. My best friend was Jewish so we'd sign ourselves out, go to services and then head to the hangout where the interns were and drink a few gin and tonics (great in a tropical place).

I love teh Seder meal. Wish I had thought to beg my way in to one this year...

As for boat people -- since you mentioned them -- read Minh Duc. He made it over from Vietnam at a young age. Not everyone in the boat survived. He lived to join the military and serve in Serbia (I think) and Iraq.

I love his English (this is not condescending, everybody. Save your breath. His English beats my Vietnamese all to hell).

State of Flux is the name of Minh-Duc's blog. If you don't check in every week or so you miss some gems.

His one on the 4th of July about what it means to be an American is so moving.

On his profile he lists "antebella Vietnamese music" as among his favorites. I wonder *which* wars he refers to.

At 6:17 PM, April 14, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Minh's grammar and vocabulary is spot on. He only gets the tenses wrong, and some variations on endings for some words.

Sorta like what happens if you mess up the feminine and masculine forms of German verbs.

If someone tells you, becomes if someone tell you. It's to be expected when you spend most of your time training in martial arts and not debating on the internet, or writing a blog.

At 8:37 PM, April 14, 2006, Blogger Harry said...


Great post. I have only been to a single Seder, and brought a heavily Catholic perspective to it…it reminded me of the accounts of the Last Supper. Your post makes me want to go to another. Anyway, your remark that the Seder is really about freedom brought to my mind that the same idea is not limited to the Jewish faith. Here is quote from Galatians for you to contemplate:

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1)

Of course what Paul is speaking of is a freedom properly understood, as opposed to license…a point which I won’t dissect here. I only want to share that the importance of Christian freedom (like every other concept in Christianity) is something that we inherited from your tradition.

At 12:50 AM, April 15, 2006, Anonymous douglas said...

I'm Catholic, but my wife's extended family is Jewish. We all gather at her great-Aunt's house for the holiday and have a seder, but more often than not, the ceremony is VERY brief. I almost feel cheated, like we're not paying due respect to the traditions, which ironically enough, are only sencond hand to me, both culturally and religiously. I guess I'm just trying to point out the importance of preserving traditions and rituals, perhaps it's easier to see that from outside than from within. Consider that when you plan what to do next Independence day.

At 2:10 AM, April 15, 2006, Blogger camojack said...

"Happy Passover, and Happy Easter! And that's no non sequitor."

No non sequitur indeed; more of a segue...

At 10:02 AM, April 15, 2006, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> Offhand, I can't think of another religious holiday that takes the trouble to celebrate freedom. Nations certainly do: there's our own Fourth of July,...

"Our Founding Fathers lacked the special literary skilld with which modern writers on the subject of government are so richly endowed. When they wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, they found themselves more or less forced to come to the point. So clumsy of thought and pen were the Founders that even today, seven generations later, we can tell what they were talking about.
They were talking about having a good time:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are
created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with
certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,
Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness...

'This is living!' 'I gotta be me!' 'Ain't we got fun!' It's all there in the Declaration of Independence. We are the only nation in the world founded on happiness. Search as you will the sacred creeds of other nations and peoples, read the Magna Carta, the Communist Manifesto, the Ten Commandments, the Analects of Confucius, Plato's Republic, the New Testament, or the UN Charter, and find me any happiness at all."

- P.J. O'Rourke, 'Parliament of Whores' -

What is freedom but the pursuit of happiness?


At 10:30 AM, April 15, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Unlike the Girls Gone Wild culture of my generation, pursuit of happiness involves more things than having a good time.

There lacks a fundamental meaning to fun, that is inherent in happiness. Eventually the party poopers will come, and people had better have the muscle to throw them out when the time comes.

At 10:31 AM, April 15, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

If Ted Kennedy isn't too in his cups, to realize that his party has been pooped that is.

At 10:34 AM, April 15, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Actually, nick b, if you pay attention to words and the meaning of words, there is indeed a great deal of difference between happiness, "having a good time," and the pursuit of happiness. The latter is all about opportunity and dreams.

At 10:34 AM, April 15, 2006, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> It is ironic, of course, that when that Declaration was written, slavery was allowed in the United States. That was rectified, but only after great struggle, which goes to show how wide the gap often is between rhetoric and reality, and how difficult freedom is to achieve.

Well, I would hasten to point out, that the FFs likely would have preferred to abolish it completely, but the new government was already tottering in effort to repay the cost of the Revolution, to the point where it almost collapsed (look up the term "continental dollar" in Wiki and/or over on the Mises website).

To have also had to have given up the assets the slaves represented (vile though that usage of the term is, they were assets) would have totally wrecked the economy.

So the FFs compromised, with the entry abolishing the importation of slaves starting in 1810(?). In this lay their greatest error. It never occurred to them, quite clearly, that slavery and slave trading would become a homegrown "industry". They believed that, with slave importation abolished, that the evil behavior would slowly fade away, with plenty of time for the economy to adjust to meet the new circumstances. I suspect, myself, that at the least they should have declared that all those born to slaves after that point would be free, and that sales would cease, and that, upon death of the master, the slaves would be free.

This last is easy to say in hindsight. Certainly it would be wonderful to have a time machine and go back and let them see the result of their error, so that they might approach a way to correct it without destroying the new republic's economy, to see how the history of the USA would have gone without the vile institution to blacken its ideals for so much of its youth, and the draconian steps needed to right the wrong of it.

At 10:41 AM, April 15, 2006, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> Actually, nick b, if you pay attention to words

Well, yes, but, if you read between the lines of O'Rourke's screed (even more so if you've read other stuff by him) then you'll realize that he's not really talking about the "Girls Gone Wild" behavior, either. He's talking about the essential rights to opportunity and use of personal gains as you see fit, not subject to the diktat of some government myrmidon or overweening puffed up two-bit dictator-of-all-things-right-and-proper.

At 10:42 AM, April 15, 2006, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

His essential point is how different this is as the heart and soul of a people compared to all the others.

It really does mark Americans in a very different way from The Others.

At 11:04 AM, April 15, 2006, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> How important is freedom? We found most people didn't even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart...

Ikkkkk, far be it from me to appear to be defending Kerry, but, in a sense, he does have the right of it here -- most people just want to be let alone to live their lives as they see fit. They really, really don't care (directly) what government does it, as long as they get left alone and can feed their families and enjoy themselves sufficiently (that last is a sticky variable, mind you, no dispute)...

The problem is, of course, when you extend it out -- if that government isn't founded in some sense in true democracy, then, sooner or later, those foreign helicopters strafing them, etc., etc., etc., will be replaced with government helicopters doing the same.

Because the central issue at the heart of all government is "Who leads?". Succession is all. And if it's not in the hands of the people, then, sooner or later, it will no longer represent the interests of the people, but the interests of whoever is selecting the successors. And, when that happens, some faction or another will argue with the choice(s) of successors, and then the tyranny and oppression starts, because you can never tell who is on which side of who in the mix, so you have to get more and more ruthless in the end, or give up power, and few are willing to do that without the application of lead to skull.

If you look back at most of recorded history, much of the strife occurred at just these borders between leaders. It's one of the true geniuses of the American system. Look at 2000 -- we had a defacto Constitutional crisis, as the noise from the signal of "who's next?" swamped the information in the signal. In many nations throughout history, the result would have been a pitched battle between the two parties.

Not Here.

Because those making the play knew that the electorate would not accept a leader chosen by force. So they kept up with the interminable legal maneuvering until one side (the Dems) threw up their hands unable to come up with any legal maneuvering in response.

And that is pretty damned unique in human history.

Realize that, of the major nations of the world, we may not be "the oldest" or the "most storied", but we are the oldest government. Every other major nation of the world has gone through a major revision since 1776, and some of them more than one. In an era of constant change, our system has shown remarkable stability in dealing with the issues of government. People often fail to realize this.

At 11:37 AM, April 15, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

It never occurred to them, quite clearly, that slavery and slave trading would become a homegrown "industry"

Correct, their belief was that slavery would become obsolete once the Enlightenment inventions of automated farm harvestors and what not went into production, and slaves became more expensive than a hunk of machine that could do the same work at 1/2 the time and cost.

We would probably execute anyone trying to go back into the past to tell the Founding Father's anything. With extreme prejudice. History is not to be assassinated.

Most people who have read the entire American history and Euro History and World History, already know that America is the youngest nation yet the oldest democracy.

O Rourke sounds like a Libertarian. Talks the Talk, but when it comes to fight against the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, he can't get his Armageddon up.

At 11:39 AM, April 15, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

nick b: Interesting point about the FF and slavery, as well as our being the "oldest government."

When you write, "...most people just want to be let alone to live their lives as they see fit. They really, really don't care (directly) what government does it, as long as they get left alone," what comes to my mind is that it's almost a moot point, because (as I think you go on to say), if there is not a guarantee of liberty, the government will not leave them alone. It will attempt to control their lives and even their thought processes far more than is compatible with the idea of freedom. Kerry was saying "democracy or communism, it doesn't really matter as long as people are fed and safe," while ignoring the essential point: Communism will never leave you alone, and this is of the utmost importance to people (plus, it won't even reliably give them bread; it tends to cause economic hardship). That's why Kerry's statement was an absurdity, or worse.

At 3:43 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger troutsky said...

"All are free to dance and enjoy thmselves...but the freedom to choose an ideology-since ideology always reflects economic coercion- everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same."
Theodore Adorno

At 7:05 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger maghretta said...

Hi, I just found your blog. I'm surprised you decide so easily (for the Vietnamese) in favor of liberty even if it comes with napalm. Democratic government matters, but does that kind of freedom matter more than freedom from the fear and want war brings and the freedom of self-determination?
The people of Vietnam or Iraq didn't get to weigh the evils of communism or Sadaam Hussein against the evils of a long miserable war with an uncertain outcome.
And we admit that we're subjecting Iragis to what we won't stand ourselves - we're fighting the terrorists over there so we don't have to fight them here.

At 8:58 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

maghretta: You are an excellent example of the problem with reading comprehension (or is it logic?) that I spoke of in today's post. I'm surprised you failed to read what I actually wrote here: "Is freedom a "basic need, then? Ask, also, the Vietnamese 'boat people.'"

At 3:06 PM, April 16, 2006, Blogger B. Durbin said...

My family (Catholic) celebrated Seder quite often when I was growing up. We had the photocopied sheets, the bitter herbs (parsley), the unleavened bread, and everything. We didn't eat standing up, though.

One thing that was pointed out to me when I was in college is that the Seder meal is celebrated with glasses of wine. When I was growing up, this was translated to sips but back in the day, it was full glasses, possibly even what we would call mugs. And from there we go to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples' inability to stay awake well, after four LARGE glasses of wine, possibly more alcoholic than we've got, is it any wonder they were sleepy?

At 11:47 AM, April 17, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

The people of Vietnam or Iraq didn't get to weigh the evils of communism or Sadaam Hussein against the evils of a long miserable war with an uncertain outcome.

Some people need to get their heads out of the ground, and realize that the Shia and Kurds were gassed by chem weapons because they chose to do a bloody ass Revolution from ground zero than tolerate the evils of "Saddam Hussein". They just failed, miserably, because Norman Schwarzkopf said "go ahead, use your helicopters, we're too stupid to realize that you can drop chems from helicopters".

And we admit that we're subjecting Iragis to what we won't stand ourselves - we're fighting the terrorists over there so we don't have to fight them here.
It's more like, we're getting the Muslisms to fight terrorism so we don't have to. Given that it is their civil war, not ours. They should resolve it.

If we did fight them over here, there wouldn't be an Arabia left.


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