Give Them Liberty or...

By Leonard Fein

Published January 28, 2005, issue of January 28, 2005.
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In the peroration of his inaugural speech, President Bush made explicit the scope of his ambition: “When the Declaration of Independence was first read in public and the Liberty Bell was sounded in celebration, a witness said, ‘It rang as if it meant something.’ In our time it means something still. America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof.”

That’s an important deviation from the original text in Leviticus 25:10, familiar in its own right and because it is engraved on America’s Liberty Bell: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the inhabitants Thereof.”

There are powerful differences between proclaiming liberty “throughout the world” and proclaiming it “throughout the land.” And it is perfectly plain that Bush knew exactly what he was saying, and was indeed determined to draw attention to the differences between the two. The scope of the president’s ambition is global — and that is also its danger.

My family, as it happens, has a special relationship with the original verse. My late father told the following story many times, most notably on the occasion of his retirement as a professor at the Baltimore Hebrew College:

When he was 9 years old, in a town in Moldava called Bendery, he heard the word “America” for the first time. The word was spoken by his rebbe, Reb Haimke, who said, “It is told that far, far away there is a land called America. And I suppose that is so; why would they lie about such a thing? They say that in America, there is a city called Philadelphia, and that is also most likely so. They go on to say that in Philadelphia, there is a bell they call ‘the Liberty Bell.’ Perhaps. But then they add that on that bell there are inscribed words from our book, ‘Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.’ Frankly, children, I find that hard to believe. Why would they write words from our book on their bell?”

And then, “If when you grow up you happen to go to America, try to visit Philadelphia and go see the bell. And then write me a card and tell me: Are the words really engraved there? Or better yet: If the words are in fact there, then see to it that America comes here also, to Bendery.”

My father concluded his remarks by recalling how, years later, he chanced to Philadelphia and, remembering Reb Haimke’s plea, went to see the Liberty Bell. Sure enough, there were the words. But there also was a crack in the bell. “You honor me tonight as a teacher,” he said finally, “but my hope is that what I have been all these years is a bell-mender.”

My father’s story points in two directions. It is clear in its insistence that the proclamation of liberty in this land is a prescription, not yet a description, for the bell is cracked, needs mending. It is not less clear that the same liberty we seek here is wanted around the world.

So with that background, I suppose I ought to applaud Bush’s adaptation of the original. Yet I am in fact frightened by it. I worry that the effort to extend liberty throughout the world will come at the expense of liberty here at home — as in the Patriot Act, as in the smugness such an effort induces among our own citizens. I worry that we have neither the power not the diplomatic skill to persuade other regimes of the benefits of liberty, and that to state our aim as boldly and starkly as the president has stated it is therefore to opt for permanent conflict. I worry because I know we will apply the standard of liberty differentially, as both common sense and the nation’s security require; we compromise on liberty’s centrality every day, and so it ever will be as other interests compete with our commitment to freedom. And I worry that all the president’s words are no more than an elaborate effort to prettify our failed mission in Iraq.

Finally, I am fully aware, as I would hope the president and his people are, that these last two decades or so have been witness to a remarkable extension of liberty across the globe, from the former Soviet Union and its erstwhile satellites to Central America to Southeast Asia, and much of that extension has happened with minimal American support and without overbearing announcements of America’s mission.

In his speech, Bush modestly denies that we consider ourselves a “chosen nation.” “God moves and chooses as He wills,” the president wisely says. But in the very next paragraph, he asserts that “history has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of liberty.” And it is clear that in the president’s view we are the vicars of that journey. So we are chosen, after all.

Chosenness is a tricky concept. In the case at hand, it cannot be distinguished from self-anointment. In the case at hand, the president remains studiously ignorant of the massive resentment to which it gives rise. But that is the way it is with the vainglorious. Daily reader of the Bible, as we are told he is, the president might want to recheck Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

In invoking God’s mandate, and history’s, too, George W. Bush inflates even more than he does when he announces that his election comes with a mandate for his policies. He seeks to ring, rather than first mend, a bell that is cracked. But it will not be mended by soaring rhetoric, nor by overreaching messianism.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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